How the U.S. 2020 Presidential Campaigns Hinge on Coronavirus

Date: May 3, 2020

Words: 2,500

Read Time: 5-7 Minutes

How Coronavirus Impacts the 2020 U.S. Presidential Race

Although presidential elections always come with their share of intrigue, 2020 feels different. Some would say it feels ominous, almost foreboding, as we run through the final few months before debate season. There’s no denying it’s a vitally important election, especially considering the stark differences in opinion and policy that Trump and Biden have maintained.

But over all their perceived differences, the rapid onset of coronavirus and sudden transformation of the U.S.’s daily societal norms looms large. Now, as the U.S. economy remains in jeopardy and society begins to edge out of nationwide social distancing mandates, the U.S.’s response to offsetting a potential recession while simultaneously preventing future outbreaks is set to become the primary focus for the upcoming debates.

But before we dive too deep, let’s quickly review how the race has panned out so far.

A Feisty Democratic Primary Ends in a Very Familiar Fashion

It didn’t take long for the dozen-plus field of democratic presidential nominees to grow testy with one another. Although the array of candidates that shared the stage for debates and town halls had plenty of interesting (and important) topics to discuss, their primetime events generally made headlines for the retorts and rebuttals that sprung from the exchanges.

To be fair, you would expect a degree of hostility during an election of this magnitude, and as candidates took turns poking holes in each other’s policies, the dialogue grew heated. President Trump added further flame to the fire, releasing storms of twitter barrages during and after most debates.

Democratic Nomination Debate Highlights

Democratic Debates 2020 – Coverage by NBC News

As the Democratic Primaries dragged on, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden drew ahead of the rest. Although Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Bloomberg had their moments, as did Pete Buttigeg, there was never enough momentum to ignite a significant portion of the voting public behind them. In the end, this primary followed a pattern similar to what played out 4 years ago. That is, despite strong grassroots movements from candidates like Bernie Sanders, the more moderate and “mainstream” personas like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden ultimately secured the nomination.

With Sanders officially conceding to Biden on April 8th, it appeared the stage had been set for a much-anticipated showdown. Biden, a symbol of the Obama-era golden years the democrats had so much enjoyed, was viewed by many as the perfect candidate to match Trump’s egregious personality.

However, the atmosphere has shifted completely with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coronavirus Turns the 2020 Elections on Their Head

Only a month or two ago, many political pundits and strategists believed Trump would enter the elections touting strong economic growth and low unemployment. Despite some headwinds from trade disputes, Trump had closed 2019 with record-high stock prices and record-low unemployment; two massive accomplishments to flaunt amongst his core base and those hanging on the fence.

However, the impact of COVID-19 on the economy and unemployment has drastically eaten away at Trump’s ability to demonstrate any progress.

Instead, there are now nearly 15 million Americans out of work and the economy has quickly headed towards a recession. As of early May, The U.S. also has over 75,000 COVID-related deaths and 1.2 million infected; much higher numbers than any other country. And with repeated assertions by leading healthcare professionals that not enough was done by the Trump administration to respond to the crisis as it unfolded, Trump will now be forced to defend, on a national stage, his approach to what has fast become a global emergency.

Tracing the Economic Impact of COVID-19

Economic Impact Analysis by CBS

As nearly the entire U.S. remains under shelter-in-place guidance in early May, it will likely be mid- or-late summer before U.S. life can resume “normally”. Even then, many precautions will have to be taken until a vaccine is developed, which may not be until early 2021. Resultantly, the economic ramifications of a pandemic of this scale will surely stretch into the next few years.

So what does this mean for the presidency?

Both Candidates Shift Their Core Messaging in Response to Coronavirus

Whether he likes it or not, Trump’s presidential priorities for the next 3-4 months must shift largely to fighting the coronavirus’s spread and mitigating the economic fallout of a countrywide shutdown. This reality seems to have been recognized, as Trump has recently replaced his predominantly stoic attitude with more decisive words and actions. Chiefly, he passed of the CARES Act that included nearly $2 trillion dollars of stimulus money to U.S. citizens, billions in loans to American businesses, widespread production of medical ventilators, and a navy-grade warship sent to New York to act as a makeshift hospital.

Now, he’s walking a tightrope between reopening the U.S. economy and putting people back to work, or relapsing the entire country into fresh waves of infections.

CARES Act Funding Overview

A visual overview and infographic of the CARES coronavirus Act and how US businesses and individuals stand to benefit.
Infographic created by Visual Capitalist

How Coronavirus Shifts Trump’s Election Strategy

Although Trump was surely counting on record low unemployment and strong financial markets to advance his position in the fall, none of these talking points may be available now. Instead, unemployment stands at its highest point since the Great Depression in 1918. The stock market (while recovering) is still negative on the year and a whopping 17% lower than in January. And with many states still locked in shelter-in-place statutes, most restaurants and other non-essential businesses remain closed.

To date, the unemployment count is projected to hit as high as 20%, which would account for up to 26 million Americans and be the worst unemployment record since the Great Depression. Trump’s approval record, while seeing a surge immediately following the onset of the pandemic, has subsequently resided to it’s normal range of 40-45%.

Key Trump Statistics Regarding Coronavirus Response Efforts

Statistics regarding the U.S. public perception of Trump's handling of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Data provided by NBC & Robinhood as of May 5, 2020

Trump knows he needs a strong end to his first term in order to gain any sort of momentum leading into the main debate season, and he knows almost all of that momentum now rests on his response to dealing with COVID-19.

