How The COVID-19 Outbreak Is Affecting The Presidential Campaign

Apr 2, 2020
Originally published on April 2, 2020 10:13 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The presidential campaign has gone quiet. But there's little doubt that President Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic will affect his political fate. His rallies have been canceled, but he's getting plenty of airtime with his daily briefings at the White House. During the briefing yesterday, he was asked about an offer Joe Biden made to call him up and talked about the coronavirus crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I always found him to be a nice guy. I don't know him very well, frankly, but I think he's probably a nice guy. No, if he'd like to call, I'd absolutely take his call. OK? You can tell him.

MARTIN: to Talk about the political implications of the pandemic, we've got NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson with us. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So a potential call between President Trump and Joe Biden - is that for real?

LIASSON: Maybe. It all started yesterday when Kellyanne Conway, the White House adviser, was taunting Joe Biden on television, saying why hasn't he called to offer his advice? Is he stuck in his bunker in Wilmington, Del.? And then the Biden camp said, sure, he'd talk to Trump. And then you just heard Trump say, when asked, that, yes, he'd be happy to take a call from Biden.

Of course, this is a stunt in some ways. It's in both candidates' political interests. Donald Trump would get to look statesmanlike, not purely partisan and political; Biden would get some attention. Trump has said in the past, he doesn't want to take phone calls from governors who are critical of him. And certainly, his opponent in the election is very critical of him. But on this one, he saw it in his interests.

MARTIN: So primaries are on hold. There are no big rallies happening, obviously. President Trump, though, clearly sees an opportunity with these daily coronavirus briefings at the White House.

LIASSON: There's no doubt that the president has recognized the huge platform that the briefings give him - bigger television audience than any rally. People are holed up in their homes in front of the television. They're desperate for information about the virus, and most of the briefings have been about the virus - except for yesterday, he started talking about other issues. He talked about narcotrafficking from Venezuela. That's a chance to send a message to some of his voters in Florida - a very important battleground state, a lot of people of Venezuelan descent there.

But for a president whose favorite metric is television ratings and how many eyeballs are watching him, this has been a huge opportunity. And he has boasted about the ratings, saying they're bigger or as big as "The Bachelor" finale or "Monday Night Football." And yesterday he said, did you know I was No. 1 on Facebook?

MARTIN: So people are watching him. Is it changing their opinion of the president?

LIASSON: It is changing their opinion a little bit. There usually is a rally effect around the president in a crisis. People want their president to succeed, so he has gotten a little bump in his approval ratings, not as big as the bump that governors have gotten. But right now, it looks like the higher marks that he's been getting for his handling of the crisis are not translating into an equally higher overall job approval rating. He's still in that 43% to 49% range that he's been in ever since he got 46.1% of the vote in 2016. So we've got a long way to go. The death rate and the unemployment rate are probably going to go up, and we'll just have to watch that number.

MARTIN: So where does this leave Joe Biden, the presumed front-runner right now on the Democratic side?

LIASSON: Well, it leaves him deprived of oxygen. It's harder, when you're stuck in your home, to do a lot of things that he needs to do, like fundraise and unite the party. On the other hand, there's an argument that whatever Joe Biden could say right now doesn't matter that much. This phase of the campaign is a referendum on Donald Trump and his leadership. It will become a binary choice later on in the fall. But this - the campaign is going to be shrunk into a narrower window of time, and maybe some voters won't - will be pretty happy about that.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you. We appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.