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Will Messaging Around The Pandemic Tip The Election?


The coronavirus pandemic and the toll it's taking on the country have already turned 2020 into an election year like no other. So with less than six months to go before Election Day, we wanted to hear more about how Republicans and Democrats are approaching the pandemic in political terms. For that, we turned to NPR's senior political editor and correspondent, Domenico Montanaro. Here's how he describes President Trump's approach as he aims for reelection this November.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Well, I think it's tough for President Trump in running for reelection because he likes to be able to run as sort of a victimized underdog. Well, it's hard to run that way when you're the most powerful person in the world, and, you know, you're largely responsible for the health well-being and safety of the country. And no matter what the president does now - you know, we can play the tape of his vacillations and downplaying of the virus over the past and - you know, couple of months.

His approach is really summed up by this loose religious inspiration that he had from his youth - the power of positive thinking. You know, he said that he's the nation's cheerleader. So he's given a rosier outlook than has been warranted when it comes to coronavirus, and that was exposed. So no matter what he says now, that genie really can't be squeezed back in the bottle. And that's something that Democrats and the Biden campaign are trying to exploit as incompetence.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the Democrats. Is a sort of a Democratic counterargument emerging? And how has the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, approached the pandemic? I mean, given that he - for health reasons presumably and, like everybody else, trying to sort of model the behavior that's recommended - has been staying at home and doing a lot by phone and Zoom and so forth. Is a counterstatement from Democrats emerging? And what about Joe Biden?

MONTANARO: Now, I mean, look - you know, Biden staying home has clearly benefited his campaign. I mean, even if you listen to the president's counselors - Kellyanne Conway, for example, who was a pollster previously, you know, talked about how this pandemic and Biden having to stay home and in quarantine has actually helped him because you're seeing numbers across the country where Biden's ceiling appears higher than Trump's.

And he's doing well with different voter groups, especially with older voters. And the Trump campaign really wants to be able to get Biden out of, quote-unquote, "his basement" and, you know, start to muddy him up a little bit.

MARTIN: Is staying at home benefiting the Democratic nominee - the presumptive nominee - Joe Biden in other ways in that he has less opportunity to make the kinds of controversial statements that sometimes hurt him? For example, there's this influential radio show hosted by Charlemagne tha God. It's called "The Breakfast Club." And he told the host that if you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black.

And as you can imagine, the RNC immediately, you know, pushed this out and with a tagline #joebidenracebaiter, which I think some people might find interesting, given President Trump's propensity for making, you know, racially insensitive comments about people, politicians, whole cities, et cetera - not to mention his track record on these issues. You know, nevertheless, they clearly seized on this as an opportunity.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, look - you know, you had a situation here, a moment where Joe Biden kind of went into Joe Biden mode, where he just says what's on his mind and maybe thinks he's joking around and wants to be joshing with somebody and thinks that, you know, he's able to kind of play this off.

Now, does that going to affect the outcome of the election? You know, that's a difficult thing to say because Democrats have been winning overwhelming majorities of African Americans - 80, 90% of them. Joe Biden did so in the Democratic primary, and it was a - they were a huge reason for why he was able to beat Bernie Sanders, for example.

One of Biden's advisers, Symone Sanders, put out a statement earlier saying Vice President Biden has spent his career fighting alongside and for the African American community. He won his party nomination by earning every vote and meeting people where they are, and that's exactly what he intends to do this November. But frankly, the lack of discipline that this kind of moment shows is exactly why a lot of Democrats and Democratic strategists from the beginning were biting their fingernails over a potential Biden nomination.

MARTIN: Finally, Domenico, before we let you go, is there a philosophy emerging from either party about their handling of the pandemic?

MONTANARO: Look - I think that this comes down to health versus the economy, obviously. But what you don't hear as much and I think what a lot of people in the middle want to hear about is this gray area of needing to live with coronavirus so the economy isn't permanently crippled or that more people don't die unnecessarily, especially as there's no vaccine or proven treatment.

Democrats are trying to press on the fact that this last - that month and a half that they feel Trump wasted in trying to push out testing, in trying now to ramp up contact tracing - they're going to try to use that to hit on Trump's competence and try to bring down some of his numbers even potentially with his base. That's where the fight is really going to wind up being in November. The president wants to say, we're going to have a return to greatness because the economy could ramp back up. And that's where the fight is going to be.

MARTIN: That was NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

Domenico, thank you so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.