The Memo: Convention cancellation adds to Trump’s troubles
President Trump’s decision to cancel one of the biggest events of his reelection campaign is fresh proof of the vexing landscape he faces in his bid for a second term.
Trump announced on Thursday that the portion of the Republican National Convention that had been scheduled for Jacksonville, Fla., would be canceled.
The president would have given his acceptance speech in the Florida city on Aug. 27 — an option he had initially wanted to exercise after being irked by social distancing requirements in the convention’s original location of Charlotte, N.C.
Now, the president and his allies are arguing that the move is evidence of how seriously Trump is taking the coronavirus. Cases of COVID-19 have surged in Florida, the largest swing state in the presidential election.
Still, the cancellation of a traditional acceptance speech in front of a huge crowd deprives Trump of one more game-changing opportunity in a campaign where he badly lags his Democratic rival Joe Biden with little more than 100 days to go.
The Jacksonville decision is also a broader acknowledgement that the huge indoor rallies that were a staple of the 2016 Trump campaign are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in the current environment.
Those who know Trump acknowledge that he draws encouragement from the adulation of big crowds and that the absence of such events will come at a price.
“At the end of the day, he is a terrible president, but he is a reasonably effective stage performer,” said Anthony Scaramucci, who served a famously short tenure as Trump’s White House communications director and has since become a vigorous critic.
“His mood is positively impacted by those rallies, and so not having those rallies has a sort of negative impact on the campaign. It hurts his morale,” Scaramucci added.
The president and his aides may also have calculated that the risk of a lightly attended acceptance speech in Jacksonville was just too high.
A Trump rally in Tulsa, Okla., last month turned into an embarrassment. Then-campaign manager Brad Parscale boasted that there had been around 1 million applications for tickets. In the end, there were thousands of empty seats in an arena with a capacity of 19,000. Parscale has since been demoted, with Bill Stepien installed as the new campaign manager.
Had the Jacksonville event gone ahead, there was also the risk of people getting infected on-site — a prospect that would be substantively and politically disastrous.
Instead, Republicans are seeking to put the decision to cancel in the context of what they say is a shift in tone by the president.
In recent days, Trump has tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask for the first time, saying it was a “patriotic” thing to do. He has also returned to the lectern of the White House briefing room to talk about the pandemic for the first time since April.
At the first of those briefings, on Tuesday, Trump acknowledged that the coronavirus situation “will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better.”
Critics scoff at the idea of a shift by Trump, asserting that tonal changes are irrelevant unless more concrete actions are also taken.
But Republicans say there is a new emphasis on the seriousness of the problem — something that they see reflected in the Jacksonville decision.
“I think it impacts the president positively to cancel the convention in Jacksonville,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “It would just have created a negative news environment, but canceling shows he understands the danger of the coronavirus — and that is a concern that the Biden campaign has been using against him.”
In announcing the decision, Trump emphasized that there was “great enthusiasm” among his supporters. But “we didn’t want to take any chances,” he added.
Politically, Trump is caught between a rock and a hard place.
He could have appeared irresponsible by holding the convention in a state hit so hard by COVID-19.
But canceling strips him of a rare opportunity to change the direction of a campaign that has been running against him.
There are plans afoot in both parties to move large parts of their conventions online. But online events have much less of the fervor that Trump, in particular, loves.
“He is bored by Zoom and bored by virtual calls,” said Scaramucci. “He doesn’t like it.”
Trump lags Biden by almost 9 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) national polling average.
His standing in the battleground states is not significantly better. In the RCP state averages, Trump was down by between 6.4 points and 8.2 points in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as of Friday evening.
“There is still a fair time left, but with the spread of COVID again, it just looks like a daunting task for him,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications.
Former Vice President Joe Biden “benefits from running out the clock — and the clock is starting to run out,” Berkovitz added.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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