Did the coronavirus cost Trump reelection?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The coronavirus pandemic changed nearly everything about the 2020 election. Fears about the safety of in-person voting led to unprecedented use of mail-in ballots. Candidates were forced to suspend on-the-ground campaigning for months. Instead of the result being announced on election night, the race wasn’t called in Joe Biden’s favor for several days. 

Heading into Election Day, it looked like the pandemic might have also altered the outcome of the presidential race. “Before the plague came in, I had it made,” President Trump told a crowd of supporters in late October. 

Polling from early 2020 suggests that Trump’s reelection was far from a sure thing. But the pandemic did appear to deal a major blow to his chances. A majority of voters disapproved of his administration’s response, which was often defined by logistical failures, misinformation and opposition to science. The economy, likely Trump’s greatest political strength before the pandemic, suffered a major collapse as businesses across the country were shuttered and unemployment skyrocketed. The president himself and members of his inner circle were infected just one month before the election.

Polls suggested Biden would win in a landslide that would also carry Democrats to major down-ballot wins. Of all the historic events in Trump’s incredibly eventful presidency — the Russia investigation, impeachment, massive racial protests — the pandemic seemed to be the main thing hurting Trump’s odds. But Trump didn’t lose in a landslide. Biden won by securing narrow victories in a handful of decisive states. The predicted “blue wave” didn’t happen. In the end, the impact the pandemic had on the final outcome is far from obvious.

Why there’s debate

One thing that is certain is that the election was not the widespread rejection of Trump’s pandemic response that many of his critics predicted it would be. Over the course of the pandemic, which has caused more than 240,000 deaths in the U.S. so far, Trump’s approval rating remained essentially unchanged. It’s possible that voters had already made up their minds about him three years into his presidency. The issue also became so politically polarized that criticisms of Trump’s actions might have fallen on deaf ears. The president’s optimistic forecasts about the course of the pandemic and criticism of lockdown orders may also have resonated with weary voters after many months of restrictions, some argue. 

While the coronavirus may not have been disqualifying, it might still have cost Trump the election, others argue. Trump may have cruised to reelection on the back of a booming economy had the pandemic not derailed things. Even if the virus only caused a small percentage of voters to turn against him, that may have been enough to flip a race in which Biden won several key states by a small margin.

Another group makes the case that the pandemic actually benefited Trump and hurt Biden. The Trump campaign’s decision to flout scientific advice by holding large rallies, at a time when Biden’s in-person campaigning was extremely limited, may have given the president an enthusiasm advantage in the late stages of the race. Biden’s message of “listening to science” may also have turned away some voters who feared the economic impact of more lockdowns.

What’s next

While the Nov. 3 election is done, the coronavirus pandemic is far from over. Case numbers are surging across the U.S., and experts are issuing dire warnings about the risks facing the country over the next few months. 

Perspectives

Trump would have won if not for the pandemic

“What if the pandemic hadn’t happened? Where would we be now? I think Donald Trump might have clearly won. Even if the U.S. economy wasn’t exactly singing as 2020 dawned, it was doing well enough. Unemployment was extraordinarily low. The Dow was motoring. A lot of people felt good about their prospects.” — James Moore, Independent (United Kingdom)

The country is too polarized for even the pandemic to change voters’ minds

“Political polarization is altering how voters perceive the economy. Throughout Trump’s tenure, Democrats never wavered in their disdain for him and his economic management. Republicans never wavered in their support. His approval and disapproval ratings were freakishly steady. Even a colossal recession and a pandemic could not change that.” — Annie Lowry, Atlantic

The impact of the pandemic was small, but possibly decisive

“Even among anti-Trump operatives who think the pandemic wasn’t as electorally beneficial as they expected, many argue that although fewer voters were ultimately moved by the crisis, those who did were still crucial to Biden’s margin of victory in closely fought states like Wisconsin and Arizona.” — Alex Roarty, McClatchy

Biden’s limited campaign schedule may have hurt him

“Biden may well have trimmed his prospects by taking the ethical path of campaigning safely, limiting his interaction with voters, in contrast to Trump’s superspreader events.” — Frida Ghitis, CNN

Many voters don’t blame Trump for the harms of the pandemic

“People still seem to see the pandemic purely as a natural disaster, not as one worsened by policy failures. And natural disasters — like wars — tend to boost incumbent support.” — James Palmer, Foreign Policy

Trump’s unfounded optimism resonated with voters looking toward the end of the pandemic

“Trump’s disparaging of expert advice about reopening, flouting of the mask requirement, and focus on restoring the economy to its pre-pandemic boom may have been exactly what his voters longed to hear.” — Julia Belluz, Vox

The virus highlighted all of Trump’s worst shortcomings as president

“Throughout four years of his presidency, Trump did not change. His rhetoric remained crude and divisive, his messaging on important issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic, was always muddled, and his bombastic personality often distracted from the actual achievements his administration made. And voters got sick of it.” — Kaylee McGhee, Washington Examiner

Trump could have sealed an easy reelection if he’d handled the virus effectively

Once it arrived, it was inevitable the coronavirus would shape the 2020 contest. But it didn’t have to be a drag on Trump’s reelection. If he had responded responsibly, it could have been his golden ticket to a second term by proving his leadership skills to voters already slipping from his grasp.” — Pema Levy, Mother Jones

Trump’s bungled response, not the virus itself, cost him reelection

“The virus didn’t kill Trump’s reelection. He did, by reminding the majority of Americans yet again through his bungling of the worst pandemic in a century just how costly an exhausting a reality show president can be.” — David Axelrod, CNN

The economic downturn kneecapped Trump’s biggest asset

“As the year wore on — and coronavirus cases surged across much of the country — voters concluded there would be no lasting recovery until the pandemic was contained. With the president failing to mount an effective strategy — and publicly disparaging his top health officials — his polling advantage on economic issues collapsed.” — David J. Lynch, Washington Post

Trump made many mistakes, but his failed pandemic response was most harmful

“If the Trump presidency was marked by errors in judgment — strange overtures to foreign dictators, political appointments that deviated wildly from his populist promise — none would be as costly to him or the American people as the conviction that the coronavirus was not an enemy to be taken seriously.”  — Alexander Nazaryan, Yahoo News

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images