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The number Trump should be worried about

Patriotic stylized flags
(Los Angeles Times)

A key number has gone dramatically wrong for President Trump in the last two weeks, and it’s not his standing against Joe Biden in polls for the November election.

Trump has trailed Biden for weeks even though many Democrats, made skittish by the outcome in 2016, have been reluctant to believe it.

The question for Trump continues to be whether he can make a comeback. The biggest obstacle to that is the soaring number of coronavirus cases — especially in states at the heart of his political base.

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Ever since late April and the fiasco of his comments about injecting bleach as a possible cure, Trump has sought to treat the coronavirus by ignoring it. In the last couple of weeks, he has repeatedly referred to the pandemic in the past tense, as if he believed he could return the country to normal by wishing it so.

This past week made clear that’s not working.

Coronavirus hits Trump country

Since April, Brookings Institution demographer William Frey has tracked the virus as it spread from initial hot spots in major coastal cities to locations across the country’s interior. The tale has been of a shift from blue counties to red.

In the weeks after Memorial Day, as more and more states began to lift restrictions on commerce and recreation, the center of the epidemic has moved decisively to counties in the South and Southwest, Frey wrote in his latest analysis.

COVID-19 cases have declined rapidly in the New York, Chicago and Philadelphia areas and risen in Miami, Houston and Phoenix.

But another aspect of the shift hasn’t gotten as much attention. As Frey notes, the illness has also spread rapidly beyond those Sunbelt cities into smaller counties and outer suburbs on the far fringes of metropolitan regions.

Caseloads have been rising in some blue states, too — notably in the four, large suburban counties that ring Los Angeles. But the “vast majority” of the counties showing big increases since Memorial Day have been “outside urban cores and inner suburbs,” he wrote, including large numbers of counties in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi and Texas.

That’s brought a sharp change to the racial and political nature of the places being heavily hit by the illness. The locales that joined the list of “high-prevalence” counties after Memorial Day are mostly spread across the South and the nation’s interior. They are nearly 70% white, and they cast about 58% of their votes for Trump in 2016, Frey’s analysis shows.

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COVID-19 began its rampage through the U.S. by hitting big, heavily Democratic coastal cities, and that accident of geography has shaped the politics of the pandemic for months. But the illness is now striking the heartland of Trump country.

As that has happened, Trump’s standing among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents has notably eroded, according to the most recent nationwide polls. There’s no way to prove that the spread of disease in heavily Republican areas is behind that drop, but the timing certainly suggests a connection.

Trump has been deeply in denial about the pandemic’s resurgence, blaming the increased caseload on the fact that the U.S. is testing more people.

At his rally in Tulsa, Okla., last week, he memorably said that, “I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’” When White House aides said he had made the remark in jest, he refuted them.

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“I don’t kid,” he said Tuesday.

Democrats have pounded on Trump’s response.

“His job isn’t to whine about it, his job is to do something about it,” Biden said at an event in Lancaster, Pa., on Thursday.

While it’s true that a larger number of tests will yield a larger number of cases, the current increase has far outstripped what can be attributed to more testing. Even Trump allies like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have conceded that’s not all that’s going on.

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The rapid rate at which severely sick people have started to fill up intensive care units in Southern states should remove any doubt that the increase in illness is real and dangerous.

As Noam Levey wrote, many hospitals in Florida, Arizona and Texas have started to show strain. The stress has not reached the catastrophic levels that hit New York City in April, but the trends have been serious enough that DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, another Trump ally, canceled plans to further ease restrictions on business. On Friday, Abbott ordered the closure of bars.

Unlike New York or San Francisco, which responded to their early COVID outbreaks by issuing lockdown orders that succeeded in squelching the spread, the places being hit most heavily now are politically resistant to such moves — in large part because of Trump’s opposition. Reversing the surge of illness will be harder as a result.

Trump’s remaining response has been to note that death rates have remained low.

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“Coronavirus deaths are way down. Mortality rate is one of the lowest in the World. Our Economy is roaring back and will NOT be shut down,” he tweeted late Thursday night.

With luck, the low death rate will remain true. Doctors have learned more about how to successfully treat COVID-19 cases, hospitals are better prepared than they were in April and the current population of patients are, on average, younger than those sickened earlier, which may make them easier to treat.

