Until the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump counted on a surging economy to propel him to reelection. In a sense, he still does.
Hardly a day passes when Trump doesn’t predict that pent-up demand will ignite a new economic boom later this year.
But the president’s political problem is that the economy won’t likely surge enough, if at all, before Election Day, and that failure will shape the 2020 election agenda, along with the fallout from his mishandling of the virus that caused it.
Six months before Americans choose the next president, the deadly combination of health and economic crises threatens to make Trump the third modern president — along with Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush — to lose reelection due to an economic recession.
This has become the most anti-science government since people believed that administering leeches cured the sick and dying, columnist Ann McFeatters says.
The issues are intertwined. A major factor slowing any economic rebound is the Trump administration’s failure to provide the massive testing needed to assure Americans it is safe for them to resume their normal lives.
Despite his efforts to blame the nation’s governors for any shortages, medical experts, state executives from both parties and public polls all fault the federal government for the shortage in materials to expand testing.
Polls show the public trusts governors more than Trump, and approval of the way he is handling the crisis has dropped to pre-pandemic levels, in part because a strong majority believes he failed to act decisively at the outset and doesn’t believe his repeated reassurances.
As a result, Trump trails Joe Biden, his presumptive Democratic rival, by an average of six points in the Real Clear Politics average, and even more telling, in every swing state where recent surveys were taken.
Now more than ever, we put ourselves in a precarious position by nominating someone in their mid-’70s for the nation’s highest office, law professor Jessica A. Levinson says.
These include the very states where Trump crafted his 2016 electoral majority — Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin — and even Florida. The most recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll showed that, in 11 swing states including six he carried in 2016, Trump trailed Biden by six points, almost the same as his overall national deficit.
Trump supporters note Biden’s six-point margin resembles the seven points by which Hillary Clinton led Trump at this time four years ago. And Trump has every incumbent’s ability to use the presidency for political advantage, along with a massive financial advantage plus a far better organized campaign than four years ago.
Still, several factors suggest that current numbers may be more indicative of the projected result than the comparable ones in 2016. They include:
Incumbent woes. Reelection bids are generally referendums on incumbents, job approval usually equates to electoral support, and Trump is the first modern president whose job approval never reached 50%.
As the coronavirus crisis impacts the economy, the pressure on food banks have grown. I volunteer at a food bank and we need volunteers and food donations, epidemiology masters student Farrah Lynn Ezzeddine says.
Unusually, his current job approval in the mid-40s is several points higher than the percentage who say they’ll vote for him. “It suggests that some may be okay with what Trump’s doing but dislike how he handles himself,” said Daron Shaw, the Republican co-director for Fox News polls.
- A plague on both? In 2016, voters who disliked both candidates sided with Trump by a 3-to-2 margin, according to network exit polls.
But the recent WSJ-NBC poll showed that situation reversed in 2020 with Biden leading 6-to-1 among voters who disliked both. That may reflect a tendency for voters to prefer change over more of the same.
- Straying seniors. In the NBC-WSJ poll, Biden led Trump by nine points among registered voters over 65, among whom Trump beat Clinton by seven points. A recent Quinnipiac University Florida poll showed seniors disapprove Trump’s handling of the crisis, a reversal from last month among those most vulnerable to the virus.
Trump needs to reverse those numbers to win.
With the legislative and judicial branches basically shut down because of the virus, the executive has seized almost complete control over state government, columnist George Skelton says.
- Democrats united. In 2016, lingering hard feelings from the bitter Democratic nomination fight between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders helped Trump. Post-election polls showed more than one in five Sanders primary voters backed either Trump or another candidate.
The 2020 Democratic primary battle ended far sooner, without acrimony, though some Sanders supporters remain unreconciled. A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll showed 80% of Sanders voters already back Biden, a number likely to rise as Democrats focus on the need to beat Trump.
The presidential race is not the only current GOP worry. Independent analysts expect Democrats to hold the House and now give them a 50-50 chance of gaining the Senate, where they need a net gain of three seats if Biden wins.
The World Health Organization mishandled the COVID-19 outbreak, but it is still crucial to the planet's health system, columnist Ivo Daalder says.
Four Republican senators are in trouble — Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Democrats have outraised GOP rivals in all key races, including underdog challenges to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama is the only Democrat seen likely to lose.
Trump, who never stops touting his 2016 success, predicts he will win in a landslide. Some analysts believe he could again lose the popular vote and win an Electoral College majority.
But neutral observers are increasingly skeptical. Trump is in “an increasingly precarious position for re-election,” wrote National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar, calling current trends “more suggestive of a Democratic blowout than a second Trump term.”
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.
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