A renewed surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations presents a major threat to President Trump’s reelection chances.
“This election is about COVID and everything related to it,” said Douglas Heye, former communications director for the Republican National Committee. “If we were having this conversation in February, we’d be talking about issues where Trump does have strength. Those are gone, which is why when you watch Trump and his base, they talk about how great 2020 was going because nobody can say with a straight face that 2020 has been a good year.”
It appears that the United States is at the start of a third surge of COVID-19, timed for just before the election. Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have trended upward since early September, while over a dozen states have reported spikes in infection rates. Coronavirus-related hospitalizations are at the highest level since Sept. 2, with 37,048 people currently receiving treatment in hospital settings as of Wednesday, compared with 29,944 on Oct. 4, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Trump, trailing in the polls, will not benefit from renewed attention on the pandemic.
A majority has disapproved of Trump’s response to the coronavirus since mid-April. His approval ratings have not exceeded 40% since the start of May, according to a new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Two-thirds of the public disapproved of Trump’s pandemic response in the week ending on Oct. 12.
The Trump campaign has less than three weeks to improve perceptions of Trump’s management of the pandemic response.
The clock is running out on the passage of another economic relief package. GOP leaders and Democrats remain in a deadlock despite the president’s calls for an aid package even larger than the $1.8 trillion currently on the table.
“They’re in a difficult place … I think that’s why having some kind of deal on a COVID package would help Trump to be able to say, ‘This is what I’m doing,’” Heye said. “From the day he came down that escalator, he portrayed himself as the great deal-maker, but it’s past time for him to do that.”
Since the first surge in cases and deaths that threatened to overwhelm the U.S. hospital system in the spring, officials in the Trump White House have struggled to unite around a single message to the public about ending the pandemic, creating a conflict within the administration and eroding public trust. Trump has been accused of undercutting the credibility of his own government health officials on the coronavirus task force, often contradicting public health advice and portraying the experts as incompetent.
Since late spring, Trump has focused on a message that he is getting the country back to normal and that the pandemic is receding. But he has already been forced once to give up that approach, when, in the late spring, public health officials in several southern and western states reported a deluge of new cases over the summer. As deaths began mounting, Trump resumed daily White House pandemic briefings.
Similarly, after returning from the hospital after his own case of COVID-19, Trump tried to reassure voters that the virus is manageable, telling them not to let it “dominate” their lives. Now, though, the situation appears to be deteriorating again, making it a longer road back to normal.
“I think the story is pretty simple that the coronavirus is getting worse,” said John Fortier, the director of governmental studies and former principal contributor to the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Election Reform Project. “I don’t think that’s good for the Trump reelection prospects.”
Incumbents generally have a better chance at reelection than new candidates because they have the benefit of running on a good economy, but that is not the case this time.
“I think the bad overhang is just tough for an incumbent president no matter who they are, no matter what they do,” Fortier told the Washington Examiner. “Unless people see some good news around the corner… Other things could play into [his chances], of course, but that is a very big one, and it’s hard to overcome that.”
Trump was put on the defensive about the coronavirus early during an NBC News town hall in Miami on Thursday night, where he appeared without his competitor to answer questions from undecided voters.
During his town hall spot, moderator Savannah Guthrie pressed Trump on his pandemic response, leading to a contentious back-and-forth. He put forward the false claim that 85% of mask-wearers catch the coronavirus, referring to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from mid-September.
“I say, ‘Wear the mask.’ I’m fine with it. I have no problem,” Trump said.
The CDC tweeted a day earlier that “the interpretation that more mask-wearers are getting infected compared to non-mask wearers is incorrect.”