Trump Campaign Forced to Shelve 2020 Ad Blitz Touting Economy Because of Coronavirus Pandemic

donald trump coronavirus approval rating poll
U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus at the White House on March 24, 2020, in Washington, DC. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

This Trump campaign ad is a throwback to a time that's hard to remember now. Entitled "The Fighter," it features African-American and Latino voters extolling the healthy U.S. economy created by Donald Trump. ''Look at our economy, look what he's done. How could you not support the president?" asks an African-American woman wearing a red MAGA hat.

The ad encapsulated what the Trump campaign strategy was going to do: emphasize low unemployment, rising wages and a strong stock market. It was also an effort to increase support for Trump among minority voters—a tack the campaign telegraphed in its Super Bowl ad touting criminal justice reform.

Team Trump believed a bump in the African-American vote from the eight per cent he got in 2016 to even the low teens in 2020 would turn what might otherwise be a close race into an electoral rout. The overall theme, campaign manager Brad Parscale said, was obvious for a president presiding over peace and prosperity: ''Nothing says 'winning' like President Donald Trump and his stellar record of accomplishment for all Americans."

But now, 2020 is the coronavirus election. How Trump handles the crisis—and how he is perceived to be handling the crisis—will likely determine whether he is re elected. Campaign manager Parscale says that $1 billion had been earmarked for broadcast and digital advertising this year. That number, campaign officials say, has not changed—a far cry from the shoestring operation of 2016.

What's changed almost overnight is the type of ads the campaign now plans to run. One has already been cut, titled "Commander in Chief," which portrays Trump as a wartime president providing what campaign spokesman Andrew Clark calls "calm, steady leadership at a time of crisis." It features black-and-white shots of Trump and his coronavirus task force advisers in the situation room as a voiceover praises his "decisive leadership." Another ad shows Joe Biden calling Trump's decision to ban travel to China, "xenophobic."

"That decision, experts say, saved thousands of American lives," the voiceover intones.

Neither has run yet. The president, since the start of his daily COVID-19 briefings, has seen his job approval ratings jump. A Gallup poll released March 24 showed 49 percent of those surveyed approve of Trump's overall performance, the highest rating of his presidency. Fully 60 percent said they approve of Trump's handling of the crisis. For now, Trump's daily coronavirus briefings are attracting a huge number of viewers: 12.2 million cable viewers watched on Monday March 23—a huge number for cable—while millions more watched on the major broadcast networks.

As the crisis unfolds, Trump is getting, in the parlance of campaigns, vast amounts of "earned media," and as long as he's getting it, the campaign believes it can husband its ads ("paid media") until viewership for the briefings begins to decline. The campaign also believes that the image of Trump holding forth from the White House contrasts to their benefit with the talks Biden has been giving from the basement of his house in Delaware. "They're laughably pathetic," says one Trump campaign official not authorized to speak on the record.

This moment in a redefined campaign will pass soon. The debate inside Trump's campaign is whether and to what extent to run the numerous negative ads it has or is planning, versus the positive "Commander in Chief" motif, for which the campaign plans several more spots. The theme of the negative ads is straightforward: Biden is not up to the job, particularly not now, in the midst of a crisis.

An ad released March 12 opens with Biden stammering on the stump—"we can only win this re election, excuse me, we can only re elect Donald Trump"—and ends with an announcer saying, "It takes a tough guy to change Washington. It takes Donald Trump." Another spot will likely repurpose an ad released last year which mocked the Democratic presidential candidates for raising their hands when asked if their health care plans would insure undocumented immigrants. The new ad will zoom in on Biden as he meekly raises his hand as well.

It's likely, though as yet undecided, that Trump will authorize the release of more negative ads sooner rather than later—because Democratic super PACs are unloading on him and his handling of coronavirus. Priorities USA is in the midst of a $6 million ad blitz in key swing states hammering Trump on his early downplaying of the virus. They've gotten Trump's attention: on March 26th, his campaign threatened to sue local TV stations that are running it, saying it makes the false claim that Trump called the virus a "hoax."

Campaign officials routinely mock Biden for what he has said about how he would handle the virus, arguing that much of what he has proposed, Trump has already done. "Biden's plan is radical, recycled and too late," says spokesman Clark, and that message is likely soon to be made into an ad.

As the virus infects more people over the next couple of months, the Democratic super PACs' attacks on Trump's early handling of the crisis will intensify. The Trump campaign will produce more targeted ads, particularly aimed at swing districts in swing states, reiterating that he moved quickly to cut off travel from China, when the Democrats and the national press were obsessed about impeaching Trump over Ukraine. "That feels like a different century now," says a high-ranking White House political adviser not authorized to speak on the record. "But you bet we're going to remind people of it."

The Trump campaign is using a firm staffed with alumni from the controversial Cambridge Analytica. That's the data mining company that during the last election cycle harvested the personal data of millions of people's Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political advertising purposes. The firm seeks to target ads and marketing efforts based on an individual's "motivational behavioral triggers," as company President Matt Oczkowski has put it.

If the coronavirus crisis eases sometime before the election, look for the Trump campaign to target Biden in the Midwestern battleground states that the president won last time but in which Biden is thought to be strong this cycle. The issue on which Team Trump believes he's vulnerable: China. Biden has made a string of statements during this campaign downplaying the competitive threat from China. Given that the virus evolved there, Biden's soft-on-China stance looks problematic for him. Depending on how the pandemic progresses, Team Trump will likely spin up a couple of ads portraying Biden as Beijing's dupe.

But campaign officials stress: coronavirus' course will dictate campaign strategy—including advertising and marketing. "We made all sorts of plans last year on what we would do this year [on the campaign]. A lot of good that did us."

The Trump campaign hopes that by the fall it can run ads touting the Commander in Chief's success in handling the crisis, while hitting Biden on traditional issues like immigration, trade and health care. Maybe they'll resurface the ad with the African-American lady in a MAGA hat. Will they be in a position to do that? "Your guess is as good as mine," says the White House political adviser.