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The Election Will Be A Referendum On Trump’s Handling Of Coronavirus

The good news for Republicans is that the focus has been on Donald Trump. The bad news is that the focus has been on Donald Trump.

It has been just over a month since I wrote that Coronavirus would be a wild card for the election year and there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then. While events are still unfolding, the focus on the pandemic and the fact that campaign events will likely be curtailed over the summer means that this year’s presidential election will probably be a referendum on how the Trump Administration handles the emergency.

So far, the good news for Republicans is that the focus has been on Donald Trump. As the president gives daily briefings and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden self-isolates, the president is front-and-center in the public view. The bad news for Republicans is that the president is front-and-center in the public view.

President Trump has so far gotten decent marks for his handling of the crisis. The president’s approval in the FiveThirtyEight average has ticked up about three points since March 13 when he declared a national emergency for the pandemic. A CNN poll released yesterday showed that Americans are almost evenly split on the federal government’s handling of the crisis. After trailing in the polls for months and with more than half of the electorate having said that they won’t vote for Trump’s re-election, the emergency represents a chance for the president to change minds and win votes with a strong, competent performance when the chips are down.  

But Trump’s approval on the issue of the pandemic seems vulnerable. Polling taken on March 26-27 as Trump was considering cutting the social-distancing guidelines short reflected a drop. The Harris poll showed a six-point drop over the previous week that was driven by declines in approval among Republicans and independents. The poll may be an outlier or it may reflect that the public will support Trump on Coronavirus only as long as he does the right thing. It’s also worth noting that even though Trump’s approval is up in recent weeks, it is still well below an average of 50 percent.

While Trump does have positive approval on his handling of the pandemic, Morning Consult polling shows that the president has the lowest net approval of any entity that was rated for performance on the pandemic. The president’s rating was far behind the CDC and the WHO and underscores how marginal the president’s performance on the pandemic has been.

This also helps to explain why President Trump, despite his improved approval ratings, is still running behind Joe Biden. The Real Clear Politics average currently shows Biden up by an average of more than six points. Biden’s advantage includes leads in battleground states and counties. Given the former vice president’s tendency toward stumbles and gaffes, Biden may benefit from being out of the limelight.

Coronavirus may throw another wrench into the best-laid plans for the presidential election as well. As Democratic primaries are canceled and delayed, it becomes harder for Joe Biden to clinch the nomination before the convention, which is scheduled to being on July 13. If Biden loses the confidence of Democratic insiders, the delayed conventions could leave an opening to nominate a dark-horse candidate such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. A risk for Democrats is that such a move could trigger mass defections among Bernie Sanders supporters, however.

The possible cancellation of the Democratic convention could be an advantage for Republicans. For many Americans who don’t follow politics year-round, the convention is an introduction to the opposition candidate. If the convention doesn’t happen, it’s harder to find a big moment for Trump’s challenger to make his case, especially with many smaller events being canceled as well.

“That Thursday night speech by our nominee could be seen by 50 to 60 million Americans, most of them who haven’t paid a minute of attention to the primary. That’s the conversation that takes us to winning,” Bob Mulholland, a California DNC member told Politico. “If we have to cancel and Trump has a convention with 40,000 people screaming and yelling … that’s an advantage to Trump because nobody saw us except some text they got, and then they watched Trump.”

President Trump stands to benefit if the death toll is extremely low and if the economy rebounds quickly. Conversely, if the outbreak is out-of-control for months or if voters are feeling economically vulnerable this fall then Trump might be blamed. Democratic safety-net programs could look very attractive to an electorate with high unemployment and facing a deadly virus without health insurance.

Aside from the obvious factors of the ultimate severity of the pandemic and the associated economic downturn, there will be investigations into how the government reacted during the crisis. These won’t necessarily be criminal or congressional investigations, but journalists will be talking to people who were involved to find out what happened behind the scenes. The revelations in those articles and books could impact the campaign.

Likewise, the pandemic will be a central part of messaging for both parties. Democratic ads with the president downplaying the need for ventilators, accusing doctors and nurses of hoarding supplies or “worse than hoarding,” and saying that Coronavirus was contained and under control write themselves. In fact, one such ad has already been written and posted to Twitter by The Bulwark.


While there are trends that we can watch, the history of the Coronavirus pandemic is still being written. Just because Donald Trump has approval for his handling of the outbreak now doesn’t mean that the same will be true in November. Conversely, we have seen that a Democratic edge in the polls can slip as the election draws near.

The bottom line is that Coronavirus remains a wild card. With eight months to go before the election, a lot can happen. If the first few months of 2020 are any indication, a lot will. Anybody who claims to know for sure how the pandemic will impact the election is lying to you.

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