Between the plague-of-frogs atmosphere of 2020 so far and Donald Trump’s efforts to make the presidential election revolve around his racist law-and-order campaign and a miracle economic recovery (that’s so not happening), it’s easy to get confused or conflicted about what will actually decide the fate of the 45th president. But as Nate Cohn of the New York Times explains, there’s ever-increasing evidence that COVID-19 is going to be the deciding issue in this presidential election:
Even more than the economy in 2008, coronavirus is the dominant issue in American life today. It poses an immediate health risk to Americans, and the effort to contain it has profound consequences for the course of the American economy. It is the rare issue that takes precedence over the economy for voters, who have told pollsters they would rather address the coronavirus, even at risk of hurting the economy, than reopen the economy at the risk of public health.
In this sense, the fight against coronavirus has the potential to define American politics the way an armed conflict might: It poses a threat to the health and safety of the public, and voters support the effort to defeat it even at a significant economic cost.
But for Trump, at least, the fight against COVID-19 hasn’t provided the sort of rally-round-the-flag lift that national leaders often get during a war, despite his efforts to personify the virus as a foreign enemy (e.g., calling it the China Flu).
[T]he politics of coronavirus nonetheless seem simple: It has become the dominant issue in American life, and voters have reached an overwhelmingly negative view of how the president has handled it. Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump’s standing has suffered. His approval rating has fallen to around 40 percent among registered voters. His position against Mr. Biden has deteriorated at a similar pace.
As Harry Enten of CNN has pointed out, poll after poll shows a tight relationship between presidential vote choice, approval of the president’s handling of the coronavirus, and which candidate would do a better job on the issue. The relationship between attitudes about coronavirus and the presidential race is clearer than for any issue in recent memory.
It’s quite possible to accept that without giving short shrift to other issues, for the simple reason that Trump’s terrible handling of COVID-19 is not just a health-care issue but also an economic issue, a racial-justice issue, and even a rule-of-law issue as the president stumbles around alternating between asserting near-dictatorial authority over national life during the pandemic and sloughing off responsibility on others.
There’s not much question that the public’s negative assessment of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus is dragging down all his other numbers. His average coronavirus approval rating at RealClearPolitics has dropped steadily from 50 percent on April 1 to 38.7 percent now. At the same time, his overall job-approval rating slid from 47.1 percent on April 1 to 41.9 percent now. The same trajectory is evident in his personal favorability ratings (44.5 percent at the beginning of April, 40.2 percent now). And it’s also happening with his handling-of-the-economy approval rating, long his most positive number. One of the most regular outlets asking about that metric, the ABC–Washington Post poll, has Trump’s economic approval rating steadily dropping from 58 percent in January, to 57 percent in March, to 53 percent in May, to 49 percent in July (his current RCP average is 48.4 percent).
Even if you don’t view Trump’s handling of COVID-19 as his biggest problem now, it’s clear his problems are bigger than his opportunities. Gallup regularly asks people to identify the most important issue at any given moment. As of June COVID-19, poor leadership and racism together accounted for 60 percent of “most important issue” preferences, compared to 19 percent for the economy and 3 percent for Trump’s new favorite, crime/violence.
With COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and (more gradually) deaths again escalating, particularly in those states that took Trump’s advice and began easing business restrictions prematurely, he currently has a choice between reversing his attitude of denial and rationalization about the pandemic or simply hoping conditions improve by November. But just as perceptions of presidential stewardship of the economy tend to get frozen in place a few months before elections, it’s likely voters are not going to forget this administration’s poor handling of the coronavirus, even if conditions improve in the fall. Unlike yesterday’s economic woes, the 143,000 Americans who so far have died from COVID-19 won’t be easy to forget. And there is no way he can credibly blame Joe Biden or Democrats for all that.
Above all, as the president has already learned, changing the subject won’t work. For once in his life, he is the prisoner of his mistakes. Responsibility for them is fast approaching.
In 1992, Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign tried to maintain focus by telling itself periodically, “It’s the economy, stupid.” For 2020, “It’s the virus, stupid.”