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Trump Reboots 2020 Message to Play Up Post-Virus Era, Not Crisis

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 5/5/2020 Mario Parker
Donald Trump standing in front of a crowd: U.S. President Donald Trump pauses while speaking during a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Monday, March 2, 2020. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Monday that holding campaign rallies with thousands of attendees is "very safe" despite recent cases of the virus in the U.S. © Bloomberg U.S. President Donald Trump pauses while speaking during a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Monday, March 2, 2020. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Monday that holding campaign rallies with thousands of attendees is "very safe" despite recent cases of the virus in the U.S.

(Bloomberg) --

Donald Trump’s campaign is changing its message to refocus voters’ attention on what it predicts will be a rosy post-coronavirus world.

The president’s re-election effort is gripped by polls showing Americans broadly souring on Trump and his performance managing the virus outbreak and the economic fallout. To combat that, the Trump campaign is reupping the winning slogan of 2016, “Make America Great Again.”

The new campaign message is that he can rebuild the economy better than presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who the Trump camp argues co-piloted a sluggish rebound from the 2008 financial crisis, according to two officials familiar with the strategy. They asked not to be identified discussing internal strategy.

A new ad released Sunday stitches together images of health-care workers cheering, Trump talking at the State of the Union about “safeguarding our citizens,” and Democratic governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California praising steps he took to help states get some equipment to fight the coronavirus.

“We built the greatest economy the world has ever seen and we’re going to do it again,” Trump says in the ad, which he ends with his signature slogan, a phrase temporarily replaced by “Keep America Great” before the virus struck.

Voters were generally put off by the president’s behavior at daily press briefings billed as updates to the response of the coronavirus. The lengthy news conferences devolved into quarrels with reporters, partisan grievances and conflicting messaging and information on the virus, exemplified in Trump’s April 24 musing about using light and disinfectant to treat Covid-19 patients.

Economy Prime Case for Second Term

The pandemic, in which nearly 1.2 million Americans have been infected and more than 67,000 killed, has -- even without his briefing performances -- obliterated Trump’s primary case for re-election: the strength of the U.S. economy.

Recovery Tracker: A Real-Time Look at the Post-Covid U.S. Economy

Voters should know that “there’s one person best qualified to juice an economy that was built by Donald Trump and it’s Donald Trump. He is dead-set determined to rebuild an economy befitting of this wonderful nation,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters April 30.

The Trump campaign plans to deliver that message most strongly to older voters, a demographic he carried by 52% in 2016, according to an official who asked not to be identified discussing information that isn’t public. They are most vulnerable to the coronavirus and dying in the largest numbers, particularly those in nursing homes where the virus has spread rapidly.

“The senior citizen community right now, of course, should be rightfully concerned and scared in general, because they are taking a hit on the Covid very hard. I think there’s just some level of just general concern,” said Pennsylvania Republican Party chairman Lawrence Tabas.

A Quinnipiac University poll of voters in Trump’s adopted home state of Florida, released April 22, showed that Biden leads Trump among voters 65 years old or more, 52% to 42%.

“If I’m 65, now I’m scared of coronavirus and I have no money in my 401k. That may be another reason why they may have higher anxiety,” said Samara Klar, a professor in the University of Arizona’s school of government and public policy.

Tabas said the party is seeking to ease their concerns by describing government benefits expanded as a result of the pandemic like Medicare’s telemedicine options.

Last week Trump hosted a White House event called “Protecting America’s Seniors” where he highlighted those efforts and announced a commission for safety and quality at nursing homes.

“President Trump and his administration remain focused on protecting our most vulnerable citizens, including our nation’s senior citizens,” campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso said.

Persuading the Unemployed

Besides frightened senior citizens, Trump must secure the trust of the 30 million who have lost their jobs since March. The campaign is billing Trump as a builder who erected a strong economy with nearly full employment and is best suited to reconstruct it.

“Who do you want in charge of the economy?” Florida Republican Party chairman Joe Gruters said. “He became president because of his policies, his pro-business, his pro-American worker policies.“

But the data are dubious on that point, showing only modest economic improvements from the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president.

The U.S. economy expanded at a 2.3% rate in 2019, never achieving Trump’s goal of 3% annual growth. The economy was braked by uncertainty over international trade and slowing global growth, with businesses cutting investments amid worries about a continuing tariffs dispute with China.

During the Trump administration, the U.S. has averaged 2% growth through the first quarter of 2020, before the pandemic lockdowns went into effect. Growth in the Obama administration averaged 1.9% -- and that included the first two quarters of 2009, during a recession that began at the end of Republican George W. Bush’s administration.

The unemployment rate rose initially in the Obama administration’s first term, topping out at 10% in late 2009, before steadily declining to 4.7% in January 2017. It declined further to 3.5% during the Trump administration, a 50-year low, before its recent spike to 4.4% as of last week. It is expected to rise.

Trump now trails Biden by 5.3 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls.

Trump’s campaign argues that polling, while relevant, isn’t the sole barometer for the president’s re-election prospects, particularly given that late polling in 2016 showed him losing to Hillary Clinton.

“What we continue to see in our swing states, what we continue to see is unprecedented support for the president,” Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale said in an April 25 digital event.

“Does it go up and down over times? Yes, that’s what happens,” he said. “When you’re president, you’re under a lot of scrutiny to do things, but I think overall they see he’s protecting American citizens, he’s going to bring back the economy and he’ll do the things that make the country great again.”

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