You can’t take the politics out of politics. So, unavoidably, trailing the progression of the coronavirus pandemic is a low fever of speculation about the impact of this terrible development on the 2020 elections, and most particularly, on the fate of the ever-erratic president who is purporting to lead this country through the crisis.
Trump critics watch him and see someone who was in deep and destructive denial about COVID-19 until very recently, and then briefly cleaned up his act before again chafing at the restraints of responsibility and seeking to buck up the markets and get the economy rolling, whether the rapid spread of the disease has been curtailed or not.
But according to the available evidence, a narrow majority of Americans currently approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. So the question inevitably arises: Could this horrid experience, along with the economic pain it will inflict, actually help Trump get reelected in November?
There’s general agreement that his reelection prospects now depend on what happens next as much as on what happened the first three years of his presidency, though deeply entrenched and intensely partisan perceptions of him still shape day-to-day reactions to Trump’s behavior. The best indicator of where he stands with the public overall remains his job approval ratings, and while they are higher than the average for his tenure as a whole, they remain under his de facto ceiling of the mid-40s, and are as sluggish as ever right now. According to RealClearPolitics, his approval ratings are currently averaging 44.5 percent, down from a high of 46.3 percent on February 20, before the U.S. outbreak began. FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, which are adjusted for partisan bias and weighted for accuracy, put Trump’s approval at 44.0 percent, down from a high of 44.6 percent on February 18.
B.C. (Before Coronavirus), of course, a robust economy was bolstering Trump’s popularity. That’s gone for the time being. Can Trump derive the same uplifting effect on his approval ratings from his management of a perilous situation?
Possibly, but as political scientist David Hopkins notes, the “rallying effect” that often benefits leaders in times of crisis doesn’t always last that long:
[C]itizens close psychological ranks around their national leaders in a moment of uncertainty and fear; they evaluate these figures on different criteria than they did before the crisis erupted; and the normally critical opposition party (sometimes) mutes its attacks on the incumbent. Both French president Emmanuel Macron and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte have enjoyed spikes in popularity during the current coronavirus outbreak, despite (especially in Italy’s case) substantial national dislocation and tragedy.
But these popularity bumps fade with time. Either the crisis is soon resolved and citizens turn their attention to other things, or it is not, in which case they start to grow impatient with the effectiveness of their leader. The 2020 general election is still far enough away that even if Trump were to benefit from the rally effect in the short term, it wouldn’t be a very reliable signal of his popularity more than seven months in the future.
The connection between reelection prospects for incumbent presidents and the state of the economy is stronger and more persistent than such “rallying effects,” as Newsweek recently observed:
Since 1900, only one president has won re-election with a recession occurring sometime in the last two years of their first term: William McKinley.
Since then, the four presidents who ran for a second term during such an economic downturn—William Taft in 1912, Herber Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992—were unsuccessful.
The only person to defy the trend was Democrat Harry Truman in 1948. But the recession that year only started in November, the same month that Americans went to the polls to vote.
It’s no wonder Trump is frantic to turn the economy around quickly and take credit for a resurgence. But as Alan Abramowitz observes, all economic impressions are not equal when it comes to presidential elections:
Some forecasters are predicting a major recession with the economy shrinking by 5% or more in the second quarter of 2020. That’s significant because, in many election forecasting models, including my own “time for change” model, economic growth in the second quarter is a key predictor of the election results. Models like mine use second quarter GDP growth to measure the state of the economy because GDP is a broad measure of economic activity and the performance of the economy in the second quarter seems to shape opinions of the economy in the fall. So it’s possible that even if the economy recovers later in the year, the most electorally-salient perceptions will nonetheless be formed in the spring and summer.
It’s true, of course, that this particular economic downturn, attributable to a pandemic that no one is going to blame on Trump, is different than most. And that means how he handles it could be crucial, and as conservative polling analyst Jay Cost suggests, how he explains it could matter as well:
He has to make sense of this virus for the American people. What lessons must we learn from its emergence? What does it say about our current place in the world? What do we need to do to fix it?
This president is the best person to tell a compelling story about this disease. Virtually alone among top politicians, he has been a skeptic of globalization. He has resisted the impulse to let America float along in the currents of the world. He has to make that argument to the people once again.
As I put it more bluntly recently, there’s a potential take on this calamity that plays right into Trump’s MAGA wheelhouse, at least within his own base of core supporters:
[E]ven if (or, more likely, when) the virus spreads beyond the big metropolitan areas, there’s a chance it will simply reinforce small-town and rural hostility to the culturally alien influence of big-city folk aligned with foreigners, given the more cosmopolitan (demographically and economically as well) nature of Urban America.
It may be no mistake that Trump is emphasizing the foreign origins of what he calls the “Chinese virus,” or is criticizing Democrats for not helping him seal the borders or in other ways anticipate the pandemic:
The bottom line is that we cannot anticipate at this point what the current crisis means for the 2020 presidential election. But strong winds are blowing in different directions from moment to moment.