Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Mark Penn

The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews The Stagwell Group's President Mark PennMark PennGOP fears Trump attacks on mail-in vote will sabotage turnout Poll: 70 percent of Americans support voting by mail Biden, under Trump attack, casts himself as firm on China MORE.

Read excerpts from the interview below.

Clemons: What are the polling trends of how Americans are tilting today when it comes to thinking about the coronavirus and the severity of that in the nation?

Penn: If you tend to look at kind of the general social trends that are going on, how people personally have reacted to the virus, there you see that a curtain of fear has descended upon the country, and that curtain fear has not really been lifted as of yet. In fact, 50 percent fear that they could die. There doesn't seem to be any difference by age, even if, in fact, the median age of death from the virus could be in the 80s. In fact, people in their 20s are just as afraid of the virus as people in their 80s. If anything, older people tend to be a little bit more stoic about the whole thing. And also, I think we see very much this kind of back to basics, return to home cooking, you know, surges in things like orange juice. The American consumer habits have been changed kind of overnight and again, there's this competition between fear and desire, and fear is generally winning over desire. And they don't you know when you ask them, like, “is this getting better, worse or the same,” people don't really have a clear direction. And now there's a highlighting of cases. Then over on the political spectrum, the president and the Republicans were doing pretty well for a while and then, almost from the famous Clorox press conference on down, Trump and the Republicans kind of headed south pretty significantly. Biden didn't, Biden’s lead widened, and Biden's doing better in the horse race. But Biden's numbers themselves didn't really change. What happened was what was 51 percent approval of dealing with the virus sunk into the low 40s. As Trump actually receded in the background and let the states and the governor's takeover, he actually seemed to hurt himself more than anything else. 


Clemons: In the last several days, your comments say that there's been a big zig or zag, if you will, in fear. Do I have that right?

Penn: Yeah, well, I think what you've seen is uncertainty about what's happening. Dissatisfaction as you said, with the policies. Then on top of that, I think as the issues emerged over George Floyd, again the president's response was not seen as satisfactory, didn't bring the country together. Also received that, you know, low 40s ratings and so again on the political situation, more fear, more uncertainty, more dissatisfaction. Again to me, the most interesting finding in the poll, but because I don't want Democrats to come away from this thinking that oh, everybody loves Democrats. Democrats are doing a lot better than they were doing. But a majority of the country doesn't have a favorable attitude towards the Democrats, and the majority of the country does not have a favorable attitude towards the Republicans. The majority of the country does not have a favorable attitude towards the president. A majority of the country does have a favorable attitude towards Black Lives Matter and does have a slightly more favorable attitude towards the police. 


Clemons: Just interrupt here, you're saying they've got a slightly favorable attitude towards the police and Black Lives Matter, which isn't Black Lives Matter calling to defund the police?

Penn: Well, I think that 60 percent have a favorable attitude towards the police, 55 percent have a favorable attitude towards Black Lives Matter. But I don't think that they're responding to the specific policy agenda of the Black Lives Matter organization. What Americans are saying is “There is a lot of racism. There are a number of bad cops.” They want that situation fixed, but no. And in fact, when you ask them, about three-quarters are against quote “defunding” and given the choice between keeping funding where it is, reducing it or increasing it, slight plurality would increase it, and only a minority would actually decrease funding of the police. People want the police fixed. They want response to racism and they're quite strong and that's why it's so interesting that they don't approve of the political figures and they do approve of a movement that is designed to reduce racism and bring police into line. And they do approve of police when they act according to how they should in terms of a force to keep order and stability. So the public here has been very different view that is quite consistent with almost a coherent view compared to the fracturing of the political system.


Clemons: Mark, how about the economy? At the beginning of this crisis, we saw Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Top Democrats say postmaster confirmed changes to mail service amid delays MORE get a lot of credit for working on both sides of the aisle, both chambers of Congress moving a CARES package to support those who were going to be unemployed, to support small businesses. There were some big businesses that tried to take advantage of it. But there seemed to be this moment where there was an element of perception of competence. Does the president still get any residual benefit from that point?

Penn: Yes, I think, in both the Harris related polls and even the other polls I've seen, the president still wins on who would be better at handling the economy, him or Biden. It's his biggest single advantage, right? It's obviously diminished from what it would have been when the economy was going like gangbusters. But there still is a belief that Trump's better for the economy. But Trump is losing on the virus and trying to solve the racial issues in the country, and those two surged as key issues. That virus remains number one issue in the country. So even if there was not as much news focus on the virus for a bit, the voters haven't taken their eyes off that problem yet. 


