President Trump is campaigning hard in the Midwest, hoping states such as Iowa and Wisconsin will help him cobble together the electoral votes he needs to win a second term. It’s also where the coronavirus is surging, underscoring how difficult it will be for him to get away from the pandemic’s shadow.
Mr. Trump says he saved Big Ten football for Hawkeye and Badger fans after a difficult year — and that help is on the way in the form of advanced therapies and a vaccine.
Yet Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden sees an opening, saying the uptick in cases and deaths are proof of a failed federal response, as he courts seniors who make up a sizable share of the population in Iowa and other battleground states.
The Midwest was largely spared early in the pandemic, as the Northeast got walloped, but it is the most worrisome region now, with Iowa and Wisconsin among the top 10 states seeing the highest number of cases per 100 residents, according to a New York Times tracker.
Mr. Trump won both states in 2016 but faces a tight race in Iowa and trails in Wisconsin polls. Some say it would be best for Mr. Trump to steer the conversation away from the virus.
“Anything that keeps COVID in the state or national limelight is bad for Trump because it reminds voters of all the people who have died and their own disapproval of his response,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “The fact that many Midwestern states are seeing a COVID resurgence is disastrous for Trump because it keeps his worst issue in the news. If people paid more attention to the economy or the Supreme Court nomination, those would be far better issues for Trump.”
The percentage of tests returning positive in Iowa is about 11%. Public health experts say localities should try to stay below 10% to ensure they’re catching enough cases.
Hospitalizations in the state reached a record 473 on Tuesday, a level exceeding levels in early May, when the virus was imposing nationwide woe.
“But President Trump isn’t coming to the Hawkeye State to offer words of comfort to those suffering, or a helping hand to the Iowans who are out of a job, or an actual plan to get the virus under control,” Mr. Biden said Wednesday ahead of Mr. Trump’s rally. “Instead, he’s here to spread more lies about the pandemic and distract from his record of failure.”
Connie Schmett, co-chairwoman of the Republican Party in Polk County, which includes Des Moines, said that while her state is in play in the race, the pandemic has not dented support for Mr. Trump.
They can’t keep enough Trump signs in the office to satisfy demand. Mr. Trump’s supporters camped out overnight in tents to get a spot at Wednesday’s rally, and most people are not overly concerned about COVID-19, she said.
“The cases are up but our children are back in school — of course they are going to be up,” she said. “I’ve known several people who’ve had it and what happens depends on the person and their immunity.”
Christopher B. Budzisz, an associate political science professor at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, said the pandemic is influencing how voters approach the election in the upper Midwest but “their partisan lens shades how they see it.”
“President Trump has a strong base of support here in Iowa — especially in rural parts of the state and in the western section,” he said. “But worrying for the Trump campaign has to be how more independent-minded voters are viewing his performance regarding the coronavirus. In addition, polling suggests a significant divide between support for Trump among women compared to men, and views on coronavirus response is part of that story.”
Mr. Trump’s decision to hold big campaign events at all is causing some controversy.
“Having mass gatherings in states where the virus is not controlled — a field hospital was constructed in Wisconsin — basically guarantees transmission and exposure will occur amongst attendees,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
The Trump campaign says it is taking precautions. It is holding the events outdoors, which is considered far safer than holding indoor events since the fresh air allows for easier dilution of viral particles. It’s also handing out masks and encouraging people to use them.
“President Trump wants people to be safe and take precautions, but he also realizes Americans want to safely reopen our communities, schools, and economy, and they want to hear about his vision for our future,” said campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager.
Ms. Schmett planned to attend the Des Moines rally.
“I’m a senior citizen and I participate in crowds and I don’t wear a mask unless I’m required to,” she said. “I have faith. If it is my time to go, I’ll be there.”
She also credited Gov. Kim Reynolds with keeping the state mostly open and encouraging individual responsibility to take appropriate precautions.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has taken a starkly different approach, issuing a mask mandate and ordering indoor places such as restaurants and bars to operate at 25% capacity.
A judge temporarily blocked the order on Wednesday after the Tavern League, which represents bars, said the order amounted to de facto closure.
Also, Republican lawmakers are contesting the governor’s mandate requiring masks in enclosed public spaces.
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