Political Animal

Trump’s Botched Coronavirus Response Could Cost Him Florida

No Republican in 95 years has won a presidential election without winning Florida. But two recent developments should have Florida Republicans uneasy about the state’s role in the upcoming election.

First, a poll released last week by Florida Atlantic University shows President Donald Trump trailing Joe Biden by six percentage points, 47 percent to 53 percent, from May 8-12. This drop is a sharp reversal from the March FAU poll that had Trump ahead by two percent. Other polls earlier in the year—Fox and Quinnipiac—had Biden either defeating Trump by a narrow margin, or found the two in a virtual tie.

Second, this week a federal judge upheld the right to vote for most convicted felons, even if they had not paid their fines. Judge Robert L. Hinkle called the restrictions issued by Florida’s GOP controlled government a poll “tax” and “pay-to-vote” scheme. Republican Governor and Trump Ally Ron DeSantis plans to appeal. There is no question about his motives: Black and Latino voters traditionally support a Democratic nominee and also happen to be the majority of Florida’s returning citizens.

Trump knows that many Florida elections are often decided by razor-thin margins. The potential addition of 700,000 new voters could certainly prove decisive in November.

Even without the addition of these votes, Trump may still be in serious trouble in the Sunshine State. Of course, the president has spent more time in Florida than in any other location outside of Washington D.C. (That was on painful display this weekend, as he hit the links as new data came in showing 100,000 Americans had fallen to the novel coronavirus.) Yet his presence has done nothing to combat Floridians’ wavering confidence in his leadership. Republicans are responding with an onslaught of slanderous Biden ads and nervously dumping millions of dollars into the Panhandle and Gulf areas to energize their supporters.

The economy has quickly become the most pressing issue, cited by Republican voters in the FAU poll, followed by the re-election of the president. Unsurprisingly, Democrats cited defeating Trump as the most important issue, followed by health care. It is clear: The COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent economic downturn will most certainly be the defining issues for voters this fall.

But with the economy in a sharp downturn, unemployment in the tens of millions, an imminent Recession/Depression on the horizon, and a second wave of the pandemic expected right before the election, Trump is getting cornered by a cascade of events he cannot control. His recent spat of conspiracy tweets—against China, Joe Scarborough, and Twitter—are an obvious attempt to distract the voters.

That stands to reason. A new poll by North Florida Public Opinion Research Lab found that 55 percent of registered voters felt Trump had not gone far enough to contain the spread of the virus. Trump’s approval numbers may continue to fall precipitously if the pandemic and the economy turn into a lingering plateau.

This will hurt him most with the voters in Florida who he needs the most. Trump won Florida in 2016 by a slim 1.2 percent margin over Hillary Clinton, mainly due to Trump’s 17 percentage lead among senior citizens. Yet seniors older than 65, who make up more 20 percent of Florida’s voters, are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, and the president’s own polls reveal a drop in boomer support as he moves to reopen the economy, at the cost of more deaths among this very population. This will also matter in other critical states with large, older, retiree populations, such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

A recent Morning Consult poll unsurprisingly found that the Baby Boomer generation had a larger portion of citizens “very concerned” about the coronavirus crisis compared with younger generations. There is a real fear that a second wave will threaten their lives if exposure risk is not properly handled. Trump’s may have proclaimed May “Older Americans Month,” but if the second wave hits before the November election, no amount of elder recognition will save his chances of winning.

Trump’s erratic briefings on the coronavirus, dismissive demeanor, and acerbic personal Tweets have not helped him with older voters. For the most part, seniors trust their doctors. At the same time, Trump’s disagreements with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist, and other medical authorities have undermined their confidence in the commander-in-chief.

Trump is trying to position himself as the great hero who saves the country from the pandemic and brings back a robust economy. He is promising a vaccine by the year’s end, which gives him a few months after the election to deliver.

But stubborn facts may get in his way. If there are still 25 million Americans unemployed in November, with the Dow below 24,000 and the U.S death toll rising to 150,000 (mainly elderly) people with no treatment or vaccine in sight, there is no way he can spin this. Or win Florida.

How to Mobilize Rural Progressives

Matthew Hildreth grew up in what is know as “Siouxland,” the region surrounding the Big Sioux River drainage basin stretching across parts of Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota. That came with certain stereotypes about what it meant to live in rural America.

Through TV, I learned about life in the big city and what the rest of the country thought of hicks, hillbillies, and hayseeds like me. I learned that to be successful, I had to leave. And so, like many of my classmates, I left as soon as I could.

What initially brought Hildreth back to Siouxland was the Bush administration’s ICE raid on a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa back in 2008, which resulted in the arrest and detention of almost 400 Latino members of that community. Here’s what he found.

