The Two States Where Trump’s COVID-19 Response Could Backfire in 2020

Voters in Michigan and Florida may be more likely than others to blame or credit him for how the outbreak unfolds.

People walking along a deserted street in Detroit, Michigan
Brittany Greeson / The New York Times / Redux

Updated on April 13, 2020 at 5:26 p.m. ET

A handful of swing states will almost certainly decide the winner of November’s presidential election. And in two of them, Michigan and Florida, Donald Trump’s complicated relationship with their governors could expose him to greater political risk as the economic and social price of the coronavirus pandemic mounts.

Trump faces mirror-image threats. Michigan voters could interpret Trump’s animosity toward Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer as punishing the state. By contrast, in Florida, Trump’s liability could be his close relationship with Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, which is seen by many as one reason DeSantis was slow to impose a statewide stay-at-home order.

In each place, voters may be even more likely than those in other states to blame or credit the president for how the outbreak unfolds there. And in both cases, Trump’s posture toward the states is now inextricably interwoven with the larger story of their struggle to contain the disease.

Michigan is where Trump’s behavior presents the clearer danger to him come November. The president has repeatedly disparaged Whitmer and suggested that the White House should not return her calls, even as the state is buckling under the nation’s third-largest coronavirus caseload and faces medical-equipment and staffing shortages. “It is politically stupid of the president to pick a fight with a governor who is trying to manage a crisis in a state that he has to win,” Eric Goldman, Whitmer’s former campaign manager, says flatly.

In Florida, conditions have not yet reached such a crisis point, though its caseload is growing steadily. But because DeSantis waited so long to act, he and Trump could be punished if the outbreak ultimately imposes a heavy cost on the state. “If this does get worse and worse … I think DeSantis’s vulnerability is Trump’s vulnerability,” says Adam Smith, a Tampa-based senior vice president at the bipartisan firm Mercury Public Affairs.

In no other swing state has Trump’s relationship with a governor been as intense during the outbreak as his relationships with DeSantis and Whitmer. The two leaders, both elected in 2018, present different profiles. Whitmer, a former state senator, was at the vanguard of governors who moved quickly to shut down social and economic activity. She closed educational facilities on March 16 and imposed a statewide stay-at-home order a week later. DeSantis, a former congressman who soared from relative obscurity to win the gubernatorial nomination after Trump’s endorsement, closed educational facilities a day after Whitmer. But he conspicuously left open the state’s crowded beaches through spring break, and he didn’t impose a statewide stay-at-home order until April 1, after every other major state.

Trump’s hostility toward Whitmer—who, like other Democratic governors, has at times criticized the federal government for failures in testing and supplies—was perhaps most memorably expressed at his March 27 White House briefing. Trump said he told Vice President Mike Pence not to “call the woman in Michigan.” “You know what I say?” Trump added. “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”

Trump made clear his affection for DeSantis, meanwhile, a few days later. As DeSantis faced growing criticism at home and around the nation for his refusal to shut down Florida, Trump described him at another press briefing as a “great governor,” who “knows exactly what he’s doing.” When DeSantis finally issued his stay-at-home order, he made clear that he did so only after talking with Trump.

These divergent records frame the political risks confronting Trump from his relationships with these state leaders.

In Michigan, Democrats are sure to remind voters of his threats against Whitmer. He risks alienating those who think that a political grudge is driving the federal response. “There is an incredibly minuscule chance” that the clip of Trump talking about his conversation with Pence “does not make it into television ads, digital ads, and mailers throughout the state of Michigan later this year,” Goldman told me.

Whitmer has tried to soothe her conflict with Trump. Last week, she told my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere that she’d had a productive call with the president, and this week she praised the federal government for sending more medical equipment. But in her interview with Dovere, she also didn’t back away from her repeated criticism that an inadequate federal response had compounded the suffering in her state and elsewhere. “More people are going to get sick and more lives are going to be lost because we don’t have enough testing, because we don’t have enough [personal protective equipment], because there aren’t enough ventilators,” she said.

John Truscott, a veteran Republican consultant in Michigan, told me that, right now, most voters probably see Whitmer as standing up for her state, not seeking to score political points. But Truscott believes that the conflict is doing more to harden partisan divisions in Michigan than to scramble them. Trump’s attacks on Whitmer are “one of those things where people thought it was unnecessary and kind of gratuitous,” he said. “But at the same time, people who like Trump weren’t bothered by it. People who don’t like him hate him even more.”

If the reaction has been relatively muted so far, Truscott believes that it’s because the outbreak is still seen primarily as a problem for greater Detroit. It hasn’t yet penetrated as deeply into the small-town and rural parts of the state that constitute the Trump heartland.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t—or that Detroiters’ outrage doesn’t affect Trump. He won Michigan in 2016 by only 10,704 votes—a smaller margin than in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the two other bricks that he dislodged from the Democrats’ “blue wall.” The president can hardly afford any erosion in the populous Detroit metropolitan area.

Two suburban counties outside the city illustrate his problem. Four years ago, he won Macomb County, the fabled seedbed of blue-collar “Reagan Democrats,” by 12 percentage points, and he lost white-collar Oakland County by about eight points. In 2018, Whitmer narrowly won Macomb and roughly doubled Hillary Clinton’s margin in Oakland. Just before the outbreak crested last month, turnout in both places soared in the 2020 Democratic primary compared with 2016, a sign of rising engagement among Democrats.

