Donald Trump Told Aides, Voters 'Are Tired of the Virus'; His Campaign Is Betting He's Right

Donald Trump 2020 Presidential Campaign
With one week until Election Day, President Donald Trump campaigns in Michigan, a state he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes. Can he carry it in 2020? Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One week away from what Donald Trump calls ''the most important election in our history," the president's campaign has settled on a final-days strategy: Run as if it's 2016. He ordered his campaign staff to increase the number of large outdoor rallies, and Trump now plans to hold four or five a day in key battleground states. That's precisely what he did in the closing days of the race four years ago. But this time it's different: COVID-19 cases are spiking significantly around the country and hospitalizations are rising. On Monday Joe Biden referred to Trump's rallies as "super spreaders." But Trump has told staffers that "people are tired of the virus" and of the constraints it places on their lives. Is the Trump campaign willfully obtuse—or are they onto something?

Biden's camp believes this current "third wave" of the virus seals the deal in a race that's been largely defined by the administration's poor handling of the pandemic. But the Trump campaign's internal polling shows the president with a glimmer of hope, according to three aides interviewed for this story. (They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.)

The president's campaign says it is now tied with Biden in the critical state of Pennsylvania, following the former vice president's statement in last Thursday's debate that he had never called for an end to fracking and that he would "transition" out of the oil industry. Trump forces immediately began airing ads calling out the former vice president, who in fact did call for an end to fracking several times during the primaries. One ad, entitled "Jennifer," focuses on a white, middle-aged woman identified as a "fracking technician" working in western Pennsylvania. It ends with her saying a Biden presidency "would end a lot of livelihoods." The Pennsylvania Department of Labor has said between 20,000 to 50,000 jobs in the state are directly tied to fracking.

Joe Biden debate ban fracking denial truth
In the third and final presidential debate, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden denied that he had ever said that he wanted to ban fracking. In this image from the October 22 debate, Biden explains. Justin Sullivan/Getty

The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee are spending $55 million in the campaign's final week to hammer Biden on the energy issue, and Trump aides believe that the issue has traction in Pennsylvania. The internal polling had Biden ahead in the state by about three points just before the debate. "That lead is now gone," says a senior campaign staffer. The campaign acknowledges that it must win Pennsylvania to have a path to 270 electoral votes. That's why Trump did three separate rallies in the state on October 26th, and why he will be back multiple times over the next week.

Even if he does carry Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina—all of which he won in 2016—the current map, according to public polls, has Trump falling two electoral votes shy of victory. He would need to win at least one of three competitive states—New Hampshire, Arizona or Nevada—to put him over the top. The campaign believes those states are tossups. Trump is also within striking distance in Wisconsin, aides say, and there is an internal debate as to whether to push hard in Michigan in the campaign's final week. Public polling shows the state slipping away—the RealClearPolitics aggregate of polls shows Biden up by nine points—but the campaign may try to hammer on Biden's flip-flopping on fossil fuels there as well. "Cars still run on gasoline, after all," says the senior staffer.

The campaign, at Trump's urging, had planned to embrace a message of "opening up and living with the virus" in the campaign's final weeks, and the multiple daily outdoor rallies attest to that. The strategists want to contrast what they describe as their more hopeful message with Biden's vision of a forthcoming "dark winter," as he put it in the debate last week. But now aides worry that the optimistic message—"we just want normal life, right?" the president said Monday at his rally in Allentown, Pa.—clashes with the reality of surging case loads. It allows the mainstream media, says a second senior campaign aide, ''to again push the idea that the administration has never taken the virus seriously enough."

Polls show most Americans believe that to be true. Trump's frantic travel to large, enthusiastic rallies in the last seven days may conjure feel-good memories of 2016 for him, but for voters, 2020 is likely defined by the pandemic. One Trump friend who did not want to speak on the record says if the case numbers were declining and there was evidence the virus was attenuating—becoming significantly less lethal—the president could credibly argue that the worst was past and that he was better equipped to rebuild the economy (which, polls show, most voters believe). But that's not what's happening, the friend concedes. ''Which means," he says, ''we probably lose."