While President Donald Trump remains at the White House amid the coronavirus pandemic, he’s dispatched Vice President Mike Pence across the country. Pence’s job on these trips: to highlight the administration’s response.
And his travels have led him to a number of 2020 battleground states, including Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado, Minnesota and Virginia.
Pence’s trips over the past several weeks have been mostly official business – no political rallies or fundraisers in the time since he was tapped to lead the coronavirus task force on February 26, with a couple exceptions: remarks at the 2020 Republican National Committee Spring Retreat in Florida on March 7, and a National Republican Congressional Committee dinner in Florida on February 28.
Pence paused travel after the trip to West Palm Beach, Florida, for the RNC speech and to meet with leaders from the cruise ship industry. He resumed three weeks later for an April 1 trip to nearby Gordonsville, Virginia, to tour a Walmart distribution center. More than two weeks later, he traveled again to make remarks to Air Force Academy graduates on April 18 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
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He has also met with governors as part of his coronavirus outreach: His February 28 trip to Florida included a meeting with Gov. Ron DeSantis on the state’s response in West Palm Beach February 28. Days later, he toured a readiness center and met with Gov. Jay Inslee in Tacoma, Washington, on March 5.
He also traveled to the 3M Innovation Center in Maplewood, Minnesota, on March 5, visited a GE Healthcare ventilator production facility in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 21, and traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, this Tuesday.
The vice president’s office declined to weigh in on the motivations behind his travel, and noted that some of those states – Washington and Indiana – are certainly not battlegrounds. But a source familiar with Pence’s trips suggested that though it wasn’t the primary motivation, visiting those places has its benefits.
“The fact that we’re visiting battleground states is a cherry on top, it is an added bonus. But it is definitely not a motivating factor,” the source said.
A Trump campaign official echoed that sentiment, noting that while Pence has put campaigning aside and has made combating coronavirus his focus, some of the states he is traveling to are “very important to 2020.”
“It’s a win. Americans want to see the administration taking action, and in each of these trips, the vice president is able to do that,” the official said.
“That is good for Pence, good for the reelection effort,” the official said, reiterating that it’s not the “main focus.”
Even so, the Biden campaign has taken note that Pence is, in some capacity, on the campaign trail, calling Pence’s Tuesday trip to Minnesota part of a “damage control tour.”
“While Vice President Pence tours the country attempting to paper over the Trump Administration’s delayed, insufficient response to this pandemic by passing the buck to governors and posing for photos at the finish line, Vice President Biden stands firmly with Minnesotans – and Americans across the country – in listening to public health experts and following the science so we can keep Americans safe and get our economy back on track,” Joe Biden’s deputy campaign manager and communications director Kate Bedingfield said in a statement.
It’s hardly a new strategy – both former President Barack Obama and Biden traveled to strategic places for official business during their 2012 reelection bid – but that wasn’t during a global pandemic.
At a time when the election has become almost entirely centered on the administration’s response to coronavirus, the incumbent advantage cannot be overstated. With the presumptive Democratic nominee following social distancing guidelines and participating in video events from his Delaware home, the President and vice president hold the upper hand in getting their message out. And unlike Trump, who carries a large footprint when he travels, Pence’s staffing and security needs are more nimble, allowing him to travel with relative ease.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Pence was frequently traveling and doing smaller-scale events compared to Trump’s campaign rallies.
“The vice president has been doing this for decades, he’s comfortable with it, he’s always on message, he studies whatever visit or location he’s going to meticulously,” the source familiar with vice presidential travel said. “He knows that every stop and every visit is strategic and coordinated.”
A big part of that is earned media. When Trump travels somewhere for a rally or official event, he gets statewide, regional, and national press coverage. Pence’s travel, on the other hand, is generally much more targeted.
“It’s the difference between using a hammer or a sledgehammer in the messaging (with the President), and with the vice president, it’s a scalpel. He gets a very particular message across. In the current situation, the vice president is great to deploy to certain areas to reassure voters and the American people,” the source said.
That message may not always have its intended effect – Pence was roundly criticized Tuesday for not wearing a mask as he met with officials and patients at the Mayo Clinic. The vice president said he did not do so because he is frequently tested.
Pence’s trips come amid staggering unemployment – 26.5 million Americans have filed unemployment claims through April 18 – and a significant expected decline in gross domestic product. As Pence seeks to highlight ventilator manufacturing, other businesses have ground production to a halt. And as he highlights medical advancement, many hospitals are struggling financially, especially as revenues from elective surgeries have largely stopped.
But with the election just seven months away, any efforts to show the vice president doing his job could help with voters in some of these key states.
Polling over the past month indicates Trump could be losing his competitive edge in some battleground states. In Florida, Biden led Trump by 6 points in a University of North Florida poll and four points in a Quinnipiac University poll. The previous polling average of probability polls had Biden up 2 points. And in Wisconsin, Biden was ahead by 3 points in a Marquette University Law School poll. The longer term probability polling average had the race tied.
CNN’s Harry Enten contributed to this report.