In the Spring of 2014, several Americans contracted a rare disease with a high mortality rate, Ebola. The President offered failed platitudes and how America would be fine only to see the disease spread to several others. Social media amplified the dangers and turned partisans into attack dogs. Quarantine efforts were put into effect. Life continued on mostly as normal. Other than the last point, COVID 19 is eerily similar. Former President Barack Obama’s party suffered in the midterms as a result.
President Trump and Republicans might face a similar experience this November. Two months ago the President was riding high from a win over impeachment, the economy was booming and pundits were predicting his opponent in November would be self-identified socialist Bernie Sanders. But, the spread of COVID-19 in America has drastically altered the American landscape.
A bungled federal response, just like six years ago, is all but assured to hurt the President. Additionally, the initial responses of President Trump are at odds with how he is now behaving and acting (ie. Obama circa 2014). But, just as years before, the federal response has become much more coordinated, complex and reactive.
Congress has reacted by passing two massive Stimulus bills for the business sector. Now, debates rage over providing a direct stimulus to families in the form of a check. Mortgage giants Fannie and Freddie are thinking of delaying mortgage payments for impacted workers, tax filing day is now July 15th, the list goes.
At the local level, school has been cancelled indefinitely in Kansas and New York State. Higher education institutions have sent their students home early. Governors in CA, WA State and New York State have shut down in-building business for restaurants, bars, banks, and more. The state of CA has been described as in “lock-down” and the Governor of New York just announced a 100% order for non-essential workers to stay home (excluding grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals).
Partisan instincts have retrenched and, not surprisingly, Democrats argue Trump’s bungled response has led to the outbreak and the mad scramble to contain the disease. Somewhere along the way the President will be directly blamed for Americans deaths. A message only amplified by the worst aspects of social media.
The virus is likely to push America into a recession, though, to be fair, the entire planetary economy is sure to be pushed into a recession. Not much the President can do about that. Electoral history from the economic perspective suggests the President is doomed. But, in the history of President’s navigating crisis’s, the record is more nuanced.
There is little doubt the President has so far hinged his Presidency on the success of the economy. That message must now inevitably change to recovery. The stock market hit its high in February. By last week, the market had given up more than 25 percent of its gains. Liberals were gleeful to see the market had given up all the gains it had made under Trump. The rest of America, probably not so much.But, it is likely the President will suffer from the recession to follow.
That said, there is evidence if the President handles the crisis well going forward, Americans may be willing to give him a second term. For all the Leftist sighs of relief about Joe Biden being their nominee, the candidate has said very little about how he would handle the crisis. Out of the spotlight, the attention remains firmly fixed on the President, his team, and their responses.
We may live in a digital age where Americans have more access to information than ever before but the basic fundamentals of elections remain, because, human behavior. If you trust an elected official, or believe they are doing the best they can, you are unlikely to vote them out of office. Thus, this has has been how elected officials have won in times of crisis.
Look at FDR. He is the modern pioneer of winning elections in times of crisis. Both times he won reelection in 1936 and 1940, the economy was on a downturn, but the President’s demeanor, his rhetoric, and his “Fireside Chats” endeared him to the nation.
Likewise, in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks on America, President Bush’s rhetoric and actions ensured the public could trust him and his party to protect their security and economic interests. It helped the President was somewhat folksy and charming, or what some of his detractors would label as dumb. But, if 2004 was the Beer election, this explains why Americans trusted him more than the still, upper-lip Massachusetts denizen.
Trump has none of that going his way. Instead, what he mostly has is the bully pulpit and the ability to project to the public he is doing everything he can to protect them. Congress is continuing to work on a stimulus package to keep the economy rolling. This might appeal to suburban moderates in some ways. It might help win over the close the border crowd who are now seeing travel limited between the US and Canada. Even the open borders EU is restricting travel between nations as our its member states.
But, most importantly, and this runs counter to the President’s strategy of divide and conquer, if the election becomes a referendum on whether Americans trust him or not, COVID-19 will be what Americans remember most about his judgement. It could make or break his Presidency.
Of course, the tactic the President always has at his disposal which has not changed is scorched earth. No doubt, the President’s team will embrace this strategy with abandon in an effort to not have the election be solely a referendum on the President. After 11 debates and counting, the President’s team has ample footage of Joe Biden stumbling, getting angry, becoming more and more liberal, and not being as steady a hand as he presents himself to be.
So, when you read articles claiming the President is likely to lose in November remember these other tidbits we have learned over time. Partisan colors don’t change overnight (in times of crisis they tend to get stronger), incumbents start out with a tremendous advantage in cash and data and Trump is no exception, and the issues with polling we have seen, especially at the state level, have not been resolved. Whether this means the polls are underestimating Trump’s support is unclear, but recent history suggests they do.
All, in all, the President is likely at best 50-50 for reelection. The COVID-19 crisis has knocked him down but not out yet. In the short-term, the President’s numbers will likely drop due to worsening news. It is simply the natural evolution of polling and human nature. But, if the crisis starts to become contained, the President is seen as acting competently, and the economic damage is contained, this might be remembered as the time when Trump won reelection.