The 2020 presidential campaign – remarkably stable for months – has been upended by two dramatic events. A wild and wearying presidential debate found more voters blaming President Trump for the raucous tone than they did Joe Biden. Then President Trump contracted COVID-19, potentially upsetting the entire campaign schedule.
Most polls taken after these twin tremors show Biden expanding his lead over Trump to double-digit levels. But pollsters themselves cautioned that voter shifts reacting to dramatic events are often highly volatile and could prove to be short-lived.
What is apparently not volatile is America’s deep and profound political polarization.
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A new Morning Consult poll released over the weekend found that a large percentage of Democrat voters are “happy” or “excited” over the news that President Donald Trump was ill with the coronavirus. “The emotion with the largest partisan gap was sadness,” the pollsters reported. “While 55 percent of Republican voters said the emotion described how they’re feeling today, 24 percent of Democratic voters said the same.”
The poll found that a stunning 40 percent of Democrats reported feeling “happy” over the news, while 31 percent reported feeling “excited.”
The poll also found 61 percent of Democrats were either “not too concerned” or “not concerned at all” about “Trump’s well-being.”
As they say, a tough audience.
It’s possible that Trump could benefit from some bipartisan sympathy as he recovers from his illness. But some of Trump’s weakest numbers are over his handling of the COVID crisis so it’s hard to see any net positives coming out of his recovery. After all, it’s Joe Biden’s campaign that has taken its negative ads off the airwaves. Trump’s campaign is keeping its ads up.
What should worry the Trump campaign is that in its closing weeks the campaign is likely not to be dominated by the rising economy, his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, or Joe Biden’s haphazard speeches. The overriding issue is likely to be the pandemic.
In the final month of the election, voters who might be looking for a campaign focused on issues and policy are likely to be more disappointed than usual.
Here Trump is indeed vulnerable. After assuring the American people he was safe inside the White House and after chiding Biden during the debate over wearing a mask, the president has now made it clear that COVID-19 is something that even the powerful have to be worried about.
There’s also the issue of voter concern that they might not be getting the whole story about Trump’s condition from the White House. The contradictions between statements from the president’s doctors and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows raise reminders of how in previous presidential campaigns the official statements from candidates often hid the truth. There are also concerns that Biden’s campaign is also not being fully forthcoming about the impact of his age on his mental agility.
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In 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been diagnosed with dangerously high blood pressure, heart disease and acute bronchitis. As U.S. troops landed at D-Day, FDR’s daily schedule was limited to only four hours of work a day.
Yet, the president’s doctor told a different story to reporters: “The stories that he’s in bad health are understandable around election time, but they are not true.” Roosevelt served only 82 days of his fourth term before he dropped dead of a stroke.
Likewise, John F. Kennedy, who projected vigor during the 1960 campaign, was actually taking as many as eight medications a day, including amphetamines, pain killers, sleeping pills and hormones. Kennedy actually denied suffering from Addison’s disease, even though he had been diagnosed with it.
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In the final month of the election, voters who might be looking for a campaign focused on issues and policy are likely to be more disappointed than usual. The election is largely a referendum on Donald Trump, it’s more focused on style rather than substance, and it now has voter concerns about the health of the candidates mixed in.
It will be for the voters to evaluate all this. But unless there are further dramatic events between now and Election Day, it’s Team Trump that should be more worried. They need some breaks like the ones they got in 2016 that allowed them to overtake Hillary Clinton. If they don’t get them, Biden is likely to retain his current lead.
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