The coronavirus has a vote in the November elections. And it will be clear in coming weeks whether President Trump or Joe Biden will cash in.
The two presidential contenders have taken starkly different approaches to the pandemic that could decide the 2020 election. Trump scoffs at the virus, refuses to wear a mask and by example encourages millions of Americans to do the same. Biden holds fundraisers on Zoom, wears a mask prominently and trashes Trump’s passive approach to the virus.
This stylistic difference will soon become a real-world lab experiment testing the public’s willingness to accept the risks of contracting the virus—and its impact on the campaign. Trump is resuming his campaign rallies, with one glaring asterisk: To attend, Trump supporters have to sign a waver saying they won’t hold the Trump campaign or the rally organizers legally liable if they get the virus while attending.
Got that? Please risk exposure to the coronavirus by jamming yourself into my rally with thousands of others, but don’t blame me if you get sick. It’s a microcosm of Trump’s cult-leader approach to the presidency. Follow me blindly, but don’t hold me accountable if something goes wrong.
Trump might get away with this tilted offer in Tulsa, where he plans to hold a rally on June 19. Oklahoma is a relatively low-risk state and there’s no apparent uptick in coronavirus cases. The state is in Phase 3 of reopening, with no limits on large gatherings. So Trump won’t have to seek any exceptions to the rules to hold his rally, and locals who have seen little evidence of the virus around them may feel comfortable attending.
The newly scheduled Trump nominating pageant in Jacksonville, Florida, may be a different story. The Republican Party moved part of its nominating convention in late August from Charlotte to Jacksonville, because the governor of North Carolina wouldn’t approve such a large gathering in advance. Jacksonville, by contrast, is willing to commit to an event that could fill a 15,000-seat arena.
Florida has seen up uptick in coronavirus cases recently, and it’s probably riskier to hold a large event there than in Tulsa. The GOP hasn’t said whether it will require convention attendees to sign waivers, but it seems likely this could become standard with any large gathering, public or private. So the obvious risk for Trump and the GOP is the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak traceable to a campaign event where Republicans are urging close interaction.
Trump seems sure to have other campaign rallies before the August convention, and it won’t be easy to hold those in politically relevant places that are safe as Tulsa. New outbreaks in Texas and Arizona are raising concerns about overrun hospitals in areas that seemed relatively safe a month ago. Swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have had relatively high infection rates, with some shutdown measures still in place. In urban and suburban areas, even Trump supporters familiar with the ravages of the virus might be unwilling to attend a campaign event.
Biden and the Democratic Party, by contrast, are running a self-isolating campaign. Biden has traveled little during the last three months, and the events he has attended have religiously followed masking and distancing guidelines. The party hasn’t committed to any public events during their convention, scheduled for mid August in Milwaukee, and it’s still possible the whole thing could be virtual. If it does take place, it will almost certainly entail ubiquitous masks, limited crowds and other camera-unfriendly measures Biden has insisted are prudent.
The wild card is the virus. If it materializes at Trump events and Trump supporters turn out to be surperspreaders infecting others, it will become a metaphor for Trump sickening the whole country, and Trump will lose. There could also be no adverse events at his campaign events, which might make Trump look bold and the bemasked Biden, prudish. Trump has taunted the coronavirus, while Biden respects it. Now the virus decides.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.