Trump’s Push to Reopen From Virus Repels Some Republican Supporters

(Bloomberg) --

Donald Trump has acknowledged his push to reopen the U.S. economy before the coronavirus outbreak abates may cost more American lives. It may also cost him votes.

Shawna Wilson, a school librarian in Fort Worth, Texas, said she’s always been a reliable voter for Republican presidential candidates, including Trump in 2016. No longer.

“I am not voting for him,” Wilson, 47, said in an interview. “This disaster with our response and lack of clear guidance on reopening was the final straw.”

Wilson’s change of allegiance shows the political challenge for Trump as he pushes to restart the economy even as the death toll from the pandemic continues to mount. For every Republican voter who tells pollsters they fear keeping the country closed too long, there’s another like Wilson who raises alarm about going back too soon.

In fact, Republicans are split almost down the middle on reopening, according to recent polls. About three-quarters of Americans want the government to aggressively seek to slow the virus even if it means keeping businesses closed, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll released last week.

Only 25% of voters surveyed -- and half of Republicans -- supported reopening businesses to “get the economy going again, even if that means more people would get the coronavirus,” the approach backed by the president.

Trump’s Trade-Off

Trump’s bet is that among the reopen-quickly voters are his strongest supporters -- people more likely to be skeptical of public health authorities’ guidance on the coronavirus outbreak and more fearful of the greater economic damage a prolonged closing would inflict. Protests against stay-at-home orders at state capitals around the country have been full of people wearing or bearing Trump campaign gear.

“America’s economy cannot stay closed forever and the first way to get the economy booming again is to open it,” said Ken Farnaso, a Trump campaign spokesman, who discounted the accuracy of polling on reopening. “President Trump has led America to its greatest heights and is the only person equipped to do it again.”

Trump continues to have the support of a majority of Republicans, who generally give him strong marks for his handling of the crisis, polls show. But he has lost ground to his presumptive challenger, Democrat Joe Biden, as the virus spread across the U.S. in February and March after the president downplayed the pathogen’s threat.

Support for government restrictions on daily life to curb the outbreak is sliding. Fifty-four percent of Americans say that restrictions put in place in their areas to stem the spread of the virus “are about right,” according to a May 20 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, including 53% of Republicans. That’s down from 61% of Americans and 59% of Republicans in April.

But 83 percent of Americans are concerned that lifting restrictions in their area will lead to more infections, the survey found.

Many states are moving forward with reopening even though they haven’t met criteria adopted by the Trump administration. Despite those guidelines, the president has called on governors to reopen for business immediately, even if doing so results in more deaths.

Keeping the economy frozen also poses a risk to Trump -- who, before the pandemic, argued for re-election based on his stewardship of a strong economy. Restrictions designed to slow the spread of the virus contributed to more than 36 million Americans losing their jobs since February and have raised the prospect of a second Great Depression.

Many businesses -- small and large -- are hurtling toward bankruptcy, while states and cities are confronting gaping budget shortfalls that could provoke a massive second wave of layoffs from the public sector.

Health Concerns Paramount

But for some 2016 Trump voters, health risks weigh more heavily than the economy’s collapse. The virus has killed at least 91,000 Americans since February, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Interviews with GOP voters in several states where governors have eased restrictions suggest the president’s arguments are falling flat with some loyalists. Bloomberg News contacted voters online and by phone to explore their views.

“I believe in science and listen to the experts,” said Pamela Rodriguez-Wallace, 60, of Cottonwood, Arizona. “I have seen nothing coming from the experts that would indicate that a premature reopening would result in anything other than a disaster and increased death.”

Rodriguez-Wallace, a retiree, said she’s a life-long Republican but has decided to vote for Biden. She said she fears for her grandson’s future.

“History tells us, with clear certainty, what happens when we are faced with a pandemic and ignore the facts in lieu of selfish needs,” she said. “I think we are now beginning to see that play out.”

‘Who Dies and Who Doesn’t’

Wilson raised similar concerns.

She said that while she’s healthy and fit, and not worried about getting sick, she fears for her asthmatic daughter, older teachers and kids who are at risk.

Wilson said her displeasure with Trump has been building, and that other factors play into her decision not to support him again, including concerns he’s racist and treats women poorly. But she said Trump’s handling of the virus is driving her decision to abandon the president.

“We have 30 kids in a classroom -- how do you social distance that?” she said. “No one should have to make that call on who dies and who doesn’t because of our careers.”

Surveys show a partisan divide over how quickly the the U.S. should reopen. But there are many Republicans who side with a majority of Democrats in supporting a go-slow approach. A May 7 Pew Research poll showed that 87% of Democrats and left-leaning independents are concerned about social distancing guidelines being lifted too quickly, compared with 47% of Republicans and conservative-leaning independents.

Easing Rules

Biden, who has kept a low profile during the pandemic, has spoken out against Trump’s push to reopen.

“The governors want to open, but they want to open in a rational way,” Biden said last week on ABC’s Good Morning America. “The president hasn’t done his work. The president hasn’t done what he’s supposed to do.”

Some 2016 Trump supporters said that they share concerns about opening prematurely but are sticking by the president.

Marilyn Evans Baer, 91, of Cincinnati, said she’s concerned with the spike in joblessness and the collapse of small businesses. She said trying to reopen “will not be normal but could be catastrophic. We all want to feel the freedom of coming and going as we wish but I do believe rushing will lead to greater problems.”

Despite that, she said she’s sticking with Trump “because I believe Biden is simply not capable of leading the country.”

Lonny Patterson, 63, a farmer and Trump supporter in Otis, Colorado, said that some of the president’s advisers were at first “shooting in the dark.” But Patterson, who self-isolated for two weeks after falling ill, said: “I think he’s done as good as anybody with the cards he’s been dealt.”

He said he plans to vote for Trump again.

James Dickey, chairman of the Texas Republican party, said that he hasn’t seen support waver for the president. He said the Texans he’s encountered support his state’s reopening, hailed as an example by Trump.

“Everyone I talk to wants to see our economy get back to work, and wants to see our friends all be back at work,” Dickey said. “They do not want the pain and difficulty we’ve already suffered to have been for nothing. The people I talk to want to see us open up and want to see us do so, wisely.”

Betting on Economy

Trump is counting on a recovering economy to return him to the White House.

He’s called the third quarter a “transition to greatness” and predicted an economic rebound in the fourth quarter, which includes the Nov. 3 election. But that’s contingent upon the U.S. starting to reopen immediately.

“We will revive our economy and we will transition into greatness,” Trump said at a May 11 news conference at the White House. “That’s a phrase you’re going to hear a lot because that’s what’s going to happen.”

The president’s strategy reinforces some former supporters’ decisions to turn against him.

“Convincing Americans that scientists are wrong to save his precious economy is irresponsible and reckless,” said Jessica Freeman, 48, of Tallapoosa, Georgia.

Freeman, who is disabled, said she voted for Trump in 2016 and won’t do so again after his “epic failure” in responding to the coronavirus. She said she’s also bothered that Trump focuses on the economic damage from the coronavirus, nearly to the exclusion of the human toll from the outbreak.

“It’s been a journey and a lot of reflection for me to come to where I am,” she said. “His inability to show empathy or compassion is disturbing.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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