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From prayers to war: Trump campaign seeks to reinvent its COVID-19 narrative

October 6, 2020, 6:26 PM UTC

In a Fox News interview on Monday, Erin Perrine, the Trump campaign’s communications director, said that President Donald Trump had an advantage in his reelection campaign against Joe Biden because he was diagnosed with COVID-19. “He has experience now fighting the coronavirus as an individual,” Perrine said. “Those firsthand experiences—Joe Biden, he doesn’t have those.”

The decision to highlight Trump’s battle with the virus, even after the President eschewed the use of masks and repeatedly played down the serious nature and easy communicability of the disease, is a new direction for the campaign, which could play out its final weeks without the President making public appearances. 

The strategy has empirical backing: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson saw an uptick in popularity when he contracted the virus in late March. After his hospitalization in early April, he saw his personal popularity rise from 54% to 60%. By the time he left the hospital, support peaked to 66%, but by June, as he regained his health, it had fallen once more to 43%. 

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro also experienced a surge in favorability after his COVID-19 diagnosis. Much like Trump, Bolsonaro downplayed the virus, calling it the “little flu,” and when he was first diagnosed, he saw a drop in favorability ratings. However, by documenting his struggles with the disease on social media, he gained his constituents’ sympathy and grew his favorability rating from 20% to 40% within two months.

That appears to be the path the Trump campaign is taking, according to new data from Hawkfish, a political data agency founded by Michael Bloomberg. The Trump campaign purchased the front page of YouTube on Monday, one of the most expensive and valuable advertising properties online. The deal reportedly cost seven figures. 

The ad was a video of President Trump addressing the nation from the  Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House just before his departure to Walter Reed Hospital. “I think I’m doing very well,” the President says. “But we’re going to make sure things work out.” The video then asked viewers to text “BLESS” to the campaign’s shortcode, a helpful tool that collects phone number data to later solicit donations and voter information. 

The Trump campaign has spent $125,000 since Sunday on Facebook to promote videos of the President speaking straight to camera from Walter Reed Hospital. The videos are often matched with messages about Trump “winning the war” against coronavirus. 

These posts appear to be working for the campaign, generating some of his most viewed organic messages on both Twitter and Facebook. The President’s top two posts of 2020 have come since his diagnosis and have generated 8.4 million interactions combined.

The war-like language, which Trump has long been a fan of, was also repeated regularly on Fox News over the weekend. Commentator Jesse Watters compared the President leaving the hospital to a “general who gets wounded by the invisible enemy and goes and gets patched up and goes right back out to the front lines.” Fox News chief White House correspondent John Roberts said the decision to leave the hospital early “speaks to the tenacity and the forcefulness of this President.” 

It’s unclear whether any of this will turn into actual donations. The Trump administration has been quiet about whether there has been an uptick since his diagnosis—typically a sign that there hasn’t been. But either way, it appears that the campaign has no problem generating visibility even with a candidate under strict orders to quarantine.