Trump's muddled message isn't landing
Posted August 1, 2020 9:02 a.m. EDT
CNN — President Donald Trump's campaign made a tacit admission when it went dark with its TV advertising this weekend to assess their strategy: The President's message simply isn't working.
The campaign's advertising pause, with ads slated to resume Monday, comes as Americans are recoiling from Trump's lack of leadership on the pandemic and there are fewer than 100 days to go before Election Day. At a time when the country is squarely focused on the threat posed by Covid-19 -- the US surpassed 4.5 million cases on Friday -- Trump put his muddled message on full display during a trip to Florida.
While speaking at a campaign event with local sheriffs, Trump -- who again did not wear a mask -- tried to stoke fear about presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and calls to defund the police as attendees did not socially distance. He then downplayed the more than 153,000 US deaths from coronavirus during a roundtable focused on both the virus and Hurricane Isaias with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
When asked about coronavirus deaths by a reporter at the roundtable, Trump replied: "Well, I hate it anywhere, but if you look at other countries, other countries are doing terribly."
INTERACTIVE: Tracking Covid-19 cases in the US
And in another example of either denial or a desire to deliberately mislead the American people, Trump said Florida is "doing really well," even though the state now has the second highest number of coronavirus cases in all 50 states and reported record deaths for the fourth day on Friday.
Earlier in the day, even though Americans broadly disapprove of his handling of the virus, Trump once again tweeted the nonsensical argument that if the US "had no testing, or bad testing, we would show very few cases."
Dr. Jonathan Reiner -- a professor of medicine at The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences and former medical adviser to President George W. Bush -- said when he saw Trump visiting with the crowd on an airport tarmac in Tampa, Florida, with no mask, his heart broke for the doctors and nurses at hospitals that "are flooded with people dying of this virus."
"The President comes down to Florida without a mask? That's like smoking a cigarette in a cancer ward. What a slap in the face," Reiner said on CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront" Friday night. "Either he doesn't get it or he refuses to tell the public the truth."
Instead of using his bully pulpit to try to jumpstart stalled negotiations on the next coronavirus stimulus or amplifying the message of his medical advisers about the five things Americans can do to get the coronavirus under control, the President used his campaign event to drive a three-pronged message about Biden -- that he is losing his mental acuity; that he is controlled by left-wing supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; and that he won't keep Americans safe or protect the suburbs.
On top of that attempt to define Biden, Trump and his advisers this week continued building their smokescreen that the November election will be tainted by voter fraud as a way to delegitimize results.
But as Trump continues to sink in the polls, there is little evidence that his discordant message is landing.
Despite the GOP's efforts to stir fear about the protests and suggest Biden would allow chaos to run rampant in the streets, a recent ABC/Washington Post poll showed the former vice president had a nine-point edge when voters were asked who they trusted to handle crime and safety. A new ABC/Ipsos poll released Friday showed that two-thirds of Americans disapprove of his handling of both the pandemic and race relations.
Despite Trump's attempts to portray Biden as senile, a recent Fox News poll showed that Biden bested Trump when voters were asked to assess both candidates' mental acuity. Forty-seven percent of voters said Biden had the mental soundness to serve effectively as president (compared with 39% who said he did not); while 43% said Trump was mentally fit to serve as president (compared with 51% who said he was not.
View Trump and Biden head-to-head polling
Still, Trump keeps hammering that attack as he did in Tampa on Friday, suggesting at several points that Biden didn't "know what he was talking about" when discussing police funding policy and "pretty soon" he won't be able to read his own talking points. He described a "Biden and Bernie's manifesto" that is "farther left" than Sanders' policy positions, suggesting inaccurately that it would entail taking away the Second Amendment, opening the country's borders and be marked by a failure to pursue violent criminals.
"In Joe Biden's America, you and your family will never be safe," Trump said, all while flaunting the safety guidelines of his own administration and putting lives at risk in a state where the virus is running rampant. "No one to protect you and no one to defend the American way of life."
CNN's Ryan Nobles and Donald Judd reported Friday evening that the Trump campaign will resume ad spending on Monday after temporarily pulling the ads to allow Trump's new campaign manager Bill Stepien to review how much the campaign was spending and which voters they were targeting with their message, with an eye toward redirecting ad money toward voters who will cast ballots before Election Day.
Trump's statements in Florida didn't seem to break new ground and it's unclear if they were meant to be a preview of a shift in messaging. The campaign itself didn't preview a major shift when discussing a new ad coming on Monday.
A senior campaign official said the new ad "will once again show that Joe Biden is a creature of the Washington establishment with little to show for his time, aside from becoming a tool for the radical, extreme left."
A smokescreen on voter fraud
Trump's most consistent message has been his effort to create distrust around the results of the November election, a telltale sign that he is grappling with the very real possibility that he will lose reelection.
On the same morning that distressing news broke Thursday that the US economy contracted at a 32.9% annual rate from April through June, its worst drop on record, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Trump sent out an inflammatory tweeted suggesting that the November election might be delayed.
That power to set the date for voting lies with Congress, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others Republican leaders immediately squelched idea, with the Kentucky Republican noting that America has never delayed a federal election even in the midst of a war.
"I think we've had elections every November since about 1788, and I expect that will be the case again this year," said Majority Whip Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Trump's tweet an effort to create confusion, and criticized him for trying to suppress the vote with his allegations about potential voter fraud.
"He said something he knows he doesn't have the authority to do -- or the people around him certainly should -- but it's about diversion and it's a tactic," Pelosi told CNN's Brianna Keilar on "Newsroom" Friday.
"The reason he does it is because the more people hear something like that, the more they're discouraged to vote. 'Why should I vote because it's going to all be confused? They may not count my vote the way I cast it.' So, it's a way to suppress the vote."
During Friday's White House briefing, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the White House is focused on making sure "our election is not riddled with voting fraud and that the timetable is not hung up here." But she refused to answer questions about why the administration isn't doing more to provide funding to states to pay for staff and resources to ensure the election is safe and secure.
"States run their elections," she said when pressed by a reporter on the topic, "and it is up to states to make sure that they have the capacity. ... States need to get their acts together when it comes to elections."
But there is no widespread fraud in US elections, despite the President's claims, which CNN has repeatedly fact-checked. And even many Republican state election officials have pushed back on Trump's inaccurate claim that voting by mail is somehow rigged.
Last month, CNN's Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb reported on the vigorous pushback against Trump's efforts to taint mail-in ballots in some sectors of the GOP, with leaders worry it could depress participation among their voters.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican Cabinet secretary under President George W. Bush, argued that discouraging mail-in voting is "very perilous for the Republican Party" and puts Trump's party at "an incredible disadvantage."
Rohn Bishop, Republican Party chairman in Fond du Lac County, said the fact that GOP voters are "running away" from mail-in voting "terrifies me."
"I think we're only hurting ourselves," Bishop said.