The pandemic has reshaped Election 2020 — and Trump’s prospects for reelection

No election in history has played out against the backdrop of a pandemic, a major recession and a racial reckoning. Even more than ever, it is largely about the incumbent.
(Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post; Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post; AP/Andrew Harnik)

Election 2020 will long be remembered as The Pandemic Election.

The coronavirus fundamentally changed this election year. Traditional events still populate the political calendar between now and Election Day on Nov. 3, but everything about what the candidates and the voters will be doing has been upended due to the threat of covid-19.

The political conventions, which begin with the Democrats on Monday, followed by the Republicans a week later, will not look like those of the past. Two presidential debates already have been moved to new locations, and it remains to be seen what those quadrennial confrontations will look like when they are held.

Campaign rallies have been scuttled. Far fewer campaign volunteers will be knocking on the doors of voters, though Republicans are trying to maintain some face-to-face mobilization efforts. The casting and the counting of ballots are undergoing more changes, as the pandemic accelerates a trend toward voting by mail. That in turn has sparked widespread litigation, as well as controversy fueled by President Trump’s unfounded claims that mail-in voting is rife with fraud.

Yet come November, the ballots will be tallied, though perhaps more slowly and contentiously than at any time since the disputed election of 2000. Once that happens, the answer to the question that has loomed over Election 2020 since election night 2016 should be answered: Will the most disruptive president in anyone’s memory be driven from office after a single term? Or will he, again, beat the odds and the experts’ predictions and claim a second term?

“The pandemic obviously changes the way politics will be conducted in a dramatic fashion. But beyond that, the pandemic heightens the importance of the election,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “In many ways, the pandemic has proven to the country that politics really matters and who gets elected really matters in ways that few other events of our lifetimes have done.”

From here until Election Day, Trump and former vice president Joe Biden will be competing against one another. The gap between them, in style, tone, vision and approach to the presidency, could hardly be greater. Normally those differences would comprise the full platter of choices for most voters. But this year, Trump and Biden will also be competing for attention against a pandemic that is the dominant issue in the lives of most Americans, along with the pain of an economy battered by closures, cutbacks and joblessness.

TV stations and social media platforms will air millions of dollars of political commercials by the two campaigns and their allies. Candidates will hold whatever events they muster. Direct mail pieces will arrive at doors across the country. Social media will provide the connective tissue for communities of voters. Cable TV analysis will be nonstop.

But for most families, taking the precautions necessary to avoid contracting the coronavirus, making ends meet in a broken economy, assuring that children get educated in a largely virtual environment and simply trying to carry on with some sense of normalcy will be the stuff of everyday life. Add to that the racial reckoning that has been taking place since the killing of George Floyd in May, which sparked protests — sometimes violent but mostly not — across the country, and it’s clear that no election has played out against this kind of backdrop.

None of this means that politics is taking a back seat. To the contrary, there is ample evidence that Americans are paying close attention to this election and that they are highly motivated to vote, despite potential obstacles. Trump has an energized base and is providing just about all the motivation many Biden supporters need to turn out to vote, even if their enthusiasm for the presumptive Democratic nominee is more limited.

Trump is the other factor that makes Election 2020 unique. No president in modern times, perhaps ever, has been as dominant a figure on the national stage as Trump, for better and for worse. He creates conversations and controversy. He directs the focus of attention in his direction and smothers nearly everything else — except the novel coronavirus, which might be the first thing that has proved to be his match in galvanizing the country’s attention.

National and state polls show Biden leading in both the popular vote and in the pursuit of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. But will that lead hold?

“You take the combination of 2016, when no one thought Trump would win and he won,” said Doug Sosnik, a Democratic strategist and former Clinton White House official. “Then you take the world of the pandemic and everything is changing so quickly. It would be prudent to be prudent about predicting the future.”

Having said that, Sosnik noted that presidential reelection campaigns are almost always a referendum on the incumbent. In the face of a virus still not under control and an economy that just witnessed the biggest quarterly drop in gross domestic product (GDP) since records were kept, Sosnik added, “That’s a pretty tough platform [for an incumbent] to go to the public and say, ‘Give me four more years.’ ”

President Trump speaks during a coronavirus briefing at the White House on Aug. 4. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Yellow lights blinking for Trump

Incumbency is often a major asset in presidential campaigns, but not always. In part because of the pandemic, and in part because of his own behavior and policies — or lack thereof — the president may have squandered the benefits of incumbency just at the wrong moment.

Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson notes that, at this point, the election is almost entirely about the president and how people feel he has handled the major crises facing the country, and that most Americans already have firm opinions about Trump.

“On the other hand,” she said in an email message, “there has been clear movement away from him over the summer, so some people have been changing their mind about him in the last few months or at least reassessing their position on him. It is possible that if the pandemic eases as we head into the fall — and that is an enormous ‘if’ — he could win back some of those, such as seniors, for whom the pandemic seemed to be a major driver of their disillusionment.”

Most presidents not only win reelection but also do so with a larger popular vote margin than in their first election. Over the past half century, the only reelected president who failed to win by a bigger percentage the second time around was Barack Obama in 2012.

Over that same time period, three incumbent presidents were defeated: George H.W. Bush in 1992, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Gerald Ford in 1976 (though Ford had ascended to the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned in scandal and had never been elected on his own).

When he first won the White House in 1988, Bush was running against a major obstacle: voters in the modern era have been generally reluctant to award a political party more than eight consecutive years of control of the White House.

Since World War II, there has been a predictable cycle in which the two parties have traded control of the White House after eight years. There was a shift after eight years of the Eisenhower administration, after eight years of Kennedy and Johnson, after eight years of Nixon and Ford, after eight years of Bill Clinton, after eight years of George W. Bush and after eight years of Barack Obama.

The elder Bush managed to piggyback on the popularity of Ronald Reagan to extend Republican control to 12 years by winning in 1988. Four years later, his luck ran out and he ended up a one-term president.

The exception to the eight-year pattern was Carter, who lost to Reagan in 1980 after just a single term in control of the White House for the Democrats. Since the beginning of the 20th century, he is the only president to lose his bid for reelection in the first term for his party in controlling the White House. If Trump were to lose in November, he would join Carter in that small club.

Presidential handicappers and modelers look at a variety of measures to gauge the health of an incumbent, but among the most watched are presidential approval and the state of the economy, including GDP and the monthly unemployment rate — particularly at the end of the second quarter of the reelection year.

It was once the case that a president with an approval rating below 50 percent was considered a likely loser. Based on Gallup’s presidential approval tracker, Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush were all below that threshold at this time in their reelection campaigns, with Carter at 32 percent in August 1980 and Bush in the low 30s in August 1992.

In 2004, George W. Bush struggled to get above the threshold of 50 percent, teetering back and forth in the month before the election. Obama was still underwater at 45 percent in August 2012 but managed to crawl above 50 percent in the weeks before the election.

President Trump departs Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on May 14. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

By contrast, Trump has never cracked 50 percent in Gallup’s weekly assessment. As the Senate was voting to acquit him on two articles of impeachment last winter, he hit 49 percent several times. Since then, as he has mishandled the pandemic, his standing has plummeted and as of late July, the most recent Gallup number available on its Trump job approval site showed his positive rating stood at 41 percent.

Incumbent presidents usually find that their popular vote percentage tracks closely with their approval rating. If Trump’s approval rating does not rise into the mid-to-high 40s by the time of the voting, he will struggle to win reelection.

But that statement comes with a big caveat: Measuring Trump by traditional metrics still comes with some risk. A month before he was elected, 57 percent of likely voters in a Washington Post-ABC News poll said they did not think Trump was qualified to be president and 62 percent said he did not have the personality or temperament to serve as president. At that time, he trailed Hillary Clinton by four points nationally. Despite those judgments about his fitness, he still won, but this year his opponent is far less unpopular than Clinton was in 2016.

A few months ago, Trump could point to strong economic numbers as his primary case for reelection. The unemployment rate stood at 3.5 percent in February. (The rate was 4.7 percent when he took office.) As the economy was shut down because of the pandemic, the jobless rate jumped to 14.7 percent in April, higher than at any point since the Great Depression, then dropped down to 13.3 percent in May, 11.1 percent in June and 10.2 percent in July. That was still higher than at any point during the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

Quarterly GDP growth was between 2 percent and 3 percent for Trump’s first three years in office — respectable but not spectacular. This year, the pandemic stopped the economy. First quarter GDP fell to 0.3 percent and the second quarter, during much of which the economy was fully or partially shut down, GDP fell by a staggering 9.5 percent, or more than 30 percent on an annual basis.