Now with the entire world watching, Trump has quickly reversed his stance on a number of pandemic-related policies and has altered course on suggesting that most citizens need not wear masks, that it was only the old and frail who should be concerned, and that life could go on as normal for most citizens.

Instead, as April drew to a close, Trump was fresh off releasing the largest economic bailout the U.S. has ever seen to stimulate the economy. He also sent a military-grade warship into the New York Harbor as a makeshift hospital and was reported to be pulling strings across the globe to secure medical equipment for U.S. institutions and healthcare workplaces. Now, he’s working with state leaders to gradually reopen restaurants and entertainment venues as the nation comes out of shelter-in-place mandates.

Trump Provides a COVID-19 Update in April 2020

Coverage by CBS News

Overall, the past few weeks have shown that Trump now fully recognizes the importance of handling the Coronavirus impact and mitigating future outbreaks, especially during a hotly-contested election year.

So how has this new approach worked?

Although nearly half the public (49% in a recent NBC poll) believe Trump could have done more to prevent the impact of the virus in the U.S., the direction the country takes over the next 1-3 months will be absolutely crucial. Trump is walking a delicate line now between staving off aftershock outbreaks that could overwhelm healthcare workers, and reopening the economy to bolster the American people’s financial status.

To be fair, it’s a tough call to make. Reopen too soon, and you risk a resurgence in deadly outbreaks. Wait too long, and more people continue to deplete their savings as shops and restaurants remain closed. Already, Germany is reporting spikes in infections after reopening earlier in the week, and the U.S. reported 25,000 new cases on Saturday, May 9, even as states like Georgia and Florida came out of quarantine.

In the end, Trump will likely not waste too much time before reopening the economy, as he will surely want a strong rebound in employment and economic strength to support his case come the fall. This means that he’ll either need to bank on quick success for finding a vaccine, or simply hope that the U.S. can comfortably withstand any more outbreaks that come from reopening shops and restaurants.

In either case, as Trump’s strategy to combat the virus unfolds, Biden is watching and waiting.

How Coronavirus Changes Biden’s Election Strategy

For Biden, perhaps a bit more time was spent than anticipated battling it out in the Democratic Primaries. Despite a strong showing to start the campaign season, Biden lost momentum heading into the most important state caucuses as a result of Tara Reade’s and several other womens’ sexual misconduct allegations — allegations which have continued to make headlines ever since.

However, a crucial win in South Carolina saw him suddenly regain complete control of the field and ultimately secure a victory. Despite this victory, though, it was likely a much closer race than Biden would have liked, and he surely lost time plotting his general election strategy against Trump by having to work so hard in the primaries.

Democratic Nomination Delegate Overview

Overview of the Democratic Primaries delegate count. Biden won the overall race with 1,305 delegates secured.
Image by Bing

But perhaps this delay was for the best, as Biden’s strategy would have surely shifted anyways as the coronavirus situation within the U.S. evolved.

At the time Bernie Sanders conceded to Biden in early April, most states were already 2-weeks into social distancing guidelines. over 18,000 U.S. citizens had died from coronavirus, and roughly 430,000 had been confirmed positive. But the situation has continued to worsen, and now there are nearly 1.3 million U.S. infected and 75,000 dead. And with the U.S. response to the coronavirus drawing ire on multiple fronts, Biden has all the ammo he needs to launch a fresh wave of attacks against President Trump.

With Biden, there is some history in dealing with diseases and viruses. To an extent, Biden oversaw the U.S. response to dealing with regional Ebola outbreaks in Africa during the Obama era. However, there’s not much in comparing the Ebola outbreaks to the magnitude of what COVID-19 has delivered. But experience aside, Biden can still use the current situation to demonstrate the ineptitude of the Trump administration to prepare for catastrophes or adverse situations, especially given the advance warnings they were receiving from other countries like Italy and healthcare organizations like the CDC.

Global Coronavirus Breakout Map

Johns Hopkins global coronavirus COVID-19 tracking interface.
See the real-time dashboard by Johns Hopkins here

Without strong economic and unemployment numbers to stand behind, any difficulty by Trump to mitigate the impact of the virus will be seized upon by Biden. To date, Biden has already targeted Trump for acting too late to close down the country and to secure vital PPE and healthcare equipment. He’s also widely criticized Trump for failing to galvanize nationwide testing capabilities as the virus solidified its grip domestically. Biden’s recent statements, both in interviews and on social media, have made it clear that he’s willing to attack Trump’s handling of the crisis across multiple fronts.

Although a large portion of the American public generally votes down their party line, the financial strain from the recession is being felt on both sides of the aisle. As such, traditionally red voters may feel inclined to switch allegiances if an end to the recession isn’t in sight come October or November. Neutral voters without any party allegiances may be more inclined as well. And although we’re still a ways out, Trump’s latest 46% approval rating will likely fall further as long as American society remains in limbo. Unless the situation improves quickly, Biden will have a lot of material to work with.

Conclusion: Which Presidential Candidate Has the Upper Hand Headed Into the Summer?

Despite being a betting man, I’m not confident enough in either candidate to gamble on the outcome.

Historically, tight elections favor the incumbent, and it may be that Trump’s recent actions will be enough to withstand the impact that the virus is having on the U.S. economy. Recent allegations against Biden regarding sexual misconduct may