Within hours of the raid, Sister McCauley [parish administrator of the local Catholic church] had the entire community of 2,269 residents organized. When I interviewed her a few days later, the church was full of children still waiting to be reunited with their families. The church’s fellowship hall was filled with clothes, meals, and supplies for the children; community volunteers worked through legal paperwork on behalf of those detained. In a moment of complete chaos, community members rose to the challenge and stood together with their neighbors. It was at this point I realized the power of rural organizing. I was hooked.

Hildreth went on to launch Rural Organizing. Here is how they answer the question, “Who are we?”

In small towns and rural communities across the country, authentic relationships are the foundation for community change. Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local,” but we’ve found that rural politics are also personal. We believe that communities, causes, and candidates must leverage these relationships in order to organize and mobilize rural communities toward enduring and sustainable change. With smart communications and strategic distributive organizing, we will empower rural progressives and develop, pass, and implement policy platforms needed to rebuild small towns across America.

When they talk about empowering rural progressives, they know what they’re up against. As Hildreth notes, “after the 2016 election, the GOP emerged with a 16-percentage-point advantage among rural voters.” But he also wants to bust some of the myths about rural voters that have been embraced on both the right and the left.

Rural doesn’t mean white. The majority of Indigenous Americans (54 percent) and a quarter of African Americans live in small cities, towns, and rural communities. Between 2000 and 2010, the Asian American population of rural communities grew by 37 percent; the Hispanic population grew by 46 percent.

And rural areas aren’t necessarily conservative. According to data from the Pew Research Center, rural voters’ partisan affiliation was equally divided between Democrats and Republicans from 1999 to 2009…The 2018 midterm elections…demonstrated the power of small grassroots investment in strategic rural engagement: A Reuters analysis found that Democrats increased their share of rural votes in more than 50 congressional districts. Even in two Iowa districts that voted for Trump in 2016, Democrats came out on top.

As a way to demonstrate that first point, it was Hildreth that introduced me to the bluegrass group Che Apalache. Bandleader Joe Troop grew up in North Carolina but eventually settled in Argentina, where he recruited the other members. Take a look at what they’re doing with both sound and message in this song titled “The Dreamer” about Troop’s friend, Moises Serrano.

The first step in reaching out to rural America is to discard the myths and recognize both the unique challenges and opportunities faced by these communities.

Donald Trump’s Surprising New Critics

The editorial board of the Trump-supporting Washington Examiner has condemned the president’s attacks on Joe Scarborough, arguing that “observers might even someday look back at this incident as the instant when things began to unravel.” I laughed derisively when I read that, but it’s probably true that there will be people who say this. In itself, the Scarborough incident is nothing new or particularly noteworthy. Accusing a former Republican congressman and impeachment manager at Bill Clinton’s Senate trial of murder is not categorically different from accusing Ted Cruz’s father of involvement in the assassination of a president. Making baseless accusations against his critics is on page one of Trump’s playbook. I don’t think there’s anything game-changing about this story at all, but it coincides in time with a major downturn in the president’s fortunes. It’s quite possible that in retrospect, the two things will look causally related.

For one thing, the Washington Examiner is not alone. The New York Post and the Wall Street Journal have also published editorials blasting Trump over his actions with Scarborough. Why these staunchly pro-Trump editorial boards have chosen this incident as their bridge-too-far is anybody’s guess, but they’ve both put their foot down. Everywhere we look, there are surprising breaks with the president. On Tuesday night, Sean Hannity of Fox News took the extraordinary step of chastising his listeners for following Trump’s example and not wearing masks or observing social distancing guidelines: “If you can’t social distance, please wear the mask. Do it for your mom, your dad, your grandma, your grandpa.” Also, on Tuesday, Twitter humiliated it’s most valuable patron by adding a disclaimer to a Trump tweet explaining his claims about vote-by-mail are untrue.

This is all happening at the same time that fresh compelling evidence is piling up that Trump is headed for defeat and that he’s going to drag the Republican Party down with him. A Firehouse Strategies-0ptimus poll out on Wednesday has Joe Biden leading nationally 54-43 percent, and state polling looks just as bad. Another survey says Trump is trailing in Arizona, while a Tuesday poll showed him leading by a spare three points in Utah. The congressional preference shows the Democrats up by eight points, which is higher than their 2018 midterm advantage and leads Nathan Gonzales of Roll Call to write, “Democrats at this point in the cycle look more likely to gain seats than to lose their majority.”

POLITICO reports that Trump’s 2016 braintrust has already staged an intervention:

David Bossie and Corey Lewandowski, two key allies and former political advisers to Donald Trump, went to the White House last week to issue him a warning: The president was slipping badly in swing states, and he needed to do something to fix it.

