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Reality bites Trump in red states

Illustration of stylized U.S.-themed flags
(Los Angeles Times)

For weeks, as the coronavirus began to spread beyond the big coastal cities and into suburban and rural counties, we’ve posed a question: As illness moved into pro-Trump parts of the country, would political views shift?

We’re beginning to get an answer, and it’s more bad news for President Trump.

The issue matters because of how prominently the virus figures into this year’s politics.

Some elections never have an overriding issue. In the 2000 presidential election, for example, the debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore meandered aimlessly among topics without ever settling on one that captured voters’ attention.

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In other years, a single issue — often a war or a severe economic downturn — blots out other subjects. Right now, the pandemic is that singular issue.

Voters hire presidents to solve big problems. Trump has not been able to wish the virus away, and it shows no sign of disappearing on its own. Unless he can convince voters that he’s competent to handle the problem they’re most concerned about, he has little hope of getting hired for another four years.

Trump and the virus

Right now, voters aren’t convinced. The latest evidence comes from a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Friday morning. By 60%-38%, Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the virus.

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Americans’ ratings of Trump on that measure have worsened significantly since the virus outbreak began. In March, for example, a Post-ABC poll showed a majority approving of Trump’s work on the virus, 51%-45%. By May, that rating had flipped, with 53% disapproving to 46% approving, and now his ratings have plunged further.

Beyond the top-line numbers, things get worse for Trump: Just over half of those surveyed — 52% — disapprove strongly of his work. That’s twice as many as strongly approve.

By 64%-34%, Americans say they don’t trust what Trump says about the pandemic. Again, the intensity is heavily on the negative side, with 46% saying they trust him “not at all,” while just 17% say they trust him a “great deal.”

The Post-ABC poll is hardly alone. A poll from Quinnipiac University released Wednesday found that, by 65% to 26%, voters said they trusted information from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, about the coronavirus. Trump’s ratings were the mirror image: By 67% to 30%, voters said they did not trust information from him.

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Some big factors strongly determine the way people view the virus and related questions, such as whether to wear a mask when out in public, whether the government should close businesses or cut off travel from other countries to slow the spread, and whether schools should reopen in the fall.

One factor seems to be biological: Some people appear to be innately more sensitive to disgust at the idea of contamination. That “disgust sensitivity” powerfully shapes how people think about and react to diseases, Vanderbilt University political scientist Cindy Kam has found. People who have a greater sensitivity to disgust more often support stringent control measures, such as closing borders or enforcing social distancing rules.

But in a deeply divided country like the U.S., partisanship also strongly colors people’s views. In a report published Friday by the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group, Kam and her Vanderbilt colleague John Sides found that Republicans expressed a higher level of concern about the Ebola outbreak in 2014-16 than did Democrats. Today, Democrats express a significantly higher level of concern about coronavirus.

In both cases, the party out of power was accusing the party in the White House of failing to do enough to counteract the disease, and voters picked up the cues from their party leaders, Kam and Sides found.

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Those two factors — disgust sensitivity and partisanship — interact in complicated ways. For some people, the two reinforce each other; others are pulled in opposing directions.

Women, for example, on average are more sensitive to disgust than men, Kam’s research shows. Many Republican-leaning women, as a result, may face strong cross-pressures. The cues they get from Trump and other party leaders, who have downplayed the virus, conflict with their innate reactions.

And, indeed, in recent weeks, Trump’s ratings among Republican women have sagged considerably more than among GOP men.

Personal experience also plays a role. Early on in the pandemic, very few Americans said they personally knew someone who had been sickened by COVID-19. Attitudes toward the disease, especially in rural and suburban areas with low amounts of illness, were abstract.

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Now, by contrast, a majority of the public says they do know someone who has become ill, polls have started to show. That’s increasingly true in Republican areas, with states like Florida, Texas and Arizona having replaced New York and New Jersey as the locales where the most illness and deaths are taking place.

As that has happened, Trump’s standing has declined in those places. Approval of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus has dropped 15 to 16 percentage points in the Midwest and South compared with March, the Post/ABC poll found.

The decline has affected Americans who have been key parts of his political coalition. A majority of white, evangelical Protestants, for example, still approves of his handling of the coronavirus, but that support has dropped by 16 points since May, to 68%. Approval among white men without college degrees, another group central to Trump’s support, is down 15 points to 56%. And approval among residents of rural America has dropped 11 points, to 48%.

As voters turn thumbs down on his handling of the topic that dominates their attention, Trump’s chances of reelection have faded. This week, both the Quinnipiac survey and a new poll from NBC and the Wall Street Journal showed Trump trailing Joe Biden by double digits nationally.

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Faced with widespread public repudiation of his handling of the crisis, Trump has tried several times to change the subject. Thursday, White House aides parked a red truck and a blue truck on the White House South Lawn, loading the blue one down with paper that they said represented the burden of excessive Democratic regulations. The two vehicles served as the backdrop for a presidential speech which drew minimal attention.

The problem Trump faces is one that the English writer and critic Samuel Johnson famously illustrated some 250 years ago — the solid stubbornness of reality.

Johnson sought to disprove the philosophy of immaterialism — the idea that objects in the universe have no reality outside of our perceptions — by kicking a large rock.

