Trump returns to the trail claiming coronavirus victory and playing campaign defense

The president is not only fighting on expected battleground terrain, but in areas of previously strong support his team never expected would be up for grabs this year.
/ Source: NBC News

President Donald Trump's ambitious return to the campaign trail this week comes amid lingering status questions on two fronts: the health of the candidate — and the health of his campaign.

His string of scheduled swing state rallies is drawing renewed scrutiny of both the details of the president's recovery from the coronavirus, and the safety of event attendees from the disease. The push is also notable for what it represents in the campaign home stretch: valuable presidential and surrogate time investment in many states his advisers had assumed would be solidly in his column by this stage of the race.

Many attendees at past Trump events have refused to wear masks and often crowd together to get as close to the stage as possible.Ricardo Arduengo / Reuters

Trump headed to Florida Monday, kicking off four straight days of rallies, including his sixth visit in the past two months to North Carolina and a stop in Iowa, a state he easily won in 2016 and where he was leading in the polls until recently. Meanwhile, his surrogates were slated to stump in the traditionally red states of Georgia, Nebraska, and Ohio.

While Trump and his campaign are moving forward with the same posture they did before his hospitalization for a virus that also infected more than two dozen of his aides and associates, his travel schedule indicates a race where he has fallen even further behind since his diagnosis.

Trump is now not only fighting to gain ground in areas his campaign always believed would be tight races until the end, such as Florida and Pennsylvania, but areas where aides and advisers had expected him to be in a stronger position in at this point, including Ohio and Iowa — a state where recent polls show him in a virtual tie.

“The fact that the Trump campaign is spending both time and resources in places like Georgia and Iowa should be troubling,” said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “It also reflects the growing gap between Trump and Biden, in that, in places like Ohio where they are tied, Trump has been bleeding support among independents and seniors.”

Trump has been complaining to aides that he doesn't have enough events on the calendar and is soon expected to start holding two or three events a day, said campaign adviser Jason Miller, who said part of the strategy is to use the rallies to demonstrate the president's health, work ethic, and desire for the job.

"You'll see President Trump flat out out-working Joe Biden," Miller said in a call with reporters.

But while the campaign takes the posture that the candidate who does the most rallies is likely to claim victory, and Trump itches to get out of the White House, quickly resuming events where social distancing measures aren't enforced risks sending the message to voters that he is putting his own personal interest over public safety.

Despite the coronavirus outbreak among Trump’s staff and allies, the campaign hasn’t made any significant changes to their coronavirus safety protocol at rallies. The mayor of Des Moines, Iowa has said he is worried Trump's rally there this week could become another “superspreader event," and public health officials in Minnesota said nine people who were at a Trump rally there last month contracted the coronavirus, including two who were hospitalized.

Since resuming rallies in June, the campaign has said it encourages mask-wearing; it makes them available at its events, which are often held in partially enclosed airport hangers.

But many attendees at past Trump campaign events have refused to wear masks, and often crowd together to get as close to the stage as possible.

Atill, despite the risks from an optics and health standpoint, Trump’s campaign has become increasingly dependent on rallies and events by the president and surrogates such as family members to generate local media coverage as it cuts back on television advertising.

The campaign’s aim is to have top-level surrogates in every battleground state each day until the election, said the person. Donald Trump Jr., for example, will be doing 26 events over the course of the next week, including stops in Georgia and in Omaha, Nebraska, where polls have suggested one of the state's five Electoral College votes could be up for grabs.

The Trump campaign has been slashing its planned ad spending in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin where polls indicate Trump is trailing Biden — though Miller said they would be adding more money in Michigan this week — and Trump has no ads up in Ohio and Iowa, according to data from ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics. After losing its cash advantage to the Biden campaign in August, Trump’s campaign was outspent on television by a margin of 3-to-1 in September.

Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller said the campaign is planning an "eight figure" ad buy in the coming days and is airing ads nationally. In some local markets, like Phoenix, he said, it is less expensive to buy a national ad than locally because the competitive Senate race is driving up rates. And he said the campaign hasn't been airing ads locally in Iowa and Ohio because they are confident in Trump's standing there — despite sending the president to Iowa and the vice president to Ohio for events this week.

But it’s all a much different late-race tack than the campaign thought they would be taking when the year began.

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At the start of the year, Trump campaign officials said they were using their cash and organizational advantage over the Democrats, who were still fighting over a nominee, to solidify support in traditionally Republican states so in the final stretch they could focus their efforts on places they assumed would be tight races to the finish, like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Now, Michigan has been almost entirely absent from Trump’s travel schedule, with only one presidential visit since he resumed rallies in June, sending his surrogates instead. He’s been to Wisconsin just twice, compared to Pennsylvania where he will make a fifth trip this week.

Trump trails Democratic rival Joe Biden nationally by an average of 10 points and in at least eight states he won in 2016, according to the NBC News poll tracker.

Trump's campaign said they believe pollsters are under-counting the president's voters, and are missing an increase in voter registration among Republicans over the past four years.

"We feel very good about the position we are in in the final three weeks here," Miller said. "We think we are spending money smartly and efficiently."

This story originally appeared on NBCNews.com.