Trump continues to predict a rapid rebound for the economy, against the projections of many economists. Meanwhile, his overall approval rating remains closely tied to perceptions of how he has dealt with the pandemic. He must hope that the coming months bring a significant reevaluation.

A woman looks out over the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 18, 2016. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The dictates of the calendar

With the caveat that this has been a year in which unexpected events have overwhelmed all else, the general election campaign from here forward will be largely dictated by the calendar of major events. The upcoming conventions will be shaped primarily by the two candidates and their teams. Trump and Biden and their advisers will have far less control over how the debates unfold.

Long ago, conventions conducted real business and sometimes were where a party finally settled on its nominee after many ballots. Today, they are gigantic infomercials, controlled and shaped by the nominee’s campaign — the last and best opportunity for the nominee and his party to deliver a mostly unfiltered message to the public. For that reason, they still matter to the candidates.

Democrats approached their convention cautiously, mindful of the pandemic. Originally scheduled for mid-July, the Democratic gathering was pushed back to August as a way of buying time to gauge the status of the virus. Later, delegates were told not to attend in person, but Biden said he would go to the host city of Milwaukee to accept his nomination. On Aug. 5, he reversed that decision because of continuing health and safety issues. Plans now call for him to accept his nomination in Delaware.

For the Biden team, the decision to run a virtually all-virtual convention was both daunting and liberating, daunting because something like this had never been done before, but liberating in that it allowed the campaign to strip away much of the traditional lineup — the endless speeches by little-known elected officials from around the country — and concentrate on the premier speeches and other elements they hope will prove compelling.

Democrats are putting together two hours of programming for each of the four nights. The highlights of the live portion will be speeches by prominent party leaders, with Biden’s acceptance speech the most important. The goal for the week, according to organizers, will be to fill out Biden’s profile for many voters who, despite his four-plus decades in public life, are still not fully familiar with his biography and record.

Democrats will intersperse the live speeches with prepackaged segments highlighting Biden’s story, focusing on key constituencies and battleground states and defining contrasts with the Republicans on issues such as health care and the economy. Everything is likely to be at a faster pace and the speeches shorter and tighter than at a traditional convention, where events typically meander across far more hours.

Trump took the opposite course from Biden and the Democrats, insisting that Republicans stage something closer to a traditional convention, with thousands of delegates, donors and others to be gathered together in the same city despite the risks of spreading the coronavirus. When officials in North Carolina balked at allowing the convention to go forward on that basis in the original host city of Charlotte, Trump and the Republican National Committee turned to Jacksonville to act as a host for the major events.

When the pandemic hit Florida hard last month, Trump was forced to reverse gears, scrambling with ever-changing plans that call for some official business to be conducted in Charlotte but with other events held elsewhere, including the president’s acceptance speech that may be delivered from the White House. Republicans have lost considerable time while focused on logistical issues, potentially at the expense of planning for the program itself, though Trump is his own maestro and impresario.

A worker adjusts the microphone for Donald Trump ahead of the third U.S. presidential debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 19, 2016. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

After the conventions, it will be nearly a month before the candidate debates begin. The first will be held Sept. 29 in Cleveland, hosted by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. The debate was moved to Ohio after the University of Notre Dame, the original host, decided it could not safely hold the event on its campus.

The second presidential debate, scheduled for Oct. 15, also had to find a new home at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami after the University of Michigan, the original location, opted out. The final presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 22 at Belmont University in Nashville. The vice presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 7 at the University of Utah.

Opinions vary on whether debates determine the outcome of elections, but there’s no doubt that individual debates can affect the trajectory of a campaign, at least in the short run.

In 1976, then-president Gerald Ford committed a major blunder when he insisted that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and never will be under a Ford administration.” Whether that cost him the election is another question, as he rapidly closed the gap with Jimmy Carter in the closing days of that election before coming up short.

Many people have argued that Reagan’s performance in his lone debate with Carter in 1980 was enough to assure voters that he could be trusted with the presidency, as he came across as far less threatening than the caricatures of a trigger-happy politician reckless enough to get the United States into a nuclear war with the Soviets.

In 2012, Obama had a terrible opening debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney — not unusual for an incumbent president, who is often rusty and used to deferential treatment — and had to recoup in the second debate to re-energize his nervous supporters. Before that second debate, Biden was tasked with giving Democrats a jolt of optimism in his debate with GOP vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan.

