Is Donald Trump losing his touch? Is his fabled ability to read his base starting to falter?
On June 20th, the US president returned to the campaign trail, in what was supposed to be his comeback rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
After months of confinement due to coronavirus, Trump’s Twitter feed was alight in the run-up to the event. Like a player limbering up for a big game, his tweets portrayed a man itching for the adrenalin and validation of the campaign trail.
“Big crowds and lines already forming in Tulsa,” he posted the day before the rally, having boasted that almost one million tickets had been requested. “Watch live: Trump Supporters descend on Tulsa on eve of rally,” he tweeted, directing followers to Breitbart News, as he left for Oklahoma.
Instead, Trump addressed an arena that was only a third full, while his team hastily abandoned plans for him to address an overflow area along with vice president Mike Pence.
The picture of rows of empty seats may well be the defining image of his re-election campaign, along with the photograph of Trump arriving back to Washington later that night, his signature red tie undone, Maga hat in hand, the personification of defeat.
While the attendance debacle was down in part to the high number of Trump opponents who had applied for tickets with no intention of attending, including thousands of teenagers who heard about the boycott through the video-sharing site TikTok, the poor turnout may also have reflected a more pressing issue for the Trump campaign.
The fact that only 6,200 showed up to the 19,200-capacity arena in a state that overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016 is concerning for his campaign.
In part, it reflected the fact that the United States is in the midst of a major health pandemic, and many of Trump's older supporters stayed away. Despite the president's efforts to downplay the virus – this week he told Fox News that it will "sort of just disappear" – the reality is that many of his core base are not aligned with him on the matter.
Recent polls show that Trump’s approval rating for his handling of the coronavirus crisis is at a low. The latest Reuters-Ipsos poll shows that only 37 per cent of voters approve of his response.
This concern is particularly relevant for white voters over 65 – a group that overwhelmingly backed Trump in 2016. A recent New York Times-Siena College poll found that seniors in battleground states disapproved of his handling of the pandemic by a seven-point margin. Trump's rival, Joe Biden, now has a six-point lead over Trump among senior voters in battleground states.
Republicans in Congress, who are increasingly concerned about the current polls, are beginning to take note.
This week as Trump again rejected calls to wear a face mask, senior Republicans on Capitol Hill began to break ranks, taking a more assertive approach to mask wearing. "Wear a damn mask," said Republican senator Marco Rubio.
Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander called out the president at a Senate hearing on Tuesday which was addressed by immunologist Anthony Fauci. "Unfortunately, this simple life-saving practice has become part of a political debate that says: If you're for Trump, you don't wear a mask. If you're against Trump, you do," he said, urging the president to wear one.
Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney, and the number three Republican in the House, was among the most outspoken on the issue. This week she tweeted a picture of her father wearing a mask, with the hashtag #realmenwearmasks.
Cheney's positioning is interesting. She has been increasingly critical of Trump of late. This week she demanded answers from the White House on reports that the president and vice-president were briefed on intelligence claiming that Russia offered Taliban-linked militia money to kill American soldiers.
That Cheney is seeking to distance herself from Trump could signal her congressional leadership ambitions, particularly if Trump loses in November.
In the meantime, as Republicans begin to break with Trump on the coronavirus issue, it seems that the president is beginning to listen. On Wednesday he told Fox News that he is, in fact, “all for” masks, observing that they made him look like the Lone Ranger.
As the level of infections in the US continues to rise alarmingly, Trump’s belated apparent conversion to masks and his equivocation about the threat of Covid-19 may be too little too late – both for the health of the US and his re-election hopes.