Now both counties are facing fierce conditions, with more than 6,600 cases and 375 deaths combined as of yesterday morning. (Wayne County, which includes Detroit, has more than 9,600 cases and almost 450 deaths, one of the nation’s heaviest concentrations.) Detroit newspapers this week have been filled with wrenching stories about hundreds of local health-care workers, particularly nurses, who’ve tested positive for the disease.

The only recent public polling in Michigan came in mid-March, before Trump’s public attacks on Whitmer and the health-care crisis’s surge in the state. Even at that point, the share of residents who approved of Whitmer’s response to the outbreak (about 70 percent) dwarfed the portion that approved of Trump (about 50 percent), according to the Great Lakes Poll, which is conducted across several Midwest states by Baldwin Wallace University. The survey also found that Trump trailed former Vice President Joe Biden in a general-election matchup in Michigan by five percentage points.

Bernie Porn, the president of the Lansing-based nonpartisan polling firm EPIC-MRA, told me that before the outbreak, Trump “was already vulnerable in Michigan.” But his confrontations with Whitmer could seal his fate.

“I don’t understand what he is thinking about,” Porn said. “She has done a fantastic job during this health crisis. She’s been very decisive. And she made decisions about closing things down and taking actions” before the state hit a spike. By attacking Whitmer while she copes with these enormous challenges, Porn said, Trump has created a situation where “the ads write themselves” for Democrats in the state.

As ever, the politics on the ground in Florida are more complex. The state has been extraordinarily close in recent presidential and gubernatorial elections. Trump won it by just more than one percentage point in 2016, four years after Barack Obama won it by just less than one point. But after Republicans took the governorship and a Senate seat in 2018, many Democrats grew even more pessimistic that they could recapture the state from Trump this year, given his strong hold on older, rural, and blue-collar voters.*

“The general perception among people who obsess about this was, Trump was sitting prettier in Florida than in a lot of the other swing states,” says Adam Smith, who was for many years one of the state’s most prominent political reporters at the Tampa Bay Times.

The question in Florida is whether the coronavirus outbreak will jolt the state hard enough to rattle that consensus. As of last night, Florida ranks eighth among the states in total number of cases. Over half of those have been recorded in the three big Democratic-leaning counties in the southeast: Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. The statewide death toll remains relatively low, at about 300, or approximately one for every 100,000 people.

The outbreak’s concentration in the bluest parts of the state has created a dynamic similar to the one in Michigan: The Republican heartland (in northern and Central Florida, as well as parts of the Gulf Coast) may feel more threatened now by the economic risks of the disease than by the health dangers. “You have to remember, this is largely a South Florida thing,” says Ryan Tyson, a Republican pollster who conducts surveys for the state’s business community. Even Democratic strategists privately acknowledged to me that many Florida voters may be sympathetic to DeSantis’s decision to delay action, given how important tourism is to the state’s economy.

Tyson says that in his ongoing polls, both Trump and DeSantis are maintaining approval ratings well over 50 percent in the state, about the same as two weeks ago and higher than one month ago. But the most recent public poll, from the University of North Florida, found the two in a much more tenuous position. Only 45 percent of respondents approved of Trump’s handling of the outbreak, and 51 percent gave DeSantis positive marks. That’s significantly below the number for governors in most other states.

The UNF poll, which was conducted from March 31 through April 4, found Biden leading Trump by six percentage points in the state. But longtime Florida political observers I spoke with believe that Democrats still face an extremely difficult puzzle in Florida. The Democratic ticket needs to excite turnout among African American and non-Cuban Latino voters, while still reassuring enough older white voters to avoid catastrophic losses among that huge bloc in the state.

“These are tough trade-offs for Democrats,” says Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political scientist. “To find someone who can calm the nerves of the older white electorate that votes and mobilize younger voters and people of color—it’s a high bar.”

But to Smith, as with other analysts in the state, the coronavirus outbreak remains a wild card. DeSantis deviated so conspicuously from the approach of virtually every other big-state governor. (Ironically, until this crisis, most political observers in Florida felt like DeSantis had been edging away from Trump and looking to broaden his appeal.) Whether DeSantis faces a backlash for delaying a shutdown will likely depend on how hard the disease ultimately hits the state. Another potential vulnerability is that Florida’s unemployment system, which was redesigned under DeSantis’s Republican predecessor, has staggered under the increased demand from disease-related layoffs.

But what is clear even now is that many in the state see Trump’s fingerprints on the governor’s decisions. That means the president is unlikely to escape unscathed if Floridians ultimately conclude that the governor made the wrong choice in waiting to act until only a handful of governors in the most conservative states, such as Alabama and Wyoming, had refused to do so.

“This is a pivotal moment right now, and we continue to not see leadership coming out of Tallahassee on this issue, certainly relative to almost every other state,” Smith said. “We are akin to what’s going on in Alabama. Is that what we expect from our leadership in this state?”

The answer to that question may determine whether Democrats can fight back into contention in a key swing state that before the crisis had seemed to be drifting beyond their grasp. And Florida could be even more consequential to the president’s reelection hopes if he’s already doomed his chances in Michigan.

* A previous version of this story misstated that Florida’s Senate election in 2018 was for an open seat.