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Trump's own campaign ads erase the virus — and the candidate

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks as he departs the White House.
President Donald Trump speaks as he departs the White House.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images file

WASHINGTON —Aside from how a candidate spends his or her time (a metric that has been scrambled in 2020 due to the pandemic), one of an election’s most revealing indicators is how campaigns spend their money on TV ad messaging.

A week after the Trump campaign went back up on the airwaves after a pause to reset its ad strategy, we can learn a lot about the state of the race just by comparing the ads both campaigns have aired since the start of August.

When it comes to spending, the Trump campaign is still playing catchup after going back on the air. After Trump outspent Biden’s campaign on TV and radio by about $10 million in July — including millions invested into an ominous crime-focused ad series that has since mostly disappeared from the airwaves — Biden has bested Trump by nearly a 2-1 margin on each day since Trump’s ads returned, according to ad trackers at Advertising Analytics.

But it might be the Trump campaign’s message itself that’s more interesting.

The first thing that really stands out: While Biden appears in almost all of his ads, with his top two most frequently-airing commercials narrated in his own words, Trump is almost entirely absent from his own campaign’s spots outside of the standard “I approve this message” disclaimer. (The only exception: A little-airing Arizona Spanish language ad that briefly praises Trump’s leadership.)

That means that Trump’s name, policies and image have gone completely unmentioned in more than $2.5 million worth of ads airing so far this month.

At the same time, the Biden camp is spending the largest share of their ad cash on spots that show the candidate giving speeches about the pandemic response — giving some not-so-subtle pushback to the “Basement Biden” theme, we might add.

The second thing that stands out: No active ads by the president’s campaign acknowledge the coronavirus at all, even in passing.

Instead, almost all of Trump’s ads tie Biden to the “far left” or show his image alongside photos of Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But none even allude to the virus that has infected more than 5 million Americans to date.

Compare those ads to Biden’s, which blast Trump for his coronavirus response — and call for Americans to unify to fight the pandemic.

In one Biden spot airing with both English and Spanish versions, a woman mourns the loss of her grandmother from Covid-19. In another, a retiree at The Villages laments not being able to see her grandchildren, saying “while I don't blame Donald Trump for the virus, I blame him for his lack of action.”

And in yet another pair of spots, Biden asks Americans to wear masks, meet the threat “as one country,” and elect a president who will not “ignore the crisis.”

Here’s what all of this signals to us: Even as the president has been relentlessly optimistic about the virus “disappearing” and the economy “coming back strong,” his own campaign hasn’t figured out a worthwhile positive message to voters about the president’s role in the recovery. And the fact that Trump barely appears in his own campaign’s ads is an implicit acknowledgment of his net negative favorability ratings.

Omnipresent? Or a not-so-present president?

Speaking of ignoring the pandemic, the fact that Trump’s ad strategy pretends like the virus doesn’t exist goes hand-in-hand with another Trump trait that was on display over the weekend: His hands-off approach to negotiations.

Despite campaigning as a dealmaker, Trump spent the weekend at his golf resort in New Jersey while his aides tried — and failed — to reach a compromise coronavirus aid package.

And while his executive orders to address jobless benefits and the payroll tax — which will likely face immediate legal challenges — at least acknowledged the economic crisis, confusion over their legality and effectiveness have mostly resulted in more bickering and uncertainty about what — if any — real impact they will have on suffering Americans..

As one of our colleagues wrote last week, it’s part of a “well-established pattern” for Trump to take a passive role in high-stakes negotiations.

Throughout his campaign and his presidency, Trump has seemed omnipresent, continually making public statements opining on policy fights. But whether it’s outsourcing the coronavirus task force to his vice president, or watching negotiations on immigration or gun reform from afar, or sitting out efforts to get a legislative recovery deal, or being left out of his own campaign ads, it’s worth asking: How present is the president, really, in the nuts and bolts of his administration and his campaign?

2020 Vision: Biden his time

Things got a little tense over the weekend on the vice-presidential pick front, with some high-profile Democrats lamenting the amount of opposition research circulating about the final contenders. And there’s been some grumbling behind the scenes about Biden’s slipping decision deadlines.

NBC News reported over the weekend that top sources indicate the pick could come in the middle of this week “or sooner” — even as soon as today, per NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. But some of the same sources have also stressed that “his only real deadline is the Democratic National Convention,” which begins on August 17.

But as we await the announcement, it’s worth remembering a few general trends about the veep process.

First: There’s always hand-wringing and jockeying about the pick, which is usually quickly forgotten after the rollout. (If the ticket loses, of course, then it all gets rehashed.)

Second: As we wrote in July, candidates who are confident that they’re leading rarely stray from a “do no harm” pick.

And third: Of course, the choice of a governing partner reveals a lot about the nominee’s values and decision-making. But running mates simply aren’t a huge factor in an election’s final results. (If they were, would Bush/Quayle in 1988 really have bestedDukakis/Bentsen?)

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

5,059,327: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 164,043 more cases than Friday morning.)

163,504: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 2,951 more than Friday morning.)

61.79 million: The number of coronavirus tests that have been administered in the United States so far, according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

97,000: The number of children in America who tested positive for COVID-19 during the final two weeks of July, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, a 40 percent increase over that time frame.

5.1: The magnitude of the earthquake that hit near the border between North Carolina and Virginia, the strongest in the area since 1916.

101 days: How long New Zealand has gone without a new coronavirus case from community spread, per the Ministry of Health.

Tweet of the Day

Ad Watch from Ben Kamisar

Today’s Ad Watch zeros in on a little-watched, yet extremely controversial primary in Georgia, where voters will effectively decide their new representative tomorrow in the heavy-Republican 14th district.

Tomorrow’s primary runoff features Dr. John Cowan and Marjorie Taylor Greene. Both are unabashed supporters of President Trump, but Green has been rebuked by her party after Politico reported on her serious of racist and other controversial comments. Green had already raised eyebrows for her comments on the fringe “Qanon” conspiracy theory, and we’ve written about how this race provided a great example as to the myriad of ways Republicans are messaging on coronavirus.

But as Politico reports, the cavalry hasn’t really come to help boost Cowan. And he’s been largely alone on the airwaves — neither candidate has received significant outside support on the airwaves, and Cowan has outspent Green on TV and radio $200,000 to $65,000.

Keep an eye on this one amid the handful of competitive primaries across the country tomorrow.

"Unconstitutional slop"

Negotiations between Democrats and the White House fell apart this weekend as federal weekly unemployment benefits lapsed. But rather than continue with legislation, the president signed four executive orders on Saturday (which Democrats and some Republicans are questioning the constitutionality of) in the attempt to take matters into his own hands.

The E.O.s defer payroll taxes through the end of the year for Americans earning less than $100,000 a year, defer student loan payments through the end of the year, discourage evictions and promise to extend federal unemployment benefits at a reduced level of $400/week. You can read more about the executive orders — and the pushback about them — here.

On the Sunday show circuit, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the president’s actions “unconstitutional slop” (echoing a phrase first used by Republican Sen. Ben Sasse) and said he’s “undermining Social Security and Medicare” — which are funded through payroll taxes. Meanwhile, the president’s economic adviser Peter Navarro told one of us that “the Lord and the Founding Fathers created executive orders because of partisan bickering and divided government.”

As for when we can see a legislative package? That’s up in the air. While senators will be under a 24-hour advisement to get back to Washington if there is a deal this week, for the most part, they’re out of town.

The Lid: Phoenix Rising

Don’t miss the pod from Friday, when we looked at the nation’s hottest market for political ads.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world?

President Trump has erased the line between politics and policy, NBC’s Lauren Egan reports.

Sen. Ron Johnson is subpoenaing FBI Director Christopher Wray for documents related to the investigation into 2016 Russian election interference, Politico reports.

The New York Times profiles FDA commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn, the man “caught between scientists and the president.”

A leading, pro-Democracy media executive in Hong Kong has been arrested in a major escalation under China’s new, controversial national security law.

NBC News obtained access to the Wuhan lab at the center of the coronavirus pandemic.

President Trump is denying reporting that his White House broached the topic of adding him to Mount Rushmore with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s office.

Puerto Rico’s primary election was upended by massive issues distributing ballots, disruptions that left many without the ability to vote and has prompted calls for a rescheduled, partial primary and for resignations of top election officials.