But the messaging failure is just the surface; it’s on policy where Trump has really acted like a Black Sox ballplayer trying to throw the World Series. There are two major issues for voters in this election: the pandemic and the economy. Trump’s numbers on handling the virus are lousy, but his numbers on handling the economy are still pretty good, presumably thanks to both the memory of where the unemployment rate stood before the coronavirus hit and the fact that the flood of Covid-19 relief spending kept people’s disposable income up.
This context suggested an obvious fall campaign strategy: Push more relief money into the economy, try to ostentatiously take the pandemic seriously and promise the country that mask-wearing and relief dollars are a bridge to a vaccine and normalcy in 2021.
Instead Trump has ended up with the opposite approach. He mostly ignored the negotiations over relief money for months, engaging only at a point where he had become so politically weak that both Republican deficit hawks (or the born-again variety, at least) and Democratic free-spenders assume he’ll soon be gone. And meanwhile he’s let himself be drawn ever deeper — especially since his own encounter with the disease — into the libertarian style of Covid-19 contrarianism, which argues that we’re overtesting, overreacting and probably close to herd immunity anyway.