Sep 11, 2023, 6:37am EDT

COVID panic hits the Republican primaries

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Sign up for Semafor Principals: What the White House is reading. Read it now.

Title icon

The News

Republican voters are increasingly anxious about COVID amid a swirl of unfounded claims on the right that the federal government is preparing a mass reimposition of restrictions. At a New Hampshire focus group of Republicans commissioned by the political podcast Breaking Points and reviewed by Semafor, five of the eight participants said they believed there was some connection between the recent rise of COVID cases and associated restrictions and the upcoming election being “rigged” for Democrats.

“With the ‘plandemic,’ we see it coming again, and there’s a lot of writing on the wall,” one voter said, using a term associated with a viral conspiracy video from early in the COVID-19 outbreak.

The focus group also had “a complete consensus about the war in Ukraine,” a memo breaking down the event’s findings noted: All participants favored much less U.S. financial and military aid, suggesting presidential candidates with more traditional Republican opinions on the issue could find themselves in trouble on this foreign policy position.

As for Trump’s various legal issues? The focus group reaffirmed what polling has suggested for months: The majority of the group, asked whether the charges made them more or less likely to vote for the former president, said it made no difference. (Still, half the group also then said they wouldn’t back him in a general election if he was in jail.)

The New Hampshire focus group was composed of seven Republicans and one Republican-voting independent. Conducted on September 8 with J.L. Partners, participants were characterized as part of three broad categories: Three firm Trump backers, three Trump agnostics, and two voters who appeared “implacably opposed to Trump,” the memo noted.

Title icon

Shelby’s view

The focus group findings come as 2024 candidates have been discussing COVID more on the trail: Trump, in a video posted at the end of August, decried attempts to “bring back COVID lockdowns,” declaring that “we will not comply” and connecting the issue to his “rigged” election claims. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, recently held a press conference promising to stop Florida schools from implementing any new masking rules, pointing to individual schools and institutions out of state who have enacted them in response to outbreaks.

Why does this matter? As the Breaking Points memo detailed: “This is clearly going to inform much of their [GOP voters] thinking about the Democrats going forward, and suggests that the 2024 election could well generate even more rancor than the 2020 one in its aftermath.”

While DeSantis has made his early opposition to pandemic restrictions a key part of his campaign, Trump still held the edge in support in the focus group — a red flag for the number-two candidate who became well-known because of his performance as governor during COVID. This advantage persisted despite DeSantis being the “most well received” out of Trump’s opponents among the group.

“He [DeSantis] sits as one voice amongst a fractured field. Without a break-through moment from his campaign, or other candidates rallying around him, this is likely to persist despite the positive views of him,” the memo pointed out.

DeSantis isn’t the only one who has this problem, though. The focus group memo found Trump is “benefiting hugely from such a split field,” with no sign of a consensus alternative.

Title icon


Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah recently shared an Infowars story on X that falsely claimed the Biden administration was “preparing to bring back FULL Covid restrictions.”