For better or for worse, and despite US President Donald Trump’s efforts, coronavirus and Trump are forever entwined: It has defined his presidency and may likely decide his political fate.
Trump has struggled to rewrite the script of the 2020 campaign to shift it from being a referendum on his presidency and his handling of the pandemic and instead on defining Joe Biden as a “disaster” for the country.
- He was on tape downplaying the virus as far back as February. He tried to shift attention from the virus in August by focusing on violence in American cities and adopting a “law and order” message. He also focused on criticising the voting process, warning a Biden victory would only be the result of a “rigged” election. Despite Democratic protests, he immediately nominated Amy Coney Barrett to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last month. He bulldozed his way through a widely-panned first presidential debate with Biden last week, where he boasted: “We’ve done a great job” in dealing with the coronavirus while insisting, “Joe, you could never have done the job that we did.” That was shortly after Trump declared: “I don’t wear a mask like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from him and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
Now, four weeks from election day, Trump finds himself fighting COVID-19, quarantined and unable to keep up his efforts to shift the narrative.
In reality, the narrative is now set: The Trump presidency is the coronavirus presidency.
Barring another unexpected and potentially game-changing event – and the way 2020 has developed, that cannot be ruled out – Trump’s illness and his handling of the pandemic will dominate the campaign.
Trump continues to find himself trailing Biden in national and key battleground state polls. With the world focused on Trump’s illness combined with his inability to put forth any political messaging and Biden ramping up his in-person campaign schedule, the opportunities for Trump to close the gap have narrowed exponentially.
From a re-election standpoint, Trump’s campaign is sidelined. Without the president, it is not truly a presidential campaign. Yes, Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s children and other Trump supporters can try to rally supporters, but as we have seen at rallies featuring Trump the past five years, an event without Trump pales in comparison to a Trump-attended campaign event.
From a messaging standpoint, not only is the president silenced, he is silenced by the very virus he has been downplaying for months – a virus that continues to kill Americans, affect peoples’ work and educational lives, and even their entertainment options, as the country’s most popular sport, the National Football League, finds itself rescheduling games with players testing positive.
How all of this will affect voters’ choices is still unclear.
Some have already made up their minds, as more than 3.4 million have cast early ballots.
The vast majority of voters have yet to vote.
What we know from polling is many are not happy with how the president has handled the pandemic.
Since the spring, Americans have disapproved of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. According to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polling, 56 percent disapprove of how he has handled the pandemic, while 42.5 percent approve.
More interestingly, a poll released on Sunday revealed that 72 percent of Americans do not think Trump took the risks of coronavirus seriously enough and only half believe he will be able to handle his duties as president if there is a crisis.
In the meantime, Biden and his fellow Democrats are massaging a message designed to draw contrasts on dealing with the virus but are also taking care not to provoke or offend voters who may be on the fence about who to support. For instance, Biden’s campaign took down negative TV advertisements as the president battles COVID-19.
And while Republicans are growing extremely pessimistic, some think there could be a second act for Trump out of all of this.
If Trump comes out “with a more compassionate tone, embracing the seriousness of this pandemic will certainly go a long way to swing over the people that have not made their decision yet”, said Republican strategist Alice Stewart on the US broadcaster ABC’s This Week television programme Sunday.
If Trump beats the virus and changes his tune, could that be the late-in-the-campaign twist that boosts the Trump presidency?
At this point, it is virtually certain it will be COVID-19, how Trump handles it, and how voters react to it that will seal his fate – something nobody predicted and something he tried mightily to avoid.