The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How much of Trump’s loss is actually attributable to the pandemic?

A group calling themselves “The People's Motorcade” gathered April 23 at Freedom Plaza and then drove around the White House, ending their rally by dumping body bags on the sidewalk in front of the Trump International Hotel in D.C. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

During the last two months of Donald Trump’s presidency, as he scrambled to wrench a second term away from the will of the electorate, a pollster who’d worked with his failed reelection campaign put together a presentation explaining why Trump lost.

At its center was the coronavirus pandemic. A poll of voters in five states that flipped from red to blue in 2020 and five that Trump held found that the sentiment on Trump’s handling of the virus was viewed less favorably with voters in the states that flipped than those that hadn’t. The survey, conducted by campaign pollster Tony Fabrizio and first obtained by Politico, explored a number of factors related to the pandemic, including voter approval of infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci and support for wearing masks.

In most cases, President Biden received more support from voters in the states that flipped who held anti-Trump positions on coronavirus issues than he did in states that Trump held. We can see that in the poll’s assessment of views on Fauci.

In states that flipped, Biden won those who approved of Fauci’s job performance (72 percent of voters) by 28 points. Among those who disapproved of Fauci (28 percent of voters), Trump won by 68 points. That was the same margin by which Trump won among Fauci skeptics in states that he held, while among those who approved of Fauci in those states, Biden won by only 18 points.

It’s hard not to come to the conclusion, then, that Trump’s handling of the coronavirus — including disparagement and marginalization of Fauci — contributed to his loss.

But is that a fair conclusion?

It’s often hard to evaluate why voters vote the way they do. HuffPost’s Ariel Edwards-Levy points out that voters themselves are often bad at identifying why they voted as they did and that the complexity of motivations driving vote choice makes picking out individual causes tricky. It can certainly be the case that one issue leads to a candidate’s defeat, but it is also the case that identifying when that happens is fraught.

The data collected by Fabrizio reveals that there were similar shifts among various demographic groups in the flipped and held states from 2016, when Trump won all 10 states. The shifts in the states Trump held were just generally smaller.

There’s a lot going on here, so let’s focus on one point: the opinions of Whites with college degrees, the second column from the right. In states that flipped (darker colored lines), Trump went from winning in 2016 to losing in 2020, with a swing of 14 points to Biden on net. In states Trump held (lighter colored lines), Trump went from winning by a lot to winning by a little — but with a bigger swing to Biden of 18 points on net.

Now look at the column for voters 65 and up. Here, Trump’s position relative to Biden was steady in states he held compared to 2016, while his support among older voters sank in states that flipped. How do we read this? Is it because of the coronavirus? If so, why only in those states?

We can’t simply look at these data points within the context of the presidential election. We know, for example, that the two trends above were in evidence before the pandemic. Democrats retook the House in 2018 on the strength of Trump’s eroded support among suburban Whites (particularly White women) with college degrees. His support among older voters had similarly waned before the pandemic emerged. His response to the virus that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans may not have helped with those voters, but it’s not clear that the pandemic drove the erosion in his support.

Biden won the states that flipped from red to blue by an average of one percentage point and lost the states Trump held by an average of 5.3 points. In 2016, Trump won the states that flipped by 2.1 points, meaning they saw a swing of 3.1 points to the Democrat. He won the states he held by 6.3 points that year, meaning a smaller shift of one point.

The narrowness of those margins in the states that flipped, though, means that a lot of things might have made the difference. Consider the Fauci numbers again. If 72 percent of those in states that flipped viewed Fauci with approval and they preferred Biden by 28 points, that’s a gain of 20.2 points for Biden over Trump overall (because 20.2 is 72 percent of 28). Among the 28 percent of voters in states that flipped who disapproved of Fauci, Trump won by 68 points, meaning a net gain for him of 19 points. That translates to a 1.1 percent Biden victory — which is about the average across the five states.

Does that mean Fauci was the deciding factor? Maybe it was the role played by new voters, whom Biden won by 14 points in states that flipped and only eight points in states Trump held. Or maybe it was voters who said the Supreme Court was a factor in their vote. While Trump crushed Biden among those who didn’t say the court was important, Biden won among the much larger group of voters who did point to the court as a motivation. In each case, the math leads to a one-point win in those flipped states.

Or maybe more new voters came out to vote because they were motivated by support for or opposition to Trump — and in states that Trump held, they were less likely to oppose the president than new voters in states he lost. Maybe there were broad trends working against a president who’d only narrowly won election in 2016 and which manifested in a number of issue preferences.

Maybe a pollster who’d produced an even longer report last summer urging Trump to focus on the pandemic was seeking to reinforce that point. Maybe a not very popular president was facing off against a slightly more popular opponent, making the difference in a handful of states Trump narrowly won in 2016.

They say victory has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan. That’s archaic. In an economy where reputations depend on success or failure over the long term and where policy decisions are predicated on perceived support, even losses can find a wide range of parents.