Trump’s campaign has sparred with officials at the Commission on Presidential Debates, which sets the dates and locations, picks the moderators and runs the operation at the debate sites. Initially, campaign officials demanded that the commission reconstitute its board of directors by appointing pro-Trump members. The campaign was told that the board is not bipartisan but rather nonpartisan. More recently, campaign officials asked for some power over the choice of moderators, but again were told that the commission has never allowed candidates to select or veto moderators.

Last week, Trump’s team asked again for a fourth debate, ahead of the Sept. 29 session on the books. That request again fell flat, unless Biden were to agree. The Trump campaign has portrayed Biden as too senile to be president, or even to debate, which has the potential to lower the bar for the former vice president’s performances.

Though debates do not start until late September, other events that month could be critical in shaping perceptions of the candidates — events related to the pandemic. Elementary and secondary schools have begun reopening this month amid a fierce debate about health and safety. Some colleges and universities will see their campuses repopulated, in part or in full.

Much learning will be done virtually at the start, but some universities hope to have some teaching done in classrooms. Meanwhile, some universities, major league baseball and the National Football League will attempt to go ahead with their fall seasons. No one knows how much all this activity will contribute to the spread of the virus, or how successful the efforts will be, but it is one more reminder that the election will play out in the shadow of the pandemic.

Staff members hold flags before an event with President Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on July 27. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The electoral college map

Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton in 2016 by nearly three million votes. This year, he probably will lose it again and possibly by a larger number of votes unless there is a dramatic reversal in fortunes. His path to reelection lies as it did before: through a narrow set of states that would give him an electoral college majority.

Four years ago, Trump maximized the electoral map of the present. This time, he could be done in by a ripening of the electoral map of the future.

The electoral map of the present was tailor-made for Trump in 2016, one in which he took full advantage of the demographics of three northern states — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The three are overwhelmingly White with significant numbers of older residents and of voters who do not have college degrees — three categories that at the time represented Trump’s strengths.

The map of the future is terrain in the South and West that is moving from red to purple status. The question is whether Democrats can accelerate those trends this fall. Two states in those regions already are considered true battlegrounds: Arizona and North Carolina.

Beyond those two, Georgia is moving toward competitive status because of demographic changes. More challenging for Democrats is Texas, though its demographics continue to diversify. Were it to favor the Democrats, in this or future presidential elections, losing its 38 electoral votes (and possibly growing with the next Census) would break the back of the Republicans’ hopes of winning the presidency.

For months, this mixture of the old and new maps has held the focus of the campaigns and strategists in both parties. For the most part, six states have drawn the most attention: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona and Florida, the biggest electoral prize of the group.

In 2016, Trump won Michigan by 10,700 votes, Wisconsin by 22,700 votes and Pennsylvania by 44,300. The three states had been part of what came to be known as the Democrats’ Blue Wall, a term coined by the Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein to describe 18 states plus the District of Columbia that voted for Democrats in six consecutive elections beginning in 1992. Trump also won Florida, but by just a fraction more than a percentage point.

Campaign signs outside a polling station at the Frederick Douglass Academy during the Michigan primary in Detroit on Aug. 4. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Trump’s path to 270 electoral votes, while challenging, is not out of the question. Were he to again win Florida (and pick up Maine’s second congressional district and all of Nebraska’s electoral votes, as he did in 2016), he could claim a second term by capturing any of the three northern industrial states. That, however, assumes he holds Arizona, North Carolina and all the other states he won in 2016 or finds states Clinton won to offset any such losses.

Right now, Biden has more paths to get to 270 than Trump, although Biden’s path requires him to win all three northern battlegrounds or substitute Arizona or North Carolina or Florida to offset a loss. Winning those three and nothing else that Clinton lost would give him 278 electoral votes. Winning Florida, which would be crippling to Trump, would push him to 307. Arizona and North Carolina would add another 26 votes to his total.

Trump’s campaign has talked about expanding the map to compete for Minnesota, New Hampshire and perhaps Nevada or New Mexico. Currently, none of those looks hospitable to the incumbent. Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, has talked about further expansion. Beyond Texas, the campaign is paying attention to Ohio and Iowa, two states that were long considered battlegrounds, but which Trump won easily in 2016.

