How Does Trump’s Diagnosis Change the Campaign?
Less than a week after leaving the hospital for treatment of COVID-19, President Donald Trump on October 10 made his first public appearance, speaking in front of hundreds of supporters on the White House’s South Lawn.
Will Trump’s campaign messaging change in these last few weeks of the election? How will the President continue to campaign? For insights into these questions, GLG spoke with Robby Mook, campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and current president of the House Majority PAC, and Scott Jennings, who served as special assistant to the president and deputy White House political director in the George W. Bush administration and is now a founding partner of RunSwitch public relations. Below are a few select excerpts from our broader discussion.
[Ed. Note: This conversation took place the same day that the president announced his diagnosis. It does not reflect his subsequent hospitalization, release, and the restart of active campaigning.]
What are your initial thoughts on the campaign considering the President’s diagnosis?
Mook: There are two things to keep in mind. Trump is losing this election because it is about him and his leadership on COVID specifically. One of the things I was looking for coming out of the debate was whether the narrative in this campaign would shift from a referendum on Trump to more of a generalized process narrative around voting, the chaos of the debates, and so on. That could be a problem for Joe Biden because it brings it to a more standard partisan place than this singular focus of a referendum on Trump. Trump wants this to be a choice between him and Biden. He wants to be arguing over typical partisan issues between the two of them and has struggled to move the campaign to that place. With Trump’s diagnosis, the focus is squarely back to COVID-19 and particularly the president’s handling of it. Democrats need to be cautious about not being overwrought in our reaction to it.
Jennings: I agree with quite a bit of what Robby said, especially on the framing of the election. Trump needs this to be a choice between him and Biden, between their economic policies, and not be a referendum on his personal image or frankly, his job approval, especially on coronavirus. Except his diagnosis ensures that coronavirus is the dominant item for the rest of October most likely. He’ll have to internalize that it will be basically impossible now not to have an election about his handling of and dealing with coronavirus.
Number two, we don’t know how the president’s health will change. On the politics of it, presuming the president’s health doesn’t take a downturn and he’s capable of communicating with the American people, my advice to him would be to use this moment to change the trajectory of the conversation around coronavirus. It’s obviously been bad, as we see in all of the polling. Although he hasn’t done it yet, he could cast himself with the people. There’s a simple message for the moment: if the most powerful among us can get this virus, then obviously any of us can, and we’re all in this together. That message would help him politically, tremendously.
If there’s a situation where Trump’s health does start to deteriorate noticeably in that he doesn’t have the same energy, how might that be interpreted by voters?
Mook: One of the things I spent a lot of time doing when Joe Biden said he wasn’t going to do events anymore was explain to reporters that 99.9999% of Americans never attend a political rally. For the media, these events are everything. But for normal Americans, the campaign’s just a bunch of stuff happening on TV or they read about online or in the paper. Functionally speaking, Trump can generate news from anywhere. Just from his Twitter account, Donald Trump can dominate the news. I don’t see anything changing just because he doesn’t get on an airplane and speak in Madison, Wisconsin, or in Jacksonville, Florida, versus saying something from the Rose Garden or tweeting.
Jennings: It is ironic though that up until today, Trump has tried to make the relative health and vigor of Joe Biden a campaign issue. He’s argued that he’s too old and virtually senile and called him “Sleepy Joe.” Now the tables are turned. Donald Trump’s the sick one. What I would suspect the White House will do is try to project as much vigor out of Trump as possible. They have to make sure that people believe he is still the more vigorous candidate.
Mook: Trump always projects his own weaknesses on others. He should not be doing this, but I would not be surprised if the “Sleepy Joe” piece ratchets up a bunch of notches, because that tends to be how Trump reacts to things.
How does the President’s diagnosis potentially reframe the salience of issues around the revelations about his tax returns with voters as we head into the election?
Mook: As the Democrat on the call who is insulted by Trump’s lack of paying taxes and thought his behavior in the debate was ridiculous, I think anyone who cares about those things already is voting against Trump. When I was running Hillary’s campaign, that Access Hollywood tape came out and didn’t really affect Trump’s standing. My point is, Trump has been behaving badly. We’ve been seeing shocking revelations for years now. I never felt the tax revelations were game changers. It only changes the focus and it puts a bright spotlight on Trump and his handling of this issue, which is a continuation of the broad dynamic we’ve had. But we’ll see The New York Times continue to write stories about Trump and his taxes and finances, and I don’t see it having much of an effect.
Jennings: I tend to agree with Robby that it is of minimal impact. We litigated the tax issue in 2016. Hillary Clinton attacked Donald Trump on it in a debate. He admitted he doesn’t pay taxes and said at the time that it makes him smart. And he won the election. I have not bought into the bombshell labels for this thing, because I just don’t think that it is. We knew that he didn’t pay taxes. We know that he has debts, we know he’s not the greatest businessman of all time. This has been discussed and it did not impact his ability to get elected the last time. That’s that.
But the debate was a missed opportunity. The gaping chest wound in Trump’s job approval has always been women. He does fine among men, 50/50, maybe a little above water. But there’s a 15- to 20-point deficit on image and job approval among women, always. Women do not like Donald Trump. It’s very difficult to have your job approval rise if half the country has a minus-20 view of you and your personal image. Yet everything he did and said and the entire way he acted seemed to be engineered in a lab to anger women. But now that we have this diagnosis, all that matters now is coronavirus and how he frames it, how he handles it, and how his health is. Some of these other issues may slide by the wayside.
Is the issue of, “if the White House can’t stop Donald Trump from getting coronavirus, how can any of us keep ourselves away from it?” something that will take hold in terms of Biden’s messaging and motivate voters to turn out?
Mook: I think the level of intensity and interest in voting is so high on both sides. I don’t know that this will suppress or lift someone’s intent to vote. I do worry for election officials who were looking for ways to restrict polling sites or maybe make things harder. I’m worried some people use this as an excuse somehow to create friction to voting.
Jennings: I agree. Who knew all we needed to fix American democracy was Donald Trump? He shows up and everybody wants to vote. Turnout is jacked on both sides. I don’t know how you could max it out anymore, frankly. The thing I worry about the most is whether our national election infrastructure, whether it is in person or by mail or whatever, can actually handle the volume. Millions and millions of new voters entered the system who didn’t exist in ’16, and in states that aren’t used to being swing states.
What are things that we should be watching for as we think about this election?
Mook: I wouldn’t read too much into any reports about who’s voted already or which party, or anything like that. It’s definitely clear that Democrats are more likely to be voting early and Republicans are more likely to be voting on Election Day. Keep in mind in 2016 that Hillary, based on the votes that were in, probably had a bigger lead in the bank going into Election Day in Florida than Obama had won in ’12. On Election Day, turnout was so high for the Republicans that it overcame that. I’m very skeptical of reading too much into early voting.
I would just go back to where we started this discussion, which is presidential campaigns are about big things. What’s the story of this contest? Today, it’s COVID and whether Donald Trump has done a good job leading us through it. If that continues for the next month, I think Joe Biden will be president. If something comes out of left field and we’re talking about Joe Biden all day for some reason in the next month, then maybe the dynamic will change. But we have not been talking very much about Joe Biden this election, which is a big contrast to 2016, when we were talking about Hillary constantly.
Jennings: I would second a lot of what Robby said, especially not overreading stories about early voting. The big thing here is Donald Trump’s health and does it get worse? How does the White House project a sense of him being in charge and vigor over the next few weeks? As a geopolitical matter, we have the president hit with the virus and he’s in the middle of a tough campaign and the United States seems to be in a bit of a chaotic moment. This would be the time some bad actor might try to test us. That’s something I worry about, but also, if it were to happen, depending on how Trump and the Trump administration handle it, it would impact how people view their competence.
I’m also concerned about a lot of these states that are implementing new voting systems on the fly, or doing it in a way that will lead to massive litigation. We had that back in 2000, but today we’re not talking about just one state, but multiple states. I worry about that post-election litigation period, with scores of people sitting in ballot warehouses fighting for every single ballot.
About Scott Jennings
Scott is the Founding Partner of RunSwitch Public Relations, Kentucky’s largest PR and public affairs firm, providing senior-level communications, media relations, and crisis management counsel to clients the world over. Scott’s unique ability to analyze data and reconcile it with gut-level political instincts makes him a valuable contributor to clients and to CNN, which made him an on-air Political Contributor in June 2017.
The foundation of Scott’s career is journalism and understanding how information flows in our complicated media ecosystem. He started over 20 years ago as a reporter and news anchor in Louisville, Kentucky, and today, in addition to his work for CNN, he writes columns for the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Louisville Courier-Journal, among others. Scott has appeared on countless radio and television programs and is one of the most quoted political analysts in the country.
Scott served in four presidential campaigns and in numerous federal and state races. He served in key roles for President George W. Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004, before becoming Special Assistant to the President for Political Affairs. Scott’s White House portfolio involved political appointments, including roles in confirming two Supreme Court Justices (Roberts and Alito). He advised on the President’s domestic travel and briefed the President, Vice President, and senior-level White House officials. He advised the campaigns of Mitt Romney in 2012 and Jeb Bush in 2016.
After leaving his service to President Bush in 2007, Scott moved home to Kentucky, where he launched a successful public relations and affairs practice advising clients ranging from Fortune 25s to small nonprofits. Scott’s greatest skill is distilling complex issues into digestible messages built for the intersection of public policy and the modern communications environment.
About Robby Mook
Robert “Robby” Mook is an American political strategist who has organized winning organizations at the local, state, and national levels. Robby served as Campaign Manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, where he built a $1 billion, 50-state, 4,500-person organization. He also ran Terry McAuliffe’s winning campaign for Governor of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen’s first winning campaign for U.S. Senate, and led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2012, when Democrats gained eight seats. Robby is now the President of the House Majority PAC, the only PAC dedicated to protecting and expanding the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is also a Senior Fellow and Lecturer at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
This article is adapted from the October 2, 2020, GLG teleconference “President Trump’s COVID-19 Diagnosis: Political Impact.” If you would like access to this teleconference or would like to speak with Scott Jennings, Robby Mook, or any of our more than 700,000 experts, contact us.