The Coronavirus Election

The Pandemic Changed the 2020 US Presidential Race, and that’s Bad News for Trump

Amid the tumult of coronavirus, the US presidential election is looming ever closer. When a global pandemic sickens more than 6 million Americans and kills over 210,000, its ripples -- economic, educational, environmental -- are everywhere, and there isn't a single person not affected by them. The pandemic changed everything–from how the campaign is conducted to how we vote to what we value. It has cancelled conventions, relegated fundraising and campaigning to the digital realm and refocused the nation’s attention, bringing issues like public health and economic and racial inequality to the fore and prompting the public to revisit what characteristics it wants in its leaders. Add to this President Donald Trump’s diagnosis injecting a new level of uncertainty in an already unpredictable election just four weeks before America heads to the polls, and it’s obvious to see why Covid-19 will have an important effect on the elections. 

During the final stretch of the presidential race, Trump had worked frantically to attention away from his handling of the pandemic, urging more states to open fully and claiming the worst was over. But the revelation of his coronavirus diagnosis last week brought the virus into sharp focus with just a month to go until the November 3 election, and reminding voters yet again of the biggest public health crisis in a century.

Making matters worse for the president, may be that his downplaying from the start of the danger posed by the virus has come back to haunt him in the most personal way, making Democrat Joe Biden's prudence during the campaign look prophetic. 

Even as Trump has repeatedly suggested the country had turned the corner in the pandemic, voters have felt differently.  Since late January, when the CDC first reported the first known case of COVID-19 in the U.S., pollsters have been busy fielding surveys to measure just how concerned Americans are and what they think about the government’s response to the outbreak.  Research by fivethirtyeight found that the share of Americans who are either “somewhat” or “very” concerned about infection has risen steadily since the virus began rapidly spreading in the U.S. in March.  According to Reuters/Ipsos polls, every week since March, roughly 8 out of 10 American adults have said they are personally concerned about how the virus was spreading. That includes about 9 in 10 Democrats and nearly 7 in 10 Republicans.

It is also at the forefront of the minds of Americans who are expected to cast ballots in the election. The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, conducted Sept. 29-Oct. 1, found that 26 percent of likely voters said the most important factor driving their choice for president was the candidates' perceived ability to help the nation recover from the pandemic. They were less likely to cite other drivers, such as the candidates' plan for the economy or the need for a "tough on crime" president.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace (C) at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty)

This has given Biden a clear advantage who has made Trump's handling of the pandemic a leading theme of his campaign, while the president has sought to shift attention onto terrain where he is relatively stronger, particularly the economy and well as his Supreme Court nominee to replace the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The public has consistently given the president low marks for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, so anything that focuses the electorate on the disease is potentially damaging for his re-election prospects. In the latest CNN poll, just 40% approved of how he has dealt with the virus while 55% disapproved.  Asked which candidate would deal better with the ongoing pandemic, 53% chose Biden while just 41% chose Trump. These numbers are consistent with virtually all the other polling data in the race. And as approval for Trump's handling of the coronavirus has waned, so too has his standing in general election polling against Biden.

In a new poll, conducted after the first presidential debate but before Mr Trump’s Covid-19 announcement, Biden extended his national lead over Trump by a two-to-one margin. The Democratic candidate leads the president by 14 points, 53 to 39 per cent, up from an eight-point pre-debate lead, according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey of registered voters. That gives Biden his largest lead in national opinion polling in the 2020 election campaign. 

The President's numbers on coronavirus and in election polling have been interestingly consistent over the summer. That is, again, bad news for him as it suggests that the American public have made up their mind on who they will vote for. Moreover, nationwide statistics also show that early voting is hugely popular this year. With almost four weeks to go until the election on November 3, more than 4 million Americans in 31 states have already voted, either by mail or in person. At this time in 2016, the number stood at 75,000, according to the United States Elections Project, which compiles early voting data. 

Complicating matters for the president will be that many Americans might recall what many would describe as the president's sometimes careless attitude toward Covid-19. At the presidential debate on Tuesday, Trump belittled Biden for frequently wearing masks and not having campaign rallies that matched his own in size. "I don't wear a mask like him," Trump said. "Every time you see him, he's got a mask."

While the Trump has, at times, stressed the importance of social distancing and taking the virus seriously, he has spread misinformation during the pandemic. The most common form of untrue statements by Trump promoted false 'cures' like hydroxychloroquine or the use of disinfectants inside the body. He also said the virus would disappear "like magic"; and attacked state officials who have imposed more aggressive mitigation measures and been slower to reopen businesses and schools than he would like.

Trump's coronavirus infection has cast all of these past comments into sharp relief - once again raising questions about whether he took the pandemic seriously enough both on a national policy level and within the White House itself.