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Is COVID-19 hurting Trump’s popularity in Florida?

Strategists expect the race for Florida to be a nail-biter come November. But it’s unclear when Trump will be able to return to the campaign rallies and Mar-a-Lago fundraisers.
President Donald Trump, shown greeting Ron DeSantis and his wife Casey at a campaign rally in Fort Myers on 2018, was not on the 2018 ballot but his presence still loomed large in Florida during the election.
President Donald Trump, shown greeting Ron DeSantis and his wife Casey at a campaign rally in Fort Myers on 2018, was not on the 2018 ballot but his presence still loomed large in Florida during the election.
Published Apr. 27, 2020

Grappling with a pandemic that has put his leadership under a microscope and kept him far from home, President Donald Trump’s popularity is diminishing in Florida.

Throughout the month of April, with the economy, campaigns and society in general upended, polls have found Trump falling behind former Vice President Joe Biden and struggling to win the trust of voters in his home state. Surveys also suggest Trump is losing ground with senior citizens — a conservative-leaning demographic that is most vulnerable to the severest symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Strategists on the left and right expect the race for Florida to once again be a nail-biter come November. But it’s unclear when or whether Trump will be able to return to the campaign rallies and Mar-a-Lago fundraisers interrupted by the outbreak. And dissatisfaction with the president’s performance during the pandemic could do lasting damage in a state Trump’s campaign has treated as a must-win.

“Trump has had this incredible ability to make people forget his craziness on a day-to-day basis. But this one is too big,” said Ben Pollara, the Miami-based Democratic pollster who ran the successful 2016 campaign to expand Florida’s medical marijuana market. “People are still going to be wearing masks in November.”

Though Trump has made use of the bully pulpit most days this month — with his coronavirus task force briefings watched by millions almost daily — four April polls found him slipping in his home state.

Surveys published by Quinnipiac University, the University of North Florida, St. Pete Polls and FOX News all found Biden modestly ahead of Trump, who’d led in two Florida polls published in March. And three of the four April polls found more Floridians than not disapproving of the way Trump has handled the pandemic, with the fourth, St. Pete Polls, finding Trump treading water.

Polls have also found a dip in support for Florida’s popular Republican governor, Ron DeSantis — a key Trump ally — at a time when other governors are seeing spikes in their approval ratings.

Some Republican strategists and the Trump campaign dismissed the numbers. And even Democratic strategists are hesitant to put too much stock in public polling.

“If public polling was the gospel, Hillary Clinton would be president right now,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Emma Vaughn told the Herald.

But the Biden campaign told the Miami Herald that “in Florida, a key battleground where workers are unable to be paid on unemployment claims and the public health danger has not shown signs of diminishing, President Trump is behind.”

Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA, meanwhile, seized Sunday on one of the finer details in the polls: Trump appears to be losing ground among voters older than 65 — a demographic that votes in high percentages and, according to a CNN exit poll, chose Trump over Clinton in Florida in 2016 by 17 points.

One in five people in Florida is older than 65, and Trump has found a bastion of conservative support in the Central Florida retirement community of The Villages. DeSantis himself referred to the state Sunday as “God’s waiting room.”

The Quinnipiac poll, which was conducted in early April, found Trump behind Biden by 10 points with seniors. The University of North Florida poll found Trump ahead with seniors — but with half the lead he earned four years ago.

Michael Binder, director of UNF’s Public Opinion Research Lab, said the trends could be consequential, even though it would be a mistake to believe that Florida’s older voters are suddenly abandoning Trump in droves after supporting him throughout his presidency.

“They haven’t left him. I don’t want to pretend they have,” he said, noting Florida’s recent history of razor-thin margins. “The thing in Florida is, you don’t have to have your approval drop by 20 points for it to be traumatic. If it’s just two points, all of a sudden it’s a different state.”

The April trends come at a time when Trump has been knocked off the campaign trail, and forced to lock down in the White House, as his administration responds to a pandemic that has killed more than 55,000 people — including nearly 1,100 in Florida.

Trump’s campaign quickly transitioned online, and announced this weekend that it had made 3 million calls to Florida voters since March 12. But Trump has not been home to Mar-a-Lago — his full-time Palm Beach residence and fundraising haven — since the first weekend in March, after which several people who visited the resort tested positive for COVID-19.

Nor has Trump been able to hold the massive rallies that allowed his campaign to reap valuable data from attendees and gave the president hours to hype up crowds that hung on his words. Even in mid-March, Trump was still clinging to the possibility of holding an end-of-month rally in Tampa.

“He feeds off these rallies,” said Matt Terrill, a partner at public affairs firm Firehouse Strategies, which was founded by alumni of Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “These rallies have been his outlet. These rallies are more to him, I think, than... just campaigning. They help tremendously with his campaign, but they play an instrumental role in him just getting out there and feeling comfortable getting his message out to the American people.”

Instead, Trump has reached Americans through his Twitter feed and news briefings that have often featured combative exchanges with reporters. After a Thursday briefing, Trump was widely criticized for suggesting that physicians might fight coronavirus by injecting patients with disinfectant. He did not take questions at a briefing the next day and did not hold briefings Saturday or Sunday.

Trump has frequently been questioned by reporters about criticisms that he is pushing too quickly to reopen the economy, at the risk of medically vulnerable and aging populations, and complaints from public officials that they do not have adequate access to coronavirus testing and related supplies.

“For as much good as he does, there’s always the potential that he says something that makes people uncomfortable, or unhappy or upset. So it’s a double-edged sword for him to have this massive bully pulpit, because he is just as likely to do good as he is to do harm,” said Saul Anuzis, president of the conservative seniors’ advocacy organization the 60 Plus Association.

The Trump campaign, meanwhile, has criticized Biden for his seclusion, saying it allows him to avoid questions from reporters.

“While President Trump is more accessible to the press than any president in modern history, Joe Biden continues to hide in his basement from reporters who would ask him real questions,” rapid response director Andrew Clark said in a statement to McClatchy on Monday.

Republicans said they expect Trump to rebound in the coming months, as the general election truly gets under way and the sitting administration continues to push out billions in economic aid. Millions of stimulus checks bearing Trump’s signature have already been sent to U.S. families, and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on loans to large corporations and small businesses.

James Blair, a former deputy chief of staff to DeSantis who now works as a Republican campaign strategist, said Trump will see a bounce-back as his administration continues pushing emergency loans to corporations, small businesses and workers.

“He is going to get to take a lot of credit for what the response is, for pushing Congress to act,” said Blair, who expects voters to make their decisions in November around the economy and give Trump the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the consequences of a “black swan” event.

The same polls that suggest Floridians are skeptical of Trump’s ability to respond to the pandemic also suggest they trust Trump more than Biden when it comes to restoring the economy.

“I think that is very favorable territory for Donald Trump,” Blair said, “particularly in the state of Florida.”

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