Given the stark differences between US President Donald Trump and Joe Biden, his presumptive Democratic challenger, the outcome of the November presidential election will have far-reaching implications not only for the United States, but also for the rest of the world. So should we brace for four more years of Trump, or is change coming?
In today’s highly polarised environment, committed voters from either party are unlikely to switch sides. But there are too few such voters on either side to clinch the election. This means that moderates and, especially, self-identified independents will make all the difference. From this perspective, Trump appears to be in trouble.
This was not the case just five months ago, when the Covid-19 crisis first erupted in the US. At the time, Italy – with its overwhelmed hospitals, strict economic lockdown, and devastated economy – was dominating headlines. The US had no restrictions in place, and its health system was managing just fine. This seems to have created the impression that the US was managing the crisis well.
Trump’s overall approval ratings rose in March, with a significant share of not only Republicans and moderates, but also Democrats and independents approving of his virus response.
Since then, however, Covid-19 infections and deaths have skyrocketed in the US, and the Trump administration has done little to address the problem. On the contrary, some in the administration have attempted to undermine Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, and Trump steadfastly refused to wear a face mask, even ridiculing Biden for doing so.
Meanwhile, unemployment has soared, and while some protections for workers and businesses were introduced, many expect a wave of evictions following the expiration of those measures. GDP contracted by 9.5% in the second quarter, or 32.9% year on year – the worst performance since 1947.
Not surprisingly, voter attitudes have shifted dramatically. From the end of March to mid-July, approval of both Trump’s overall performance and his handling of the Covid-19 crisis declined among all groups. For moderates in both parties, the swing is medium to large. For independents – whose voting patterns are significant determinants of outcomes in swing states – the shift was very large.
As disapproval of Trump and his Covid-19 response has grown, so has the number of Americans who plan to vote for Biden in November. From late March to mid-July, the number of independents who intend to vote for Biden increased by a striking 23%. The number of self-identified Democrats who support Biden also increased modestly – by 4% – while the number of Republicans planning to vote for Trump declined by 3%.
The Covid-19 crisis is not the only factor influencing support for Biden. But it is a highly significant one. If one runs a regression with conventional factors to account for the varying issues and dynamics at play, the Covid-19 crisis – including presumably its health and economic dimensions – accounts for about 20% of the change from March to July.
Among the 84% of Republicans who approve of Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, 97% say they will vote for him. Among the 15% who disapprove in July, however, only 40% plan to vote for him, while, 36% plan to vote for Biden – an 8% increase since late March. Among the 25% of moderates who approve of Trump’s Covid-19 response, 85% will vote for him. But of the 75% who disapprove, just 7% plan to vote for him.
As for independents, 68% disapproved of Trump’s handling of Covid-19 in July, a 25% increase since March. Of these, 64% intend to vote for Biden. Only 11% of independents who disapprove of Trump’s Covid-19 response plan to vote for him. Some 80% of the 43% of independents who do approve of Trump’s response plan to vote for him.
In sum, Trump is losing among independents and moderates, owing to his handling of the pandemic. But three months is a long time in electoral politics, and Trump seems to be trying to turn things around. In late July, he resumed regular Covid-19 briefings, began promoting mask wearing, and cancelled the Republican National Convention celebrations scheduled for August in Jacksonville, Florida.
Yet it is far from clear whether this will be enough – and not only because Trump has nonetheless continued to tout “alternative facts” about Covid-19. One of the key lessons from the rest of the world is that a rapid response is critical to contain the virus and to minimise the economic damage. The Trump administration’s response continues to be anything but rapid.
Another lesson is that restricting mobility and travel within a country is essential to contain outbreaks. When northern Italy was wracked by Covid-19, the government halted all non-essential inter-regional travel, in order to protect other regions from similar outbreaks.
With outbreaks spinning out of control in several states, stronger action to protect public health is needed. The economic costs will depend partly on how strict such measures are. But with many people unlikely to resume normal economic activities until the virus is contained, there is no question that US leaders – beginning with Trump – face a stark choice.
Neither option is attractive. A lockdown would ravage an economy that is already cratering, while rejecting a lockdown would most likely merely prolong the pain. Either way, it is safe to say that Trump’s loss will almost certainly be Biden’s gain.
Trump can claim, rightly, that unlike, say, the 2008 global financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic did not result from internal policy lapses. But it was exacerbated by them. The US compares unfavourably with many other developed countries on pandemic performance, to the extent that the country’s already-diminished global standing has taken a serious hit. While this may not be a major concern for most Americans today, this could change if international restrictions on US travellers persist. In any case, Trump will be battling uphill until November.
Michael Spence, a Nobel laureate in economics, is Professor of Economics Emeritus and a former dean of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. He is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, serves on the Academic Committee at Luohan Academy, and co-chairs the Advisory Board of the Asia Global Institute.
David W. Brady is Professor of Political Science and Leadership Values at Stanford University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.