TALLAHASSEE — The overnight announcement from President Donald Trump that he and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for COVID-19 and will be quarantining, prompted the cancellation of a Florida rally Friday, leaving a void on the campaign trail and uncertainty about the fate of his reelection bid in a critical swing state.
By Friday afternoon, Trump was set to be flown to Walter Reed Medical Center, where White House officials said he would stay for the next few days.
"This is one heck of an October surprise,'' said Jim Kitchens, an Orlando-based Democratic pollster who has been working on campaigns in the Midwest.
Florida has been a regular campaign stop for Trump’s team, and he would have been in the state twice in the last week if he hadn’t canceled Friday’s Sanford rally. His daughter stopped in Orlando on Wednesday and Donald Trump Jr. had a three-day bus tour in Florida scheduled to start Saturday.
By Friday afternoon, the Trump campaign announced that all previously scheduled live events involving the president will now be held virtually and all events involving the First Family will be canceled.
Despite months of attempting to discredit science and move the focus onto the pre-pandemic economy, the president’s positive test "throws this issue back onto the front burner of the election,'' Kitchens said and undercuts his attempt to diminish its importance.
“He’s got the best medical staff and people cleaning his office, and if he can catch it, anybody can catch it,” Kitchens said.
But in a political landscape where polls show there are few undecided voters, and early voting has already begun in earnest, political experts from both parties said they didn’t expect Trump’s diagnosis to change many votes.
"If you stood with Trump through all of this, is this going to cause to you not be with him?'' asked Steve Schale, who heads the pro-Biden super PAC, Unite the Country. “It’s easy to jump to a conclusion this will crystallize the conversation around COVID, but I don’t think that changes much. It may have an impact on some of the rituals of the campaign but, while there are some people who are undecided and soft, there are not a lot of them.”
Ryan Tyson, a Tallahassee-based Republican pollster said he has seen “the ideological battle lines as it relates to how COVID” since May and believes that people’s views have hardened, just as they have pretty clearly about whether they support Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden.
"Nothing is shocking,'' he said. “This is what the voters have been forecasting since May, and I don’t think last night’s news changes that.”
But, Kitchens added, Trump was trailing in nearly all national polls and “he needed to change votes, especially in the Midwestern states that he won last time.”
In-person campaigning derailed
To do that, Trump’s campaign had prepared an aggressive schedule of in-person events for the remaining 32 days before the Nov. 3 election, including multiple swings through Florida. The state’s 29 electoral votes are seen as essential if the president is to secure a reelection victory but less vital for his Democratic opponent, Biden.
Get insights into Florida politics
Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Ronny Jackson, the former White House physician to the president, told Fox & Friends on Friday that the president will “absolutely” be ready before the next presidential debate against Biden. The town hall-style format is scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said “he continues to be not only in good spirits but very energetic” and had “mild symptoms.” Later, it was reported that Trump had a fever on Friday.
While the president is treated at Walter Reed over the next few days, Trump’s Republican allies are likely to make more appearances on the campaign trail to keep up the momentum ahead of Election Day.
Just last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Congressman Matt Gaetz helped Trump rile up thousands of supporters at a Jacksonville rally.
“I have to believe that, at least in Florida, the surrogate activity will continue,” said Brian Ballard, a prominent Florida lobbyist who is a top fundraiser for Trump. “But there is no replacing the president. There’s this magic to Donald Trump that if you’re a Donald Trump fan that can’t be replaced.”
Jim Waurishuk, the chairman of the Hillsborough County GOP, said he expects the Trump campaign to add more events with surrogates to fill the void left by the president and his family.
He said he also expects another live visit in the region after Trump recovers, “because Tampa and Hillsborough are so important to their strategy.” He said the Tampa Bay region is considered the Trump campaign’s No. 1 market for media buys.
Concerns for his recovery
Florida Democrats for the most part wished the president a full recovery and best wishes, while using his diagnosis as an example to continue taking precautions against the virus.
“This is a sobering reminder that #COVID-19 is not a hoax and this pandemic is far from over. Continue to #WearAMask, take extra precautions and #BeSMARTFL,” said Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state’s top elected Democrat.
Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat running for the Florida Senate who earlier this year battled his own case of COVID-19, said he did not wish the illness on anyone.
“I wish a speedy recovery to @realDonaldTrump, @FLOTUS, and others who have been affected,” Jones tweeted on Friday.
Ballard said he expects the president’s battle with COVID-19 will make him a more sympathetic figure ahead of the election and has the potential to fire up his base.
“I mean, he interacts with people probably as much as any human being on the planet. If anything, people should be sympathetic for a guy like that, who is in the middle of the storm every day and not hiding in his basement,” Ballard said.
But the president’s opponents said the positive tests will hamper his effort to downplay the pandemic, especially after he held crowded campaign rallies, questioned the effectiveness of face masks, dismissed health concerns about reopening the economy and blamed the virus on China.
"There’s no ad we could make as powerful about the president’s mishandling of a pandemic, him tweeting, ‘I’m saying I’m COVID positive,’ '' said Mike Madrid, former political director for the California State Republican Party and co-founder of the Anti-Trump political committee, The Lincoln Project. “He’s literally articulating everything that we’ve been saying.”
In recent weeks, Trump worked to turn voters' attention to violence in cities, mail ballot fraud and his Supreme Court nominee, and away from his handling of the pandemic.
"We’re not shutting anything down,'' Trump told the crowd at an airport hanger last week in Jacksonville, as he also gave a nod to DeSantis. “We are doing so well. You look at our numbers. Wait until you see the third quarter. I shouldn’t say it because back there, but wait until you see how good the third quarter is going to be, and it comes out just before the election.”
Madrid and Kitchens said that effort has been undermined by the president’s own behavior.
"I don’t think there’s anybody here is surprised that the president has contracted this virus,'' Madrid said. “He calls it a hoax. He says virtually nobody gets affected by it, and what do you know? He does. God willing he will adjust and finally recognize that he has been wrong on this from the beginning and start to take care of not only himself and his family but all of America’s families as well.”
What the polls are saying
Madrid said that Florida polls have shown a notable shift in recent weeks, especially among the most susceptible population for COVID-19 — people older than 65. They also make up the most reliable voting bloc in the Florida and, because of the president’s handling of the virus, many have left Trump and are supporting Biden, he said.
"It’s a little bit peculiar because the president is enjoying support among Hispanics outside of the historical trajectory but Joe Biden is enjoying support among Republicans and senior citizens also above the historical trajectory,'' he said. “What’s happening is the Democrat is getting base Republican vote and the Republican is getting base Democratic vote.”
It is unclear whether the president will change his tune on the pandemic now that he is personally experiencing the illness with mild symptoms. Ballard said he did not know what to expect, but said he believes Trump will “give the American people the straight scoop” on how the virus impacted him.
“I hope that everyone says, maybe once somebody is sick, they can be off limits for criticism,” Ballard said.
Meanwhile, the circle grew wider Friday of others who were in contact with the president who have tested positive for COVID-19. Utah Sen. Mike Lee, the president of Notre Dame University Rev. John I. Jenkins, and an unnamed journalist, each announced they have the infection after being near the president.
Several Florida Republicans found themselves checking their COVID status.
State GOP Chairman Joe Gruters, who attended the rally last week with the president in Jacksonville last Thursday and events in Miami the next day, said on Friday: “I’m feeling great.”
He said Trump “did not have direct contact with most of the people at the Doral event” and “was pretty well protected from everybody.”
DeSantis, who was also at the Jacksonville event, kept his distance from the president, said Fred Piccolo, the governor’s spokesperson.
"The president came off the plane, came down to speak, gave his speech and went back on the plane,'' Piccolo said. The president and the governor “waved to each other, but that was it.”
He said DeSantis did not have any interaction with Melania Trump or adviser Hope Hicks, who also tested positive.
Sen. Rick Scott tweeted Friday that “out of an abundance of caution, I got a COVID test today and the results came back negative.”
Sen. Marco Rubio was not in Washington this week. He was in Miami for a previously scheduled family event, according to his office.
Does DeSantis think the president should be more careful in the future?
"You always wonder if he could have done something more to avoid people,'' Piccolo said. “I don’t think I don’t think he changes his calculus on it.”
McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.