Like every other aspect of American life, the 2020 election campaigns for the presidency and Congress have been completely upended by the emergence of the novel coronavirus. Less than a month ago, Donald Trump’s re-election prospects looked as bright as they had at any point in his presidency. The stock market was at an all-time high, unemployment was at an historic low, and the United States had just reached an agreement with the Taliban to end its long-running involvement in Afghanistan. The Democrats seemed on track to nominate Bernie Sanders, a candidate far to the left of the American political mainstream whose previous stances and statements provided a cornucopia of opposition research. The president’s advisors were feeling quite optimistic about his electoral prospects. Now, however, circumstances have changed radically. Not only have Democrats coalesced behind a more moderate and palatable candidate in Joe Biden, but COVID-19 has completely remade the national (and global) landscape in ways that far transcend politics.
As the virus began to spread in the United States, markets dropped more than 35% from their highs in a matter of weeks. Like much of the world, American society has moved progressively toward broader and tighter social constraints, locking most of the economy into a freeze of indeterminate duration. Credible economists now forecast that the U.S. economy could contract by 20% or more in the second quarter, with as much as a third of the American workforce ending up unemployed. No president has ever even sought—much less won— re-election under such inauspicious circumstances. More than simply destroying the “Trump economy,” however, the global pandemic has completely reshaped the terms in which the election will be contested.
Barring a complete and dramatic recovery of the U.S. economy within the next seven months (a prospect difficult to imagine), Trump will no longer be able to tell a simple story of economic boom times engineered by his tax cuts, deregulation, and hard-nosed trade deals. Instead, he will have to make the case that the economic tsunami unleashed by the disease was completely beyond his control, that he responded as effectively as he possibly could, and that the United States is on the road to a strong recovery. In the main, this will almost certainly be true—no leader or government, with the possible and partial exception of Xi Jinping, can reasonably be held responsible for the disease-driven catastrophe that has roiled all the world’s economies. Much of my own research shows, however, that American voters—particularly less informed ones—tend to assign disproportionate credit to the president in good times and disproportionate blame in bad times, as pinning responsibility on the chief executive is the easiest way to hold someone accountable. Trump will have to argue that he is the best choice to direct the nation’s economic recovery, contrasting the strong economic performance during his first three years in office with the tepid and protracted economic recovery from the Great Recession during the Obama/Biden years. It is possible that this will prove an effective argument, particularly since the economic dislocation originated from a source so obviously beyond the president’s control. Nonetheless, this was not a case that Trump and his campaign team anticipated having to make just a few short weeks ago.
At the same time, however, the Democrats’ fall campaign strategy has been upended to a significant degree as well. It is hard to remember that, just two months ago, we were in the midst of a supposedly momentous and historic presidential impeachment. All Trump’s opponents’ concern about inappropriate contacts with Ukraine or “collusion” with Russia—which ultimately resulted in a House vote to impeach the president, followed by a Senate acquittal—seem rather petty and insignificant at this juncture. In a time of pandemic disease and economic collapse, who is thinking about “troubling implications” of the Mueller report? In addition, the implicit core logic of a Joe Biden campaign—that he represents a comforting “return to normalcy” after Trump’s tempestuous, corrupt, and divisive presidency—is undermined by circumstances that are now so clearly not normal, and cannot be for some time no matter who is president. Even if, as we all hope and many expect, the virus recedes by summer, there will always be the prospect of a resurgence until a vaccine is developed (which by all accounts will not happen in advance of the November election). Biden’s attempts to speak publicly about the virus thus far have not been reassuring, as he has appeared befuddled and often lost his train of thought. Voters might well decide that Trump, who’s at times simplistic and bombastic public statements are at least generally coherent, is a better choice in a time of crisis than the aging and frequently confused Biden.
In a very real sense, the onset of the coronavirus crisis has wiped the slate clean on this year’s presidential election. Gone will be the endlessly-repeated statistics about lowest unemployment rates ever for blacks, Latinos, etc. There will be no more reminders to voters to check the balances in their retirement accounts and give thanks to the president. At the same time, attacks on the president’s character and rehash of past corruption charges will appear unseemly and irrelevant in a time of national (and, indeed, global) emergency. President Trump has a very real opportunity to rally the nation in the face of a crisis, and to benefit politically from doing so. There are already some signs that this is happening, as polls show him with reasonably high marks for his handling of the crisis and with some of the highest approval ratings of his presidency (which still, it should be noted, hover only around 50%). Whether Trump’s leadership through the virus crisis is ultimately seen as steady and effective or not will be a defining feature—perhaps the defining feature—of the campaign. Whether he will be perceived to have risen to the occasion is still very much an open question, which is why pundits and betting markets still see the presidential race as close to a toss-up. Thus, while the overall outcome probabilities have not shifted dramatically, the grounds on which the election will be contested, and the likely tenor of the fall campaign, have been fundamentally transformed by the pandemic.