Political watchers speculated that the protracted illness or death of Donald Trump, who at 74 was at risk of more severe symptoms than the general population, could throw 2020 into further turmoil and upend the final month of campaign season.
But even as Trump remains in isolation at the White House — and says he “knocked out” the virus — neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to have changed their respective campaigning strategies or messaging in response.
“At this point of the campaign, with 29 days to go, our singular focus is on get out the vote efforts,” Trump Victory regional spokesperson Keith Schipper said in an emailed statement. “We have had firm health and safety protocols in place for our staff and volunteers since we transitioned back to in-person efforts in June. Our 2.3 million volunteers are breaking voter contact records every week to re-elect President Donald J. Trump and Republicans up and down the ballot.”
The president in a wide-ranging interview Oct. 8 with Fox Business Channel said he was “feeling good. Really good” and didn’t think he was “contagious at all” — though coronavirus patients can be contagious as long as 10 days after symptoms resolve.
His campaign’s online schedule recently featured several grassroots “MAGA meet-ups” in Erie, Grand Junction and Montrose with state GOP stars like Colorado Republican Party Chair and U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, and congressional candidate Lauren Boebert.
“Colorado Republicans are focused on talking to voters about results and our teams are going full steam ahead through election day,” Colorado GOP spokesperson Joe Jackson said in a statement.
In general, Republicans up and down the 2020 ballot have relied more on traditional campaign strategies such as door-knocking and in-person interaction than have Democrats, who’ve held most events virtually.
The campaign of Trump’s opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has continued that pattern — though Doug Emhoff, the husband of Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, will hold a live roundtable Oct. 6 in Colorado Springs, and Biden and Harris have been campaigning recently in some other states.
“At this point, personal and physical safety is the most important consideration,” said Laura Chapin, a Colorado-based Democratic communications strategist. “Doing large-scale, in-person events absolutely sends the wrong message about (the pandemic), and I don’t see Democratic campaigns doing that.”
Campaigns stick to what they know, despite White House outbreak
When it comes to talking about Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Republicans campaigning in down-ballot races should shape their message around the kind of district they’re running in, said Ryan Winger, director of data analysis, digital advertising and campaign consulting for Magellan Strategies, a conservative-leaning polling firm based in Louisville.
“If they’re smart they know that he’s not popular in a lot of suburban areas in the state,” Winger said, and shouldn’t be bringing up Trump at all when they talk to voters.
That might hold true for U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who is locked in a tight struggle to keep his seat. Democrats have sought to undermine Gardner by linking him to Trump. An Oct. 2 debate between Gardner and his opponent, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, was overshadowed by Trump’s diagnosis, but the candidates made little mention of the national breaking news that day. Both, however, agreed to undergo testing ahead of the debate.
Candidates who are running in districts that turned out solidly for Trump in 2016 might find more success with the message of, “We need to open up … because the president got hit, and he beat it,” Winger said.
Lauren Boebert, the unconventional candidate running for U.S. House in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, has taken an approach closer to that one.
The President took his mask off when he got to his house.
That’s not what is bothering the media so much.
They’re bothered that the White House is his house and will be for another four years.
— Lauren Boebert for Congress (R-CO3) (@laurenboebert) October 6, 2020
“The President took his mask off when he got to his house,” Boebert tweeted after backlash from a video that showed Trump removing his face covering after he returned from Walter Reed Military Medical Center on Oct. 5. “That’s not what is bothering the media so much. They’re bothered that the White House is his house and will be for another four years.”
In another tweet, Boebert reacted to an Oct. 4 video message from Trump — showing him standing and thanking Walter Reed staff, and suggesting he’d surprise the people gathered outside to support him — by alluding to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And on the third day….😉 https://t.co/Q9xc4IidnT
— Lauren Boebert for Congress (R-CO3) (@laurenboebert) October 5, 2020
Winger says Republican messaging on Trump’s diagnosis should also align with a campaign’s rhetoric around Trump prior to when that news broke. In that respect, Boebert — a die-hard Trump supporter who campaigned for the president Oct. 8 at a MAGA Meet-up in Grand Junction — is certainly succeeding.