One other interesting aspect of the state-by-state competition is the counties that shifted from Obama to Trump in 2016. Trump won 206 counties that had backed Obama four years earlier. Iowa led the nation, with 31 flipper counties, according to a list compiled by Ballotpedia, followed by Wisconsin with 23, Minnesota with 19, New York with 18 and Michigan with 12. Half of Maine’s 16 counties shifted from Obama to Trump.

A voter casts a ballot at a polling station inside the Frederick Douglass Academy during the Michigan primary in Detroit on Aug. 4. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The voters to watch

Trump’s reelection prospects have been hampered by shifts among two major groups of voters — White college-educated women and seniors. In addition, however, Biden still needs substantial turnout among Black voters and younger voters to bolster his hopes of becoming president.

The shift among White, college-educated women toward the Democratic Party began almost immediately after Trump’s victory in 2016. The huge turnout for the women’s marches held the day after his inauguration signaled that a new mobilization was underway. Many women who had not been politically active, other than voting, turned to activism and organizing.

Women helped power Democrats to their takeover of the House in the 2018 midterm election, and now White, college-educated women are considered a component of the Democratic base. If their intensity holds, they present a major threat to Trump, especially in his hope of competing effectively in suburban areas of the key battleground states.

Clinton carried White women with college degrees by seven points, according to network exit polls. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Biden ahead of Trump among these voters by 22 points.

The shift among seniors is a more recent phenomenon, hastened by the reaction of older voters to the president’s disastrous handling of the pandemic. Trump won seniors by seven points in 2016. The Post-ABC News poll showed him trailing Biden among registered voters over age 65 by six points.

Black voters secured Biden’s nomination when they supported him overwhelmingly in the South Carolina primary in February. Against Trump, he is supported by more than 9 in 10 Black voters, according to a recent Washington Post-Ipsos survey.

But Biden needs more than strong support he needs Black voters to turn out in force. Clinton suffered in some of the key states by a falloff among Black voters, compared with their turnout for Obama in 2012 and 2008.

Biden also hopes to win back some of the White voters without college degrees, a key part of the Trump constituency, and some polling shows him making inroads. But in an otherwise bullish presentation last month, the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA cautioned about the implications of modest shifts.

One slide in the super PAC’s presentation noted that, if turnout among voters of color dropped by a mere two percentage points from their current polling estimates, and if Biden’s support among White, non-college educated voters dropped by five points from their polling estimates, the former vice president’s projected electoral college majority would disappear and the outcome would be too close to call.

Biden also has struggled to generate enthusiasm among young voters, who strongly support him but have shown less inclination to say they are certain to vote. He also faces similar challenges among Latino voters.

Former vice president Joe Biden celebrates onstage with his wife Jill Biden after being declared the winner of the South Carolina primary in Columbia, S.C., on Feb. 29. (Luke Sharrett for The Washington Post)

A landscape transformed

At the time the Democratic nomination contest turned decisively toward Biden with his victory in the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29, America still appeared headed toward a contentious but conventional election.

Many Americans had heard little about the coronavirus and few knew anyone who had contracted the virus, let alone died of it. Trump was insisting that everything was under control and that, in any case, the virus would magically disappear. That was folly. Today, more than 159,000 people in this country have died of covid-19 and more than 5 million people have contracted the virus. The virus is far from under control.

The president has continued to predict the disappearance of the virus and insisted there will be a dramatic and quick rebound for the economy. The scientists in his administration disagree with the first, and most economists disagree with the second of the president’s predictions. The mixed messages have become a hallmark of his leadership.

The federal government has failed mightily to develop a national testing strategy, one key to containing the virus. Testing has been haphazard. Many people often wait a week or more for the results, thereby negating the value of rapid and constant testing.

The disease has spread to every part of the country — urban, suburban and rural; big states and small states; blue states and red states. Nothing is normal.

Presidential campaigns turn on two things — the quality and the performance of the candidates and their teams and the underlying fundamentals. In this election, as in many in the past, there are an endless list of variables that can be measured and evaluated.

Election 2020, the pandemic election, will come down to a conclusion about how well the president has managed the crisis, and then whether questions about Biden are enough to compensate for what currently is a harsh judgment about the incumbent. These are the fundamentals that will probably determine who takes the oath next Jan. 20.

Edited by Cathleen Decker. Copy edited by Emily Codik. Photo editing by Natalia Jimenez-Stuard. Design and development by Tyler Remmel.

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