It’s been a big news year. In the past six months, America has witnessed the worst pandemic in a century, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the largest anti-racist protests since the civil-rights movement, the death of a Supreme Court justice, the long-awaited exposure of Donald Trump’s tax returns — and, now, the president’s positive coronavirus test.
And yet, if 2020 the year has been exceptionally tumultuous, “2020” the presidential race has been historically stable. On March 20, Joe Biden led Trump by 6.8 points in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. Today, the Democrat leads by 8.2. Nothing that’s happened since mid-June has shifted the race by more than a couple digits in either direction. More important, nothing has narrowed Biden’s national lead enough to render a Trump Electoral College victory plausible (absent a massive polling error).
Trump’s positive coronavirus test raises a variety of questions — epidemiological, actuarial, and, for some, metaphysical. But politically, the fundamental question is this: Can Trump’s ailment do what every previous earth-shattering news story didn’t and shake up the most stable presidential race in modern history?
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the future isn’t ours to see. So take the following speculation with a full shaker of salt. But to the extent that the president’s illness influences the campaign, it seems more likely to increase the margin of Biden’s victory than to lift Trump back into contention, for these three reasons:
1) The president’s ailment is likely to heighten the salience of an issue Biden owns.
In recent polls, Biden’s lead over Trump on the question of which candidate would better handle the pandemic is even larger than his lead in the horse race. This suggests that the closer COVID-19 is to the top of voters’ minds, the harder it will be for Trump to pull undecideds into his corner.
The world’s most famous man contracting a potentially fatal illness one month before Election Day ensures saturation coverage of — and conversation about — coronavirus for at least the next week, even in areas of the country without significant outbreaks.
But for the Trump campaign, the problem isn’t merely the heightened salience of the virus that their champion has failed to contain. The issue is also that the president’s infection is liable to lend credence to the idea that he’s mishandled the public-health crisis, for reasons both fair and not. In the latter category: The fact that Trump was unable to protect himself from the disease may reinforce the swing voters’ preexisting suspicion that he can’t be trusted to protect America from the bug.
Of course, it is not actually the case that only irresponsible people catch a pandemic disease. But voters’ responses to events are not always rational or fair. And regardless, in this instance, the notion that there is a relationship between Trump’s personal failure to ward off COVID and his professional one is justified.
Our (supposedly germaphobic) president has been brazenly defying CDC guidelines throughout the pandemic. Trump has traveled to COVID hot spots to convene indoor rallies. He’s evinced contempt for the simple act of wearing a mask, and allowed his entourage at Tuesday night’s debate to watch the proceedings barefaced, in defiance of the Cleveland Clinic’s rules. Most critically, the president knew Thursday morning that his close aide Hope Hicks had tested positive for the virus but flew with his team to New Jersey anyway, where he attended a fundraiser at his golf club, making close contact with dozens of supporters and donors — all without wearing a mask.
This action — in its blithe contempt for public-health best practices, reckless optimism, and malign indifference to the well-being of others — is a perfect microcosm for Trump’s broader pandemic management. As such, it confirms every attack Biden has leveled against Trump’s COVID leadership, and does so in a manner that is easily, viscerally understandable for Americans with no expertise in epidemiology. Voters may have trouble ascertaining how America’s pandemic response measures up against that of the median OECD country. But voters do know the sacrifices that they have made to avoid spreading this disease. Many have forfeited livelihoods, weddings, and elective medical procedures to aid the national public-health effort. Now, they know that their president wasn’t willing to give up one day at his golf course after learning that he’d been in contact with an infected person.
2) Making Joe Biden’s gaffes, or son, or “socialism” into a top news story before Election Day just got a lot harder.
Beyond heightening the salience of COVID, Trump’s infection will make it impossible for him to engineer a bad news cycle for his opponent for at least the next week. Already, the president’s campaign was having little success in turning Hunter Biden’s employment history into the “her emails” of 2020. Now, the campaign has even less time to find a way of making Biden’s mundane baggage into damaging headlines. In fact, Trump’s positive test may well make the two remaining debates impossible to convene, thereby costing the candidate his last best chances to win the hearts and minds of a national audience.
In many states, voters are already casting ballots. In 32 days, the campaign will be over. Every day that we’re talking about Trump’s prognosis is a day we aren’t discussing whatever Biden oppo GOP operatives have managed to dig up.
3) There is little reason to believe Trump will enjoy a “sympathy surge.”
One counter to the idea that Trump’s illness will hurt his political prospects is that the public will view an ailing president in a kinder light — after all, across the pond, Boris Johnson seemed to enjoy a surge of popularity as he was battling a severe case of COVID.
But this reasoning is flawed in two respects. First, and most fundamentally, it is not actually the case that Britain’s Conservative prime minister saw a large polling boost during his ailment. As YouGov notes, Johnson’s government actually saw a polling surge shortly before he caught the coronavirus, and enjoyed no significant uptick in support afterward. It is true that Johnson saw a modest, six-point increase in his personal favorability. But this did not translate into a larger share of the public wanting his party in power.
Second, public opinion toward Donald Trump as a person is nearly fixed. The president’s unfavorable rating currently sits at 54 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average, and has rarely been more than two points higher or lower than that figure over the past four years. There is a small but significant number of Americans who are undecided about whether they’ll vote for Trump. But the number who are undecided about whether they like him personally is almost certainly lower.
All of that said, we are deep in uncharted waters. Given the good fortune that has characterized Trump’s life — and the menacing chaos that has defined 2020 — it isn’t hard to imagine this somehow ending with Trump on a victory stage and Biden in the hospital (as of this writing, the Democratic nominee’s coronavirus test results have yet to be disclosed). For the moment though, it is difficult to see Trump coming out of this episode in better political health.