“I refute him thus,” he declared.

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That’s a flawed piece of logic, but a pretty decent guide to politics. Trump and his allies have turned rock kicking into a habit — repeatedly expressing surprise when they suffer broken toes as a result.

Reality exists. In politics, as in other aspects of life, trying to kick it out of the way seldom works for long.

As Trump goes, so goes the Senate

With Trump’s recent slide, the Republican Senate majority, too, is now severely at risk, Janet Hook reports.

All year, both parties have focused on races in four states: Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Maine, where Republican incumbent Sens. Martha McSally, Cory Gardner, Thom Tillis and Susan Collins, respectively, have appeared vulnerable. But GOP worries have now expanded to include the Senate races in Montana and Iowa, as well as in Georgia, where two seats are up for election.

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Biden said this week that he could envision Democrats, who now hold 47 Senate seats, ending up with 55, and after this week’s second-quarter campaign finance disclosure reports, many Republicans worry that may be true.

Democratic challengers in key races raised significantly more than the Republican incumbents. Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and Democratic candidate in Arizona, has $24 million in his account, compared with $11 million for McSally. In Maine, Sara Gideon, the Democrat, has $9.4 million compared with Collins’ $5.6 million. In North Carolina, Cal Cunningham, the Democrat, has about the same amount of money in the bank as Tillis, but vastly out-raised him over the past three months.

Victory doesn’t always go to the candidate with the most money, but the gap, which also exists in hotly contested House races, provides more evidence of how tough a year Republicans face.

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Congress faces tight deadline on economic aid

Congress returns to work next week with only a few days to negotiate a deal on another package of aid to keep the economy afloat during the pandemic. The biggest issue is renewing the expanded federal aid to the unemployed which runs out at the end of the month.

Those expanded benefits have been crucial to keeping the economy from plunging deeper into recession, most economists say, and as Sarah Wire reported, Republican resistance to renewing the benefits has begun to soften.

The GOP is increasingly split. Some conservatives continue to balk at benefits that allow some workers to earn more on unemployment than they would at their low-wage jobs. Other Republicans are more willing to compromise.

Trump has sent mixed messages. Some of his advisors continue to push the idea of cutting payroll taxes, which has very little support in Congress on either side of the aisle.

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Biden moves toward a running mate

Biden said this week that his campaign aides were close to finishing the initial vetting of potential running mates and likely would be narrowing the list over the next week or two. He’d then begin to interview the finalists, with an eye toward an announcement some time in August.

A lot of speculation continues to focus on California Sen. Kamala Harris, but as Melanie Mason and Mark Barabak reported, a signature moment in her primary campaign — the debate in which she confronted Biden over his work with Southern senators earlier in his career — continues to cloud her prospects.

Trump fires his manager

In politics, as in baseball, trailing teams fire their managers. Trump fired his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, on Wednesday night, announcing the move in a Facebook post.

As Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols reported, Parscale took the blame for the disastrous Trump rally in Tulsa, Okla., last month that was most notable for its empty seats. But he’s also just a convenient target for an increasingly frustrated president.

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Trump’s aides would like to see him focus more on policy accomplishments, but as Bierman and Stokols reported, with Trump, invective often obscures the policy message. That was clear this week as White House aides took aim at Fauci, damaging the president more than the doctor.

Such incidents provide fodder for the former Republican strategists who staff the large number of anti-Trump groups aimed at appealing to Republican voters. As Seema Mehta reported, the opposition from within his own party may not sway a huge number of voters, but given the small margins by which Trump won key states in 2016, it could be enough if the race tightens.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, the GOP also can now count several candidates who are followers of the unfounded QAnon conspiracy theory, Arit John reported.

Flouting the Supreme Court on DACA

“Dreamers,” the young immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally after coming here as children, won a big victory at the Supreme Court last month when the justices ruled against Trump’s effort to rescind the DACA program that President Obama put in place to shield them from deportation.

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But as Molly O’Toole reported, the administration has continued to reject new DACA applications, despite the high court’s ruling. Tens of thousands of young immigrants became eligible for DACA coverage over the last few years as they turned 15, but the administration has refused to process their applications, leaving them in jeopardy.

While the justices ruled against Trump on several major cases this year, the court’s conservative majority remains very predictable in cases that involve political power. As David Savage reported, the latest example came Thursday as the court sided with Florida Republicans to block ex-felons from voting in the state’s primary next month.

Meanwhile, as O’Toole reported, U.S. Customs and Border Protection fired four officers for participating in secret Facebook groups with violent and bigoted posts. Thirty-eight more were suspended without pay.

More money for parks, but maybe not for sea turtles

A federal effort to help the endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle breed on Padre Island in Texas has been a huge success story — a victory for wildlife conservation as well as a big tourist attraction. But as Anna Phillips reported, the National Park Service is now threatening to cut funds for the sea turtle program.

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Park Service officials question whether too much money is going to one project. Many scientists, however, see the move as an ill-advised money grab.

The parks are about to get a lot more money, as Brian Contreras reported. Helped along by an unusual lineup of election-year political interests, Republican senators and environmental activists have agreed on a bill to send hundreds of millions of additional dollars to the park system. The House is expected to give the bill final approval in the coming week.

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