On Friday, Trump seemed to try to rectify this, to some degree. In a tweet, he announced that flags would be flown at half-staff over the next three days “in memory of the Americans we have lost to the CoronaVirus.”
I will be lowering the flags on all Federal Buildings and National Monuments to half-staff over the next three days in memory of the Americans we have lost to the CoronaVirus....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 21, 2020
It’s clearly something he needs to work on — and something that could prove an electoral liability.
A new poll this week of the 2020 election features one of the biggest gaps to date between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden: 11 points. Biden leads 50 percent to 39 percent nationally in the Quinnipiac University poll.
Perhaps as troubling for Trump is another number that could resonate in the coronavirus era: the empathy gap.
While 42 percent of Americans agree that Trump cares about “average Americans,” 61 percent say the same about Biden. Trump is minus-14 on this count (42 percent positive vs. 56 percent negative), while Biden is plus-31 (61-30).
That overall gap is even bigger than it was during the 2016 election, in which Hillary Clinton enjoyed an advantage on this question but not to the magnitude Biden does. In September that year, Quinnipiac showed 53 percent of Americans said the former secretary of state cared about average Americans, while 44 percent said the same of Trump. That nine-point gap is now 19 points in favor of Biden.
It’s important to note that this empathy gap obviously didn’t make the difference for Clinton. The same poll showed people viewed Trump as being significantly less qualified to be president and also less levelheaded than Clinton (71 percent said Trump wasn’t levelheaded), and yet, two months later, he won. Exit polls showed just 15 percent of voters said having a president who “cares about me” was their top priority — compared to 21 percent in 2012. In contrast, 4 in 10 voters in 2016 preferred someone who “can bring change to Washington,” and Trump won them 82-14.
Trump’s win was apparently in large part because of these other attributes. It was a change election, in which Trump pledged to shake up Washington. People who didn’t like either him or Clinton wound up going for Trump strongly, despite viewing Clinton as the more prepared and steadier politician.
Today, that’s significantly less the case. People who dislike both Trump and Biden now lean strongly toward Biden. That doesn’t mean it will always be thus, but it suggests that those who recognize Trump’s liabilities are much more willing to vote for the alternative.
And chief among those liabilities appears to be empathy. Of all the issues on which Quinnipiac compares the two 2020 candidates, none carries the same imbalance.
Trump’s number on this is similar to where his approval rating has been for a long time. Biden, though, is viewed as being much stronger on empathy than overall. While 45 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Biden in the same poll, his empathy number jumps 16 points. And while 41 percent have an unfavorable impression of the former vice president, that number drops to 30 percent when it comes to whether he cares about average Americans.
The big question from here is whether that matters more than in 2016. Voters generally favor the economy and leadership. And to the extent people want someone to rescue the country from a recession, that could accrue to Trump’s benefit, given his superior numbers on the economy.
But as the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak continues, other concerns could logically creep into the picture. And if people think the election is about empathy, caring about people who are struggling and “feeling your pain” — in a country currently experiencing plenty of it — Biden appears significantly better positioned to speak to that.