On Friday, 32 days before Election Day, the revelation that President Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 threw his contest with Joe Biden into a weird twilight phase in this strangest of election years. We won’t know the full impact of this event, of course, until the president’s health crisis is resolved, but aside from the disarray into which it has thrown his campaign, there is some preliminary evidence that voters are reacting with more disdain than sympathy.
But it is worth remembering that 32 days before Election Day 2016, the Trump campaign was thrown into what initially looked like a terminal swoon by the Washington Post’s release of a hot-mic tape from a 2005 Trump appearance on the entertainment show Access Hollywood. (Warning for anyone who somehow hasn’t seen this video or read about it: there’s obscene language that also suggests sexual assault):
For a few days, this tape seemed catastrophic for the Trump campaign. A Business Insider accounting of the Republican backlash as of October 10 showed seven senators, two governors, and ten House members withdrawing support from Trump’s candidacy. House Speaker Paul Ryan said he’d no longer campaign with Trump, whose language was also condemned by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. According to one later report, Priebus talked with Mike Pence about the veep nominee potentially displacing Trump in the top spot on the ticket to mitigate the down-ballot damage and perhaps pull out a victory.
But if you look at the RealClearPolitics polling averages from that fraught juncture, Hillary Clinton’s lead over Trump only increased from 4.6 percent the day the Access Hollywood tape dropped, to a maximum of 7.1 percent ten days later. Then Clinton’s polling average lead continued to drop, more or less steadily, falling to 3.2 percent by Election Day (she won the national popular vote by 2.1 percent). In part, that was because of aggressive pro-Trump counter-messaging, particularly on social media, about a second story that broke the same day the tape was released, as Rolling Stone later recalled:
This was the initial release of the “Podesta Emails,” laundered through the “transparency” organization Wikileaks. The document dump would be repeated dozens of times, amounting to more than 20,000 pages of stolen communications.
This was the ammunition that Trump depended on to mount his comeback….
What followed was an online information campaign that essentially conquered the Internet. The Access Hollywood tape dominated headlines for roughly a week; “Wikileaks,” on the other hand, was an unrelenting drumbeat of rumors and wild allegations that left conservatives in a perpetual state of fury. It didn’t matter that most of the stories were fake (Podesta did not drink bodily fluids in secret cult dinners, nor was Pizzagate real). What mattered was that these conspiracies continued to pick up steam through election day.
The coup de grace was the famous “Comey Letter” of October 28, suggesting a renewed FBI investigation of Clinton emails, which no less an authority than Nate Silver considered decisive in a retrospective look at Trump’s upset win. But whatever you think happened to produce the outcome, the relevant fact today may be simply that it ain’t over until it’s over.
Having said that, Trump went into this last fateful week in worse shape than he was at this point in 2016, and initial poll results suggest that between his brutish debate performance on September 29 and the COVID-19 diagnosis, he’s in even worse shape now. Twenty-nine days out, Biden’s lead is at 8.3 percent at RealClearPolitics and at 8 percent at FiveThirtyEight. That’s his largest lead since the end of July at RCP and since the end of August at FiveThirtyEight. In 2016, three days after the Access Hollywood bombshell dropped, HRC led Trump by 6 at RCP.
Post-COVID-diagnosis data is limited, but it looks ominous for the president. A Reuters/Ipsos survey taken on October 2–3 showed that “65% [of respondents], including 9 in 10 registered Democrats and 5 in 10 registered Republicans, agreed that “if President Trump had taken coronavirus more seriously, he probably would not have been infected … Only 34% said they thought that Trump has been telling them the truth about the coronavirus, while 55% said that he was not and 11% were unsure.” The same poll gave Biden a 51-41 lead among likely voters.
Polling preceding the COVID diagnosis but taken after the first debate looks equally bad for Trump. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal national survey taken on September 30–October 1 shows Biden up 14 points among registered voters, a six-point boost for the Democrat as compared to the outlet’s last poll in mid-September. In the USC-Dornsife tracking poll, Biden’s late-September-to-early-October advantage is back up into the double digits after temporarily dropping for a bit.
After such a momentous week, and particularly in view of what happened in October of 2016, solid election predictions are not in order. However, Trump is clearly in trouble, as he’s trailing pretty significantly in the polls and his campaign is in a deep freeze for at least the next few days. But the possibility of an election loss contested by Trump has not at all gone away, and there’s no telling what fiendish surprises this cursed year may yet have for us.