As recently as mid February, President Trump seemed to be in the best political shape he had ever been in. His job-approval numbers had been climbing since late October, as impeachment and Democratic primaries dominated the news. Bernie Sanders had won most of those early primaries, suggesting Trump would be running against someone who divided his own party and held a suite of unpopular views. The unemployment rate continued to hit new lows. We seemed to be on track to have the fourth incumbent president reelected in a row.
Then biology upended politics. We now know less about how November will go than we usually do at this point in a presidential-election year. We don’t know the future course of the virus: whether there will be a second wave, what the death toll will be, whether people will feel safe going to the polls. We don’t know what the economy will look like: whether a recovery will have begun and, if so, how robust it will be.
Even if we had answers to those questions, we would not know how those voters who are up for grabs would judge these developments. If the economy is rapidly improving but unemployment remains much higher than in the spring, will the improvement or the earlier decline matter more to them? Will they be looking for someone to blame for all our losses, in which case Trump will suffer? (Deservedly or not.) Or will they take the perspective that disaster can strike, mistakes in responding to them are inevitable, and the country has survived and begun to recover?
Even amid all this uncertainty — in these “unsettled times,” to use the language of every other advertisement on TV these days — we can confidently make a few nontrivial observations about the shape of the campaign to come.
The first is that Trump is the underdog.
In the second half of March, as the coronavirus began to dominate national life, President Trump’s net approval rating rose from –8 to –3 in the RealClearPolitics average: a substantial improvement, given the narrow band in which those numbers have moved over the last three years. Over the course of April, though, he gave back most of those gains. He appears to have benefited from a muted, and mostly temporary, version of the “rally around the flag” effect that often lifts heads of government during crises. Previous presidents, and such current leaders in other countries as Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, saw their ratings rise by more.
Even during his March upswing, however, Trump barely improved in polls testing him against Joe Biden among registered voters. Biden is consistently leading in polls of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin: five states Trump won in 2016. Democratic victories in those states would be more than enough to make Trump the first president to be defeated for reelection in 28 years.
In 2016, overlapping majorities of the public disliked both of the major-party nominees. Those voters who disliked both Trump and Hillary Clinton — the Trump campaign’s analysts called them “double haters,” according to Joshua Green’s book Devil’s Bargain — broke heavily at the end for the Republican. Trump is viewed much more favorably now than he was four years ago, since a lot of Republicans have changed their opinion about him, and Biden is viewed more favorably than Clinton was. Among those who dislike both Trump and Biden, though, Biden has an enormous lead.
Election analyst Henry Olsen, writing in the Washington Post, sees some hope for Trump in the fact that he does slightly better in job-approval polls than in head-to-head polls against Biden. If a lot of the voters who approve of Trump’s performance but are undecided in the contest will be for him in the end, he is only slightly behind Biden.
The second thing we know is that the election will be less a “referendum” on Trump’s performance than a “choice” of candidates.
For a long time, presidential-reelection outcomes were thought mainly to represent up-or-down verdicts by the public on the incumbent’s performance. It is a theory that challengers still cherish. The classic cases are 1980 and 1984. By 1980, the public had decided that Jimmy Carter was failing as president, and Ronald Reagan needed only to establish that he was an acceptable alternative to win. In 1984, the public had decided that Reagan was a success, and Walter Mondale had no chance.
In recent elections with incumbent presidents, the challengers’ campaigns have promoted the theory. In 2004, Democratic political strategists argued that the public had turned against President George W. Bush, who was below 50 percent approval for much of the spring and summer; Democratic nominee John Kerry merely had to clear the threshold of acceptability, they said. Bush’s strategists argued that they would succeed in making the election more about Kerry’s flaws than the referendum theory suggested, and that Bush’s performance would look better as voters paid more attention to those flaws. The Republicans were right.
The next time an incumbent was up for reelection, in 2012, the parties switched sides. Republican strategists and spinners said that Barack Obama, who was under 50 percent in the spring and summer, was losing a referendum election. This time they were wrong.
In retrospect, it appears that the referendum theory of presidential elections was an artifact of a less politically polarized time. When a lot of voters floated between the parties, presidents could win or lose landslides based on their perceived performance. Now we have two hardened and roughly evenly matched party coalitions with more uniformly antagonistic views, and almost all voters lean toward one or the other of them. An incumbent starts with a high floor of support, and highlighting the ideological and personal defects of his opponent is effective in keeping those who are on the outskirts of his camp from leaving.
A third safe prediction is that the campaign will dwell more on the characters and personalities of the nominees than on their policies. This is of course a matter of degree. But if Bernie Sanders had won the Democratic nomination, we could have expected a more policy-based campaign. Sanders is enthusiastic about his policy ideas, and the Trump campaign was enthusiastic about running against them.
Biden, on the other hand, seems to come alive when promising to restore decency to the White House and talking about Trump’s deficiencies. The Trump campaign seems to view Biden’s main vulnerabilities as personal ones: his age, his many years in Washington, his son Hunter’s trading on his father’s offices, and now Tara Reade’s accusation that he sexually assaulted her when she was working for him.
The coronavirus has had a huge effect on our health, public policy, and economy. Its long-term impact is yet to be seen. As momentous as the epidemic is, though, we can already see signs that one thing it cannot disrupt is the polarization of our electorate.
This article appears as “The Infection Election” in the May 18, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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