Trump’s unspoken factor on reopening the economy: Politics

Hanging over the health data, however, is the politics of the situation. And many of Trump’s political allies and outside advisers believe they have the public increasingly on their side.

Conservative groups have noticed a change in polling in recent weeks when they ask respondents if they want to go back to work, even if they know the outbreak could continue to cause infections or deaths, and if they would be willing to wear protective gear, such as masks and gloves, in order to reopen the country. Some polls saw upticks as large as 20 percentage points of people willing to return to work, even with the caveats, according to said Brandon and others familiar with the polls. The FreedomWorks polling was conducted in suburban House districts in battleground states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

The issue also has become partisan. Those identifying as conservative largely side with Trump’s economic advisers worried about the ongoing harm to the country’s finances and favor a quicker economic restart, while those identifying as liberal largely side with public health officials and urge longer timelines.

“Trump, himself, feels pretty good about the polling in his direction,” said a Republican familiar with the White House’s deliberations. “It’s a winner for Trump if it becomes a partisan issue.”

The hot spots for coronavirus so far have largely been blue states on the East and West Coasts, but public health officials say it is now spreading to swing states, including Florida and Michigan, and red states, including Indiana, Georgia and Louisiana. The virus is also predicted to hit blue-leaning states like Illinois, Colorado, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, as well as Washington, D.C.

After talking for weeks about reopening the country, first by mid-April and then by May 1, Trump released guidelines Thursday designed to gradually ease social distancing in three phases after regions meet certain criteria, including a downward trajectory of cases and an aggressive testing program.

“We’re opening up our country,” Trump announced Thursday at a news conference. “And we have to do that. America wants to be open, and Americans want to be open.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. | Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP

The next day, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whose approach Trump has praised, announced new deadlines to relax some restrictions on parks and retailers.

In a matter of weeks, Trump lost his central pitch for reelection — a strong economy and record stock market. And Democrats began hammering his handling of the coronavirus, including a failure to publicly acknowledge the seriousness of the outbreak and quickly distribute tests and medical supplies to states.

“We’re going to hold him accountable,” said former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is advising likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign. “He failed in the time of need for our country.”

Thus far, the coronavirus has taken more than than 30,000 lives in the U.S., with more than 675,000 reported infections. While initial hot spots appear to have peaked, other locations are still weeks away from their own infection high points.

The Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and conservative groups are defending the president’s handling of the pandemic through rapid-response emails to reporters, text messages to supporters and social media messages.

“President Trump continues to lead our nation through these trying times and voters know that it is his leadership that will once again restore our country and economy to greatness once this crisis passes,” said RNC national press secretary Mandi Merritt.

Trump received a small bump in his approval ratings after the coronavirus first hit but more recently multiple polls have shown more Americans say he isn’t doing enough to combat the outbreak.

But Republicans are counting on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus to be less important in November than how he restored the economy and helped the record 22 million Americans who have filed for unemployment in recent weeks.

“Trump’s electoral future is on the line, so he’s obviously focused on that challenge,” said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor and CEO of the drilling services company Canary, LLC who is in touch with the White House.

The Trump campaign and the RNC, which have shifted all campaign events online, held their first series of calls with donors since the outbreak to provide campaign updates from people, including Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. and RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, according to two people familiar with the calls.

And in a recent call with surrogates, campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh explained that the president is on two tracks — protecting the health of Americans and safeguarding the economy, according to a person on the call. Trump campaign officials also referenced internal polling on Trump’s job approval on coronavirus on the call.

“I don’t think anyone should play games with that and we can’t afford to play politics here,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who instituted strictest stay-at-home policies in the nation, said in an interview earlier this week. “We have to remember that the enemy is not one another, the enemy is the virus.”

But conservative groups say polling shows Trump has public support for such moves.

“If those things happen, he’ll win reelection,” Gingrich said. “The only candidate he has to run against is Donald Trump.”

Gabby Orr contributed to this report.