As signs proliferate that the coronavirus is spreading to nonurban Trump country, the odds of the president being able to seek reelection as the vengeful tribune of red America infuriated by a blue America pandemic that has wrecked the economy grow smaller. That’s not to say Trump won’t use every angle he can to divide voters along the same racial, cultural, and geographical lines that undergirded his 2016 victory. But he may now be vulnerable to growing unhappiness about his management of the crisis right there in his electoral base. Indeed, the rapid business reopening some of his Republican allies are engineering in pro-Trump states could expose the MAGA folk to the kind of infection rates normally associated with urban hot spots.
As Ron Brownstein explains, positive assessments of Trump’s handling of coronavirus has up until now closely tracked less-hard-hit areas where things could soon go terribly wrong:
[Trump’s] precarious public support on the virus heavily depends on preponderant backing from voters in the places that have been least affected. The Pew Research Center divided respondents in its mid-April poll into three groups: those living in counties that faced high, medium, and low incidences of the disease as of early in the month. The high- and medium-impact counties on one side and the low-impact counties on the other each accounted for almost exactly half of the nation’s population.
These areas diverged strikingly in their assessments of Trump’s response. And ominously for the president, assessments in the medium-impact counties were closer to the (mostly negative) high-impact group.
So as the impact of the pandemic spreads, so too may downward pressure on Trump’s approval ratings, which are already very slowly sinking. And there could even be a tipping point where dismay with POTUS begins to eat into his base:
The communities beyond the metro core that generally have suffered the least damage from the outbreak contain the most voters who describe themselves as ambivalent about Trump’s response. If at any point before November, the disease does reach further into those culturally conservative smaller places at the core of Trump’s electoral coalition, it might threaten his last line of defense — especially because Trump and other Republicans are now betting so heavily on pushing to unwind social restrictions.
If this scenario seems unlikely given Trump’s strong hold on red America — and perhaps it is — we should remember another president who appeared to have unshakable support from his party’s base: George W. Bush.
In late July of 2005, W.’s job-approval rating among his fellow Republicans stood at 87 percent, a bit below where Trump’s are today. Among independents, he was at 46 percent. After his clueless performance in the management of Hurricane Katrina, his numbers began eroding, dipping to 79 percent among Republicans and 32 percent among indies in November and then 68 percent with Republicans and 28 percent with indies in May 2006, when the occupation of Iraq was beginning to become unpopular across party lines. By the time the economic crisis of 2008 kicked in, the president who had won two close red-blue slugfests by uniting the GOP and enthusing the conservative movement saw his job-approval rating drop to 55 percent among Republicans and 19 percent among independents. The “uniter, not divider” was doing neither very successfully.
I am by no means predicting that sort of trajectory is in store for Donald J. Trump, but it’s a scenario worth considering, particularly if he gambles on a highly partisan approach to COVID-19 that backfires with an increasingly infected red America, while failing to revive the economy. The whole country’s watching him on TV every day, and if he fails in this crisis, everyone’s going to see it, and only the most fervent supporters (or those lucky enough to live in the shrinking parts of the country with low rates of infection) will still be cheering. Yes, there are plenty of voters who will cast ballots for him no matter how he handles the coronavirus and the economic fallout. But even though pundits remembering 2016 will likely give him every benefit of the doubt, there’s now legitimate doubt he’s going to keep the race close when November rolls around.