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WBUR Town Hall: COVID-19 And The Presidential Election

Will the Trump administration's handling of the pandemic improve his chances of reelection? Or will the missteps and misinformation coming from the president harm him? How will Democratic nominee Joe Biden make his voice heard? How much of the economic downturn will determine the election?

WBUR senior political reporter Anthony Brooks discussed how the pandemic could affect the outcome of the November election with WBUR senior news correspondent Kimberly Atkins, conservative political analyst Shermichael Singleton and CBS News political contributor Joel Payne.

Interview Highlights

On President Donald Trump's inability to transform as a candidate:

Joel Payne: "Donald Trump is the ultimate unconventional politician, but so far, all he is presenting it are very conventional tactics to win reelection. He has not evolved. He's not transformed as a candidate. He hasn't changed his message. He hasn't changed his pitch. I think what we're seeing is that voters are are [asking], 'What else do you have to say? Do you have a second note that you can play?'

"Look at the past three ... national presidential elections. Barack Obama ran a different campaign in 2012 than he did in 2008. He talked about reducing federal spending. He brought in moderates into his White House. George Bush ran completely differently in '04 than he ran in 2000. Ronald Reagan, even in his second term, ran differently in '84 than '80.

What is Trump's second pitch? I don't think we've seen that. I think, so far, it's a referendum on Donald Trump. Normally that [would] be something ... very troubling for a challenger like Joe Biden. I don't think the Biden campaign is troubled by that referendum choice at the moment. And the challenge for Trump is to take the attention and the pressure off of him to demonstrate he should be president and start to prosecute and execute a case against why Joe Biden wouldn't be a good president. And his team can't get out of their own way to do that."

On the role of moderates:

Payne:  "Trump has not been able to bring the country together at this moment, and in fact ... he's alienated a lot of folks. Not, by the way, just African Americans who might feel most personally passionate about this. He's alienated a lot of white independents and moderates ... Those folks in the middle don't want to be seen as being on the wrong side of history.

"I think that that's an emerging dynamic that we're gonna see through this race ... There are a lot of people in the middle, people who may have just ... been silent and observing and watching and not really engaged [in the past]. I think now the jerseys have to be worn. People have to choose a side. There's no room to be in the middle anymore ... I think that is hurting the president because he is forced to clarify his decision.

"Many Americans, particularly those white independents and moderates, are forced to make a clarifying choice ... Again, it's four months away, but right now, it appears that the choice that they're making is to stand with the people demanding change, not stand with the people who are protecting an apparently broken system."

On the pandemic's effects on American voters' mindsets:

Kimberly Atkins: "One thing that this pandemic has definitely done, I think, to Joel's point, is [that] it's focused the Americans attention on what Donald Trump is doing. For three years, reporters like me have talked to folks and asked them, 'What do you think about what the president is saying, ... what he's doing, what he's tweeting?' It's very easy for particularly his supporters to say, 'Oh, well, you know, I don't pay attention to all that. I don't like it, but I don't pay attention. I think he's doing a good job.'

"Well, the pandemic has many Americans in their homes. They are focused on this. They are looking specifically at the response because they're worried about their paycheck. They're worried about their health care. They're worried about their families. For those who are ... well-off and can withstand the impact of this, there's no sports. There's no new television.

"They are focused on this and they are seeing what the president is doing and paying close attention. They can't not pay close attention. And so, we are seeing a reaction to that.

"I think that's one reason that we have seen a different response to the Black Lives Matter movement today than what we saw a few years back when it first started and it was largely marginalized and pushed aside as as some sort of fringe effort. That's one reason why, when everyone saw that video of George Floyd, everyone was universally appalled. That is one impact of this pandemic that ... has been really working against the president.

"The other, of course, [that] we haven't talked about yet, is the economy. The economy tanked. The president thought he would be running for reelection on the economy. And when that went away, he had his campaign message, which we haven't heard, all ready: 'Keep America Great.' Well, America is not great right now, so you can't say that. He has to keep saying that he's going to make America great again, and that just belies the argument that he has done a good job.

On Trump's loyal base and the importance of absentee voting:

Shermichael Singleton: "One thing [that] is so reliable about Trump voters is that they will turn out and support the president no matter what. I think that's a concern that Democrats should have come November ... If we do find ourselves in November in the midst of a return, if you will, of COVID-19, combined with influenza, that could be a deadly combination.

"And I think, if you're a Democrat and you're concerned about turning out your base, African-Americans, we know for a fact, have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 because of underlying health conditions and a plethora of other health reasons. That is something that obviously benefits Donald Trump because his voters will turn out, hell or high water.

"What Democrats have to do is begin the process of working with African-Americans, working with other key constituents in those key battleground states, to make sure that people complete the necessary documentation to fill out absentee balloting as soon as possible. That would be my advice if I was working for the Democratic side.

"However, the benefit, again, for the president, is that if we find ourselves again in a chaotic moment, it obviously benefits him. I think you're going to see some Republican states that are [run] by governors that have Republican secretaries of state [who] are going to likely position themselves to make it a lot more challenging for individuals to request those ballots. We're already beginning to see that, as Joel just laid out. I do think that you're going to see some Democratic leaning organizations contest those things in the court.

"So I think, come November, this could be a really tricky situation where if it is so close, Anthony, I do believe you can have both sides contesting us, going all the way up to the Supreme Court."

On conservative voters Biden could attract:

Singleton: "Look, I think if you're a conservative and you're looking at the way President Trump has has governed, I just don't see how you can't be concerned. If the idea of conservatism is to respect norms, to preserve order, to preserve institutions — if the idea of conservatism is to have limits on a federal government that seems to act recklessly without any level of transparency — then it's kind of difficult to look at what we've seen thus far and say this lines up with each of those [idealistic] truths that conservatives have purported for so long to believe in.

And so, I do think someone like Vice President Biden, who I personally have seen as someone who's more of a moderate-leading Democrat, I think that is someone with the right message [who] could attract some of those more moderate Republicans who may have voted for Trump because they didn't like Hillary Clinton or they liked his message on the economy, [or] liked his message on deregulation, who may say, 'Yes, I love all of those things. And if Joe Biden can speak to some of those things while bringing back some level of normalcy while not tearing down our institutions, while not lowering the respect that we ought to have for the office, then I can see myself voting for him.'

"I think that there are some moderate Republicans out there who who do have those beliefs, who Joe Biden could indeed attract."

On how much voters actually value Biden's vice presidential pick:

Atkins: "I want to point folks to —from a few weeks back — a morning consult poll on the VP choices, and it found that the broadest support, including support from Black voters, the broadest support among age ranges and geography, was Elizabeth Warren. It's not as a straightforward of a decision as it might be painted: Black or not Black. That consideration may be a bit broader than we're representing here.

Also, I will say, although I think this year is a little different, I still think one thing is true. Folks like us make way more out of the V.P. pick than voters do ... Voters really don't care that much.

Anthony Brooks: "I know that's true. But I have this gut feeling that this year is different."

Atkins: "It is different. They'll care more, but still won't care as much as we do."

This article was originally published on June 18, 2020.

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