“I think it’s one of those things where they’re going to stick with the strategy that worked for them in the primary on the assumption that this is a safe Republican district,” Winger said of Boebert’s campaign.
The race between Boebert, who beat incumbent Republican Rep. Scott Tipton in the primary, and Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush is attracting national attention in what was previously considered a solid district for the GOP. Recently, Democratic polling found the candidates tied.
Winger expects that race will encourage “very high turnout among Democrats and unaffiliated voters, but also among Republicans.”
“It is going to be closer than it has been in the past,” he said.
Besides Boebert’s event, another MAGA Meet-up, scheduled Oct. 7 in Erie, featured Buck and Trump campaign adviser John Pence, according to details on the Trump Victory campaign website.
Meanwhile, the Biden campaign had a “car rally” scheduled Oct. 8 with Emhoff, Hickenlooper, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, and state Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver. Emhoff was scheduled to host a in-person roundtable on health care in Colorado Springs the following day, about which few details have been released.
Chapin defended Democrats’ minimalist approach to in-person campaigning, and objected to large rallies like those the Trump campaign has continued to hold in other states.
“I have no idea what the hell the Republican party is doing right now,” Chapin said. “I mean, I’ll be honest: None of it makes any sense whatsoever. … We are in the middle of a pandemic with a deadly communicable disease.”
As of Oct. 8, cases connected to the White House outbreak included Trump advisers Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller, Trump assistant Nicholas Luna, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and four assistant press secretaries.
Outside of the administration, at least 14 others — including U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina — had been infected after coming into close contact with the president or attending White House or campaign events, according to the New York Times.
A separate outbreak is also underway at the Washington office of U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, whose district includes Colorado Springs.
The Denver Post reported that two Lamborn staffers had tested positive for COVID-19. A spokesperson for Lamborn’s office told the Post that Lamborn was not experiencing symptoms, and would not undergo testing or quarantine at the advice of physicians.
The spokesperson also said Lamborn’s office would be working virtually for two weeks, the Post reported.
Law is unclear on what happens if Trump or Biden dies
One question on the minds of many voters after the president was diagnosed with COVID-19: What happens if a candidate becomes too sick to take office, or dies before Inauguration Day?
A procedure exists to allow either party to replace their nominee for the White House — should the original nominee fall ill or die before the election, said Jennifer Hendricks, a law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“The catch is now, we’re not really before the election anymore,” Hendricks said. “The election is happening: The ballots are printed, lots of people have already voted.”
But because of the way the Electoral College works, when voters fill in the bubble next to their presidential candidate of choice, they’re not really casting a vote for that person. Rather, they’re voting for the electors chosen by that candidate’s party in the state where the vote is cast, Hendricks said.
If the candidate who won the election had died, that person’s party would, in theory, coalesce around an alternative candidate.
“You would have a process in each state that was won by the person who had died to figure out what the electors are going to do instead,” Hendricks explained. “For the most part, electors are loyal party people, so … if there’s a clear choice of the party, they’re likely to support that person.”
In a recent Supreme Court case, which centered in part around three Democratic “faithless electors” in Colorado who attempted to vote for a candidate other than Hillary Clinton — the winner of the state’s popular vote in 2016 — the high court ruled that states can, in fact, bind electors to vote for the winner of their state’s popular vote.
However, the court made “somewhat clear” that a secretary of state could only force candidates to vote for the popular vote winner when the candidate is living, Hendricks said.
State laws binding electors “would be less likely to be enforceable if it was a replacement candidate,” Hendricks said. “I think there are a few states where the faithless elector law accounts for the possibility that the candidate would have died, but most of them don’t.”
But while the winning party might bicker over who to elect as a replacement for a candidate who dies, it’s unlikely that electors would ultimately defect from the party choice, Hendricks said.
That’s because if neither candidate receives a majority of states’ electoral votes, the U.S. House of Representatives would choose the winner — and in that situation, each state gets one vote no matter the number of congresspeople it is normally allocated based on population.
“The cost of failure to unify around a replacement candidate is potentially handing the election over to the other party, if the House breaks that way,” Hendricks said. “It would be a risky move.”