But the sad fact is that after a couple of weeks of lag time, a rising number of people hospitalized for the illness likely will yield a rising number of deaths. As funerals spread through Trump country this summer, the president seems unlikely to escape his season of discontent.

A quick review of the polls

Trump trails Biden by an average of 10 points in the national polls compiled by the Real Clear Politics site and 9.5 points in the average done by FiveThirtyEight.

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Those nationwide polls are matched by surveys of individual battleground states. The latest Marquette University poll has Biden ahead by eight points in Wisconsin, for example.

The New York Times/Siena College survey had an even bigger Biden lead in that Midwestern state: 11 points. They showed similarly grim news for the president in other battlegrounds: Trump down 11 points in Michigan, 10 in Pennsylvania, 9 in North Carolina, seven in Arizona and six in Florida.

Fox News polls showed Trump down by nine points in Florida and the two candidates essentially tied in Georgia and Texas.

Right now, the states in which Biden leads add up to well over 300 electoral votes — significantly more than the 270 needed to win. Trump has solid leads in states adding up to just under 130 electoral votes, with about 100 electoral votes considered tossups.

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Can Trump come back from that sort of deficit? Of course. George H.W. Bush made a successful comeback in 1988 after badly trailing Michael Dukakis. Forty years earlier, Harry Truman did the same against Thomas Dewey.

But those turnarounds are memorable in political history precisely because they’re rare, and both Truman and Bush could count on powerful political coalitions built by their predecessors, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

Trump lacks those advantages, and for the past several weeks has seemed more inclined to stoke the grievances of his strongest supporters than to even try to reach out to the voters whose minds he needs to change, as Eli Stokols and Janet Hook wrote.

In an interview Thursday night with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Trump seemed almost resigned to losing.

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Biden, he said “can’t put two sentences together” but he’s “going to be your president because some people don’t love me, maybe.”

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Congress deadlocks on police reform

Despite the nationwide protests that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the odds of Congress passing legislation to change police practices remain long.

Some Republicans oppose any national legislation on the topic; others are willing to go along with legislation that gives local governments incentives to adopt reforms, but oppose anything mandatory. Democrats won’t accept a bill that does not include mandatory changes, including a ban on chokeholds and measures to make suing police officers easier.

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Thursday, the House passed the Democratic bill drafted by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and her colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus. Meanwhile, Democrats blocked the Senate from acting on a Republican bill drafted by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the chamber’s only Black Republican, as Sarah Wire wrote.

Democrats increasingly believe they can capture a Senate majority in November and are not inclined to settle for a bill they deem inadequate.

Curious about how the GOP and Democratic bills differ? Wire has you covered.

Supreme Court maintains suspense

The Supreme Court has already handed down a couple of major rulings this year — the decisions giving LGBTQ Americans protection against job discrimination and keeping alive the DACA program that protects hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation.

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But, as David Savage wrote, the high court has some major rulings yet to come, including cases on abortion and whether Trump must reveal his tax returns to investigators. The court normally would be done with its session by now, but the pandemic set back its schedule.

The justices are set to deliver more rulings on Monday and Tuesday, but it’s unclear if they’ll wrap up their work or whether they’ll continue into July.

The court did resolve one narrow, but significant, case this week, ruling in favor of the government’s authority for quick removal of migrants who cross the border illegally, as Savage wrote. The 7-2 decision rejected a 9th Circuit ruling that had allowed would-be migrants to seek judicial review of their removal.

Money for the dead

According to the Government Accountability Office, the federal government’s internal watchdog, dead people got $1.4 billion in COVID-19 stimulus checks, Wire wrote.

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Congress, which was focused on getting as much money out into the economy as quickly as possible, wrote the law in a way that allowed those payments, saying that anyone who filed a tax return in 2019 and had income below the cutoff would be eligible. The money ends up being a windfall for the heirs of those who died.

The GAO said that if the program is renewed, Congress should change the law to allow the Treasury Department to screen out taxpayers who have died, which it could do by matching names with Social Security records.

The roughly 1.1 million payments to deceased people are a tiny share of the more than 160 million payments made, but the issue has attracted a lot of attention. The IRS has said heirs should return the money, but it doesn’t have any plan to enforce that, GAO said.

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Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.

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