Clemons: Is there a substantial difference in the right track, wrong track views on gender in this moment? Do women and men see all of this differently, or are they largely aligned?

Penn: Well, actually, before this happened, there was a pretty significant gender split that women were seeing things that generally not as favorable light as men were seeing them. These numbers, there will still be something of a gender gap like that. But now everybody thinks the country's on the wrong track. Well, there's been a huge movement. Everybody thinks that, you know, the economies on the wrong track so everyone agrees where we have a really, really tough situation here. And so those differences, actually have shrunk a little from what they were because as a general consensus, boy, we're kind of up to be up the creek here without a paddle. 


Clemons: Can you share with our audience what we're likely to see play out now, as we’re four months basically from the election. There is a lot of noise, and Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Biden clarifies comments comparing African American and Latino communities Kanye West may have missed deadline to get on Wisconsin ballot by minutes: report MORE is ahead nationally and in most of the battleground states, but remind people about your ice cream frame.

Penn: Well, I guess my frame was that look, there are very few things left where you can only get kind of two flavors of it. In this case, you can get the Democratic flavor or the Republican flavor, and you go into an ice cream store and you can get rocky road, chocolate chip and cookie dough and 17 other flavors. And most things in life have kind of a broad array of choice, and then in politics we still have pretty limited choices. And in this case, we know now the presidency is going to be between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. And those are the only two choices and relatively speaking here you've seen, I think this race go from well, it's probably likely that Trump would get reelected when the economy was going well, his job ratings were in the high 40s, almost 50s, to likely that Joe Biden will win unless things change here because Trump's ratings are in the low 40s, which is where you could lose it and Biden’s numbers have strengthened to double digits. I just want to be clear these polls are a snapshot in time. I think a countervailing element here is what I call snap back, which is if we're really talking about 6, 7 percent of voters that really were in the Republican column. You know, three weeks ago, they have a tendency to snap back to where they were, though the campaign is, people always want to judge events before they happen. This campaign event is gonna actually have to happen, I think so far, though in the last two months, I always say that mostly this race is Trump v. Trump, Trump was beating Trump, and now Trump is losing to Trump. 


Clemons: Let me ask you a question about John BoltonJohn BoltonEx-Trump adviser, impeachment witness Fiona Hill gets book deal Hannity's first book in 10 years debuts at No. 1 on Amazon Congress has a shot at correcting Trump's central mistake on cybersecurity MORE for a minute. I always found John Bolton interesting because John Bolton is a hero, you know, a pugnacious, nationalist, sovereignty obsessed guy who's been a hero in a portion of the Republican Party. And that's why I always thought it would be interesting if his book came out because he is someone that a lot of people follow. Is his book going to make any dent at all in those Republicans that have been supporting President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE?

Penn: I don't think there's much of a John Bolton factor, remember we spent, I don't know, three months of coverage of impeachment. ...

Penn: I don't know that Bolton is really, I'm just saying the issue underlying all this was like litigated for three entire months as the national story, right? And in fact, it typically strengthened having a battle here between Trump and somebody else tends to actually strengthen things. So I don't think there's a big ... John Bolton factor. I think the big factors are, did the president get on top of the virus? The answer was yes. Now it's no. Has the president reacted, you know, in a way that's bringing the country together. The answer's no.


Clemons: I want you to pretend that I'm first president Trump and then that I'm Vice President Biden and tell me that two things in both cases that you would say could be game changers for the American public out there. You know, given the political direction, other than avoiding another Lysol or Clorox day. But what would you tell President Trump? What would you tell Vice President Biden? 

Penn: You know, look, I think so far President Trump hasn't presented a second term agenda. Has kind of retreated from command of the virus and its re-raging and, you know, and hasn't really been able to bring the country together and so President Trump's laundry list here is really pretty big. And for Joe Biden, things have been working. Don't mess with things that have been working. You've been staying kind of out in the middle of controversy. You haven't been doing a policy a day like I would have, you know, generally like to do, but it's OK, people are generally getting a sense of confidence. I thought the press conference kind of went well in general for Biden, getting out a little bit more. I think the Biden campaign will begin with the vice presidential selection, and that will be a huge kind of boost and kind of point at which the campaign will really take off. And I'd say how you plan that and finding someone who is right for the times but also doesn't reinforce the major argument that the party is too far to the left is going to be a very, very important decision that you're gonna make.