Three days later, the Trump campaign’s political directors in Arizona and Florida — states the president won in 2016 but where surveys show him lagging — were summoned to the White House Roosevelt Room. The officials offered a detailed rundown of his organization in the battlegrounds and tried to reassure the president that he was on firm ground.

We’ve arrived at the 100,000 victim threshold in the the COVID-19 pandemic, and while blue areas are trending down, the South is trending up. If that trend continues, Trump’s push to quickly reopen the country will look like a lethal mistake even in his political strongholds.

In a normal political cycle, we’d now be in a climate where Republicans are too concerned about November to give any ammunition to the Democrats by questioning their leader. Instead, the exact opposite seems to be happening, with some of Trump’s most dependable defenders suddenly challenging him. His unsubstantiated murder accusations against a MSNBC morning host are not the explanation or last straw, but this is happening at a time that definitely looks like an inflection point in the president’s fortunes.

There will be people who say that Joe Scarborough cost Trump the election, even if they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Are Elite Business Schools Swindling International Students?

When Arun Swaminathan applied to Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in early January, COVID-19 was just one of many world events. There were no known cases outside of China. In the United States, headlines were dominated by Donald Trump’s ongoing impeachment trial. Even Wuhan had yet to enter lockdown.

By the time Swaminathan was admitted in March, the virus was exploding across the globe, and countries everywhere were asking citizens to shelter in place. The U.S. had sealed its borders and suspended almost all visa processing.

Swaminathan was still excited that he was accepted into the program. “You see all your hard work has resulted in something tangible,” he told me. He sent in a $2,000 deposit to secure his place in the class of 2022. At the same time, he knew that the pandemic had radically transformed the shape of travel and education. If he couldn’t start the year in person, it would be difficult to do remote learning from Mumbai, which is ten-and-a-half hours ahead of Evanston, Illinois. It would be even harder to engage in the kind of networking opportunities and internship hunts that make business school so valuable. Eventually, he reached out to Kellogg to ask if he could defer his start.

It wasn’t long before Kellogg gave him an answer: probably not. If he couldn’t attend in person, he should either be ready to attend online or withdraw.

Swaminathan told me it’s not much of an option. “If I’m willing to forgo the $2,000 and my application, all the hard work, yeah, I suppose I have a choice,” he said. He plans to take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans to cover the cost. “It’s not very fair.”

Across American higher education, the coronavirus has had disastrous consequences. With dwindling enrollments precipitated by mass campus closures, universities are slashing costs. Many colleges, including some business schools, are worried that they will have to close if they can’t fill their incoming class.

Yet for elite and wealthy institutions with far more latitude, COVID-19 has created a divide. Several top schools, including Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and Harvard Business School, are giving all admits the chance to postpone enrollment. But many others, like Northwestern Kellogg, are not. MIT’s Sloan School of Management is only granting deferrals in rare circumstances. Columbia Business School told one inquiring student that it “does not defer students” and that admits uncomfortable starting online—or shifting to its internship-free, one-and-a-half-year program—would need to “withdraw and reapply.” Similarly, Cornell University’s Johnson School of Business rejected one foreign admit’s pandemic-related deferral request by explaining that such delays were reserved “for candidates who truly cannot begin their program due to extenuating circumstances.”

These policies have prompted an outcry from incoming students in general and international students in particular. Many students from abroad applied to these programs in hopes of joining new communities, shifting jobs, and perhaps even immigrating to the United States. Instead, they feel like they are now placed in an untenable situation. They can either give up the thousands of dollars they’ve already paid to schools, withdraw their acceptance, and forgo a chance to advance their careers—or they can spend six figures to pursue an online education from thousands of miles away.

“It was a really bad experience,” said Marcelo Stilman, describing his lengthy attempt to get Cornell to grant him a deferral. Stilman, 31, reached out to the university because he was unsure if he could get into the U.S.—and was wary of leaving his older parents alone in Brazil while COVID-19 raged throughout the country. The business school ultimately rejected his request. “I felt like in the end, they only wanted my money,” he said.

For major American universities, business schools are a lucrative enterprise. With well-paid faculty and upscale amenities, their operating costs are high. But with six-figure prices (an MBA from Columbia costs over $170,000) and generous alumni donations, MBA programs provide schools with a sizable source of revenue. International students, who generally pay more than domestic ones, are especially valuable. Roughly a third of Kellogg’s MBA students come from overseas. In return for the large investment, attendees get an expansive network of classmates and alumni who can help them eventually find high-salaried jobs. Much of the structure of MBAs is designed around making these critical connections, such as by hosting recruitment events.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended this arrangement. All students will face some reduction in quality if MBA programs move online, but the reduction will be particularly acute for international students, many of who face effective travel bans. It’s likely that most can’t even be in the same time zone. They will either have to be awake at strange hours to actively participate in online class sessions, or they will have to watch pre-recorded lectures, a process one student compared to subscribing to YouTube for a six-figure cost. And if these schools do offer any in-person activities—be it classes or networking events—international students will be unable to physically attend.

