The simple answer to all of these questions is probably the same: In the end, it won’t really matter what either side does right now.
You may remember what Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said of the lockdowns: “You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline.”
Well, if history is any guide, the same thing holds true for campaigning in a year of national crisis. You don’t control the narrative. The crisis does.
Not that you can blame either party for trying to game the fallout. Democrats worry that President Trump is using the theater of his daily briefings to erase the memory of his dismissive response to the initial threat (although reviews there are mixed, even among many of his Republican allies). They fear a scenario where Trump, recast as a wartime president and claiming credit for having avoided the worst projections, will emerge in the fall as a stronger candidate for reelection.
Republicans, meanwhile, see a nightmare scenario where shutdowns and business closings linger into the summer, while the virus slowly fades and job losses continue to mount. No president has won reelection on a slogan that says: “The depression could have been even worse.”
What we know for certain, however, is that the virus will be the only actor determining this — whether we’re going to ballgames or burying more loved ones, whether downtown shops are back to normal or shuttering any still open for business. And, fairly or not, incumbent presidents are always judged on the moment, no matter how they or their opponents try to spin it.
Jimmy Carter didn’t directly cause the recession or take the hostages in Iran that led to his ouster in 1980, but a sense of growing futility in the country became his legacy anyway. George W. Bush toiled under the weight of his own sluggish economy in 2004, but voters felt more secure than they had after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and that was enough to get him reelected.
My friend Nathan Daschle, who used to direct the Democratic Governors Association, has a pretty simple and compelling theory about reelection campaigns for executives. He says it’s always a two-part question.
First, voters ask themselves if the guy or woman in charge deserves to be reelected (or, as Ronald Reagan famously put it: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”). And only if the answer is no do they move on to asking whether the alternative candidate is someone for whom they can vote.
In Trump’s case, that first question was always going to be a hard sell. For all the talk about Democratic turnout and Russian interference, Trump won in 2016 because a small chunk of moderate Republican and independent voters — who told pollsters they didn’t like him very much but simply couldn’t bear to vote for Hillary Clinton — took a flier on the challenger anyway.
Most of those voters never warmed to Trump, which is why his approval ratings have generally hovered just above the 40 percent mark ever since. So the main question this November, before we even get to Biden, is whether enough of those first-time Trump voters think he deserves reelection, whatever their distaste for the way he behaves.
And nothing will help settle the answer to that question until we know what the country’s twin crises — health and economic — look like at the end of the summer, with early voting underway and the election a month or so off.
If the virus peters out and the economy is on the upswing, then those persuadable voters will probably judge Trump to have capably managed us through the crisis. If things are gloomy and chaotic, with rolling outbreaks and careening markets, then it will be hard for Trump to escape the verdict that he is the Republican Carter, only less sympathetic.
What won’t matter much is whether the president actually deserves the credit or blame. What won’t be relevant is whether Biden gave a few more speeches in April or May, or whether Trump managed to dazzle anyone with his bombastic briefings and ephemeral promises.
Nothing they do today is going to reliably tell us much about how voters will feel in November. Only the virus gets to do that.