In Depth

How Donald Trump’s ‘regret-nothing’ Covid stance could pay off in US election

Some pundits say president’s risky ‘message of strength’ could shift the needle in his favour

Any hope that Donald Trump’s hospitalisation with Covid-19 might alter his bullish attitude to the virus were dashed yesterday as the president celebrated his return to the White House by telling Americans to “get out there” without fear of infection.

The message, delivered by a maskless Trump, has alarmed doctors and health workers, who condemned the US leader’s dismissive attitude to a virus that has already killed more than 210,000 of his citizens.

But with the response to the pandemic now a key issue in the presidential election race, some political commentators say his “message of strength” could play well with many voters - and even help him beat Democratic rival Joe Biden in November’s vote.

Energising his base

According to Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton, Trump knows exactly how to play to his base”, many of whom are equally dismissive about Covid. And what the president ”needs more than anything if he has any chance of winning re-election is for his people to be energised”.

“He doesn’t care what die-hard anti-Trumpers think of his antics,” says Glanton. “He knows he’ll never get our vote. So like any savvy politician, he’s not wasting time in this final stretch of the campaign trying to win us over.”

The mathematics of the electoral college work in the Republican incumbent’s favour, and mean that even with a substantial loss of the popular vote, Trump could still win if he can get enough support in key swing states.

“It’s a small window of opportunity, but if Trump can siphon a handful of voters away from Biden in the right states, he has a good shot at re-election,” Glanton says.

Stealing the spotlight

Former Republican adviser Hal Lambert points out that Trump is dominating the news agenda - just as he did four years ago against Hillary Clinton - making it “difficult” for Biden to get any coverage.

Speaking to talkRADIO, Lambert said: “I do feel pretty comfortable that President Trump is going to win this and may pick up some states he didn’t win last time.”

Asked about Trump’s personal battle with Covid, Lambert added: “One of the things it’s done is move the cycle back to President Trump 100% of the time. It’s really difficult for Biden to get a message out there when all the focus is on President Trump.”

Projecting strength

To assess how Trump’s reaction to his illness has played with voters, the BBC spoke to people across the US, revealing a range of differing attitudes.

Neil Melton, a construction-project manager from Prairie Village in Kansas, applauded the president for projecting strength. “People want to see that winning spirit,” he told the broadcaster. “They don’t want to live with this Covid lifestyle forever.”

But Paul Kearns-Stanley, a funeral director from Queens, New York, condemned the president’s minimisation of his illness as reckless. “People hear that message and they act on it, and it’s our behaviour that’s going to help us or hurt us now,” Kearns-Stanley said.

In Moorsville, North Carolina, which backed the president in 2016, The Times’ Washington correspondent Henry Zeffman found Republican voters “in despair over Trump’s antics”.

“I wish Trump would just shut his mouth,” hairdresser Barb Pfefer told Zeffman. 

“I’m a Republican, but I won’t vote for the wrong man if the Republican is the wrong man”, she continued, adding that she had considered Trump the “lesser of two evils” but is now not sure.

That verdict was echoed by Cristina Juhasz, who is also pro-Trump but criticised the president’s “stupid” decision to stage a drive-by to greet well-wishers outside Walter Reed military hospital during his three-day stay in the Maryland medical facility. 

“Driving past to talk to his supporters. Why did he put our servicemen in danger like that? Sure, he’s wearing a mask but he’s on steroids. Hey, your supporters would rather see you get well than see you in a car,” she said.

Defying the polls

Trump continues to trail his Democratic rival in the polls, but the US president has a knack for defying the projections of pollsters.

Since his inauguration four years ago, “few people seem to have really changed their minds about America’s 45th president,” with his approval ratings moored stubbornly between around 45% and 55%, The Telegraph says. But “having defied political gravity four years ago, the jury’s out as to whether he can do the same again against his new Democrat opponent”. 

Polling on the partisan response to the coronavirus offers another insight into what The New York Times calls his “regret-nothing approach” to his infection. 

“By many measures, Democrats are still a bit more concerned about the virus outbreak than Republicans,” says FiveThirtyEight, which points to a Civiqs survey that found 65% of Democrats were “extremely concerned” infections in their area, compared with just 21% of Republicans.

But it is a risky gambit for the president to stake his campaign on, with “the partisan divide on these issues that seemed more apparent in early and mid-March... diminishing as Republicans view the virus outbreak more similarly to Democrats and independents”, the polling analysis site adds.

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