If universities won’t let them start late, almost all the students I interviewed hoped their schools would at least grant them a discount. “There is genuinely a reduction in one of the most essential points of being in business school, which is networking,” said Swaminathan. For many internationals, including Indians like himself, the currency exchange rate made the over $100,000 dollar price tag even more formidable. “We’re not cheaping out,” Swaminathan said. “It’s only asking for something that’s fair.” As of this writing, Northwestern, Columbia, Cornell, and MIT have not announced any reductions in tuition.

International students also say that the shift to online learning jeopardizes their odds of finding jobs in the United States after graduating, something most of the people I spoke with expressed interest in doing. MBA students traditionally intern with major companies or consultancies during the summer between their first and second years, experience that later helps them land full-time employment. But the U.S. government often requires that international students spend at least nine months studying in America before working for the summer. Only some programs have taken steps to ensure that students starting remotely will still qualify for summer jobs.

The lack of clarity from universities has compounded existing work visa difficulties. The Trump administration’s outward hostility toward foreigners has only intensified since COVID-19 made landfall. The president recently announced a slew of new immigration restrictions and plans to curtail a popular program that lets international students work in America for several years after graduating. Many prospective students worry that if the pandemic persists and Trump is re-elected, staying in America will only grow harder

“Unemployment rates will probably keep rising, and then of course the administration in the U.S. will try to prevent immigrants from staying,” said William Ramos, who lives in São Paulo. A first-generation college student, Ramos plans to take out $130,000 in loans to attend Duke University Fuqua School of Business. To pay them off, it will be all-but essential that he spend several years after graduating working in America. “I’ve lost half my savings,” Ramos told me. They were savings he planned to use to pay for his continuing education.

He is asking for a deferral.

Duke Fuqua has been unclear about whether and under what circumstances it would allow international students to delay their starts. In an interview Monday, William Boulding, the school’s dean, told me that the program would grant deferrals to students who could not make it into the United States by the fall. This would likely include Ramos. Last Sunday, the Trump administration said it would ban non-citizens who had been to Brazil in the last 14 days from entering America.

Representatives at Columbia Business School and Cornell Johnson did not respond to requests for comment. MIT Sloan declined to comment.

“As we have always done, Kellogg will consider deferral requests from admitted students with exceptional circumstances,” said Kate Smith, Kellogg’s assistant dean for admissions and financial aid. “Admitted students can submit a request for deferment that will be reviewed by our admissions team. These requests will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis since each situation is unique.” Multiple international Kellogg admits said their school has indicated to them it would not issue deferrals because of the pandemic itself. So, too, did students at Columbia and Cornell.

These three institutions have almost no financial incentive to grant delay requests. All accept less than a third of applicants and maintain waiting lists if admits decide not to attend. Indeed, Northwestern Kellogg has said that it will now reconsider applicants it had previously rejected. “It’s a brilliant business decision,” said one irritated admit.

Experts say the unforgiving stance is likely driven by fears about enrollment. It’s not all unfounded. Prestigious business schools are selective, but they have seen a drop in applicants over the last several years. COVID-19 is putting even more downward pressure on attendance, particularly by students from abroad. “This matters a great deal because international students almost invariably are paying retail prices,” said Steven Conn, a professor at Miami University Ohio who studies the history of U.S. business schools. Some institutions have pushed back their start dates, hoping travel will open up in time for students to arrive

But while closed campuses may keep enrollments temporarily low, the economic collapse could be good for business schools in the long run. Historically, Conn told me, recessions help business schools attract more students. The robust labor market of the last few years kept applications down because “you didn’t need a business school degree to do well for yourself,” he said. But with millions of layoffs, these schools may soon see a spike in applications once the pandemic subsides.

In the meantime, selective business schools remain extraordinarily wealthy. Cornell Johnson has an endowment of over $200 million. Columbia Business School’s is $750 million. As of 2018, Kellogg had an $882 million endowment. Each parent institution, meanwhile, has a multibillion-dollar endowment. But unlike other rich business schools—such as Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business—they are refusing to let international admits simply defer.

That may change, especially if more schools alter their policies. Until then, however, students say they are left with extreme uncertainty. Many schools, for example, haven’t said if students who withdraw because of the coronavirus outbreak will get refunds on their deposits. When I asked Kellogg whether it would do so, the school told me it is “monitoring the situation this summer to inform our decision.”

Other schools have been clearer. After Cornell rejected his deferral request, Stilman withdrew from the school and asked that they return his $2,000 deposit. “It’s more or less like a month to a month-and-a-half of my salary here in Brazil,” he told me.

Cornell declined.