OPINION: Why is Trump flailing in the polls? Blame COVID-19, not riots.

By Molly Pitcher
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Count me as a COVID19 skeptic. No, not that the virus doesn’t exist, but rather that the response to it from our leaders – both from the scientific and politics community – has been erratic and, at times, criminal (see: NY, PA, & NJ and nursing homes). 

As an example of this confusion, I feel especially bitter about the changing narrative regarding masks. We were told at first that they were ridiculous by top professionals (which we now know was a cruel ruse to preserve supplies), only to now have authoritarian crackdowns for noncompliance. I hate wearing it, but if it really does help those at-risk and gets the economy going in the right direction, I’ll do it. I even made a few dozen and shipped them around the country to family, friends, and neighbors. Except now, it’s been unnecessarily and irreparably politicized. 

As we watch President Trump’s precipitous decline in key polls, it’s too easy to look at what’s right in front of us on the news – the civil and sometimes violent unrest following the murder of George Floyd, and conclude that maybe the country simply is looking for a dose of radical normalcy like old, sleepy Joe Biden. 

But the disastrous Tulsa rally showed us something different: it said that even his most diehard supporters are scared of the pandemic that has driven this entire year. They’ll happily vote for him and donate to him, but not they’re not going to risk a crowded space to show their allegiance. Of course, the media coverage was rife with hypocrisy compared to that the Black Lives Matter protests, but don’t let that distract you. People voted with their feet.

So, where does the independent voters who held their nose and gave President Trump a chance in 2016 because they found Hillary Clinton to herself be both deplorable and irredeemable? 

My theory is that they’re scared and looking for consistency in a crisis — even if it’s wrong. Look at the approval ratings for the Governors of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. These men sentenced the infirm and elderly to die in ill-prepared facilities, yet they still have approval ratings that would make Vladimir Putin jealous. Why is that? Their communications have largely been consistent and clear.

That doesn’t mean that the media isn’t giving them an unprecedented hall pass on certain matters or that their actions are rooted in science. But, anecdotally, I hear family and friends in neighboring states – even fervent Trump supporters – dutifully repeating their terminology like “Phase 1” or “Green Zone” when discussing plans. 

On visuals alone – and Trump, of all people, should know this! – you have to admit that droll Andrew Cuomo with his PowerPoints looked more in control than the President, who kicked off this crisis with a disastrous Oval Office address and ended his daily 3 hour rambling briefings with musings about injecting bleach. 

And here’s the kicker: substantively, Trump was right where others were wrong about big controversies like ventilators and testing. In fact, programs like PPP and the quick mobilization by the military to provide hospital space on ships and in our convention centers were nothing short of miracles. 

But message discipline and visuals matter. Think Governor Christie and Hurricane Sandy. Whether you loved him or hated him, when you saw him at a podium with the blue fleece, you knew that the state wasn’t going to run out of gas and that you were going to have electricity and heat in your house that night. The Democratic Governors haven’t actually delivered comparable results, but they sound a hell of a lot better compared to the guy offering unsolicited medical advice from the White House briefing room on hydroxychloroquine. By contrast, Republican governors like DeSantis (FL), DeWine (OH), and Abbott (TX) have mastered both the substance and style— even through this new southeast resurgence.

And before you think I’m being too hard on the Commander in Chief, our blue state governors have run afoul of this rule, too, with consequences. When they marched in protests, but didn’t allow business owners to operate, notice how these draconian decisions turned around almost overnight. The public allowed them to be wrong — but not inconsistent. 

Real results still matter, and the media will never be our friend, but you can never discount the power of style and messaging as a critical component to leadership. 

A pandemic is especially a time where the American people needed consistency and direction. Forget what the loudest voices around you say for a moment or the very legitimate politically-driven anger about reopening delays: would you stand close to a vulnerable family member or friend without some kind of precaution simply to “own the libs” or score a win for the Donald? I think at heart, not a lot of us would. The fear is real and palpable out there if you dig down past the partisan freak out from both sides.

Bottom line? The Entertainer-in-Chief needs to take back the show.