If attack advertisements now being rolled out are any indication, United States President Donald Trump and his campaign managers have settled on a scapegoat for the coronavirus pandemic that has upended his re-election prospects – China.
New advertisements now hitting three critical battleground states cast likely Democratic challenger Joe Biden as friendly to China while championing Trump’s decision in January to ban travel from China after the country’s coronavirus outbreak.
“Now more than ever, America must stop China,” a narrator intones over menacing music as a Chinese flag waves on screen in one of the television spots. “And to stop China, you have to stop Joe Biden.”
Some $10m in the “Beijing Biden” ads are being rolled out by the Trump-allied political group America First Action PAC in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, three swing states viewed as critical to Trump’s re-election strategy.
When Clinton beat us in 1992, he ran as being tougher on China. (People didn't vote on China, but it was an indicator he wasn't simply a McGovern-Carter-Dukakis Democrat.) China will be a big 2020 issue. Biden needs to be–and can be–tougher on China than Trump's fake toughness.
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) April 17, 2020
The Trump campaign hopes to mine Biden’s nearly five-decade record on China as a senator and vice president for attacks going forward, according to Brian Walsh, head of the America First PAC.
The fight is one welcomed by Biden and his allies, who increasingly expect the November 3 election to be a fight about Trump’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic that first emerged in China but has now killed more than 31,000 people in the US, more than in any other country.
Trump has made a tough-on-China trade policy a centrepiece of his political campaign. He has also faced criticism for earlier public statements downplaying the coronavirus crisis and praising the response of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 24, 2020
“Trump spent vital weeks praising China’s response as successful and transparent while deceiving the American people about the extreme threat we faced and failing to prepare our country,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates in an emailed statement. “China played Donald Trump for a sucker, and now all of us are paying an atrocious price for his malpractice.”
A memo from the Democratic National Committee obtained by Axios on Thursday hinted that the Democrats would push the talking point that Trump “rolled over in a way that has been catastrophic for our country” and “put himself and his political fortunes first” in order to avoid offending the Chinese.
Both sides in the campaign have come to the realisation that the coronavirus is poised to reshape the political map, putting Republicans who once counted on a strong US economy to boost Trump’s odds on the defensive. Key states once considered relatively safe for the president are suddenly in play.
Using knowingly inaccurate numbers to make decisions is criminal on the part of @GovRonDeSantis, undercounting #COVID19 cases and deaths and then using bad data to make decisions about opening up Florida will result in increased illness and death.
— Gwen Graham (@GwenGraham) April 17, 2020
The Trump-friendly governor of Florida, a state all-but essential to Trump’s re-election, has taken considerable heat for his early decisions to keep the state open for business despite its massive population of vulnerable senior citizens.
Alarm bells about Wisconsin, a key Midwestern state Trump seemed likeliest to keep in the Republican column, went off last week as images of mask-wearing voters lining up outside polling places seemed to signal newfound Democratic enthusiasm. A poll by Reuters/Ipsos released on Thursday suggested that Democrats across the country are far more determined to vote in November than they were four years ago.
“We are starting to see more evidence that suburban voters disapprove of the way Trump is handling the coronavirus pandemic,” said Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod, who noted that counties outside Philadelphia and Phoenix “have a similar electorate to the suburban areas that delivered a huge win for Democrats in Wisconsin”.
And in Michigan, which Trump won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes, more than one million jobs have been lost since early March. More than 20 percent of the state’s workers are unemployed, according to Labor Department figures.
Without a strong economy, the election is instead shaping up to be a referendum on Trump’s management of the coronavirus crisis.
“It makes me wonder if there’s something brewing in the weaker elements of the Trump base,” said Paul Maslin, a Wisconsin-based Democratic pollster. “Is the pandemic fight the final straw that’s going to cause some of this small slice of votes he needs to win these states to back away?”
Trump’s approval rating had remained steady through the crisis, even ticking up slightly at the onset of the pandemic. As the lockdown entered its second month, however, those ratings began to drop. A Gallup poll released on Thursday showed his approval rating dropping by six points, to 43 percent, since mid-March, the steepest drop since he took office in January 2017.
The pandemic has hamstrung Trump’s effort to reverse that trend. Though its digital outreach has ramped up, the campaign has been unable to wield its financial advantage over Biden and cannot hold its signature rallies to bolster enthusiasm and collect valuable voter data.
“We can’t wait to get back out there and do things the old-fashioned way,” Lara Trump, a senior campaign official and the president’s daughter-in-law told the Associated Press news agency.