Pandemic may not have hurt Trump as much as expected, but McConnell adviser says it still made the difference in the election

President Trump may not have suffered as much from his handling of the coronavirus pandemic as some of his allies and adversaries said before and just after the election.

“Democrats and Republicans alike are reconsidering what they thought they knew about the public’s view of the viral outbreak and Trump’s handling of it, convinced the issue wasn’t as helpful politically for Democrats as they once expected,” Alex Roarty reports for McClatchy Newspapers. “Some strategists go so far as to say they think the president’s insistent push to lift economic restrictions, compared with Joe Biden’s emphasis on health and safety, even helped his cause with voters.”

“It’s possible that the pandemic actually didn’t accrue to Biden’s benefit at all,” Tim Miller, political director of Republican Voters Against Trump, told Roarty. “And in certain areas, the open-it-up debate might have cost him votes.” Such strategists say Trump’s economic emphasis led to his “narrower-than-expected losses in battleground states” and helped Republicans gain seats in the House and retain, at least for now, control of the Senate, Roarty reports.

Others “argue that although fewer voters were ultimately moved by the crisis, those who did were still crucial to Biden’s margin of victory in closely fought states like Wisconsin and Arizona. And few disagree that the pandemic, which since the spring has reshaped many facets of American life, was ever-present on voters’ minds, or that large majorities viewed Trump’s response to it negatively.”

Republican strategist Josh Holmes, who is close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, told The Washington Post soon after the election that the pandemic was the difference between Trump winning and losing. But he suggested to Roarty that Democrats didn’t gain as much from it as they could have because they “overvalued an upper-middle-class view” of the pandemic that didn’t make enough of the difficulties of people in service industries. While the pandemic “was by far and away the most significant impactful environmental piece of this election,” he said, “the question is which way does it break amongst which parts of the electorate.”

Jason Bresler, a Democratic strategist who was the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s national political director in 2018, told Roarty that his research showed that voters were more likely to be persuaded by advertising that stuck to a basic health-care message (such as guaranteeing protections for pre-existing conditions, as the Affordable Care Act does) instead of combining such a pitch with references to the pandemic.

“Other Democratic strategists said their data showed that voters grew so tired of the pandemic by the end of the campaign that they grew hesitant to even mention it in their ads, fearful that anything more than a fleeting image of people wearing masks would provoke a backlash,” Roarty reports, citing Ian Russell: “People were exhausted by it. They wanted to move on.”

Democratic strategist Danny Barefoot told Roarty that he ran a post-election focus group of persuadable voters who wound up voting for Trump — 20 mostly white working-class women from battleground states — and many recoiled at the idea of more lockdowns. “I can’t do that again, no matter how bad it gets,” Barefoot recalled one saying. “And everybody in the group was nodding their heads.”

Presidents can’t order lockdowns. Biden said “We’ll have a national mandate to wear a mask,” but presidents can’t do that, either. Democrats also talked about “mask mandates, listening to scientists, ramping up production of protective equipment and implementing a national testing strategy,” Roarty notes. “That message would poll well, but wasn’t tangible enough for many voters, some Democratic strategists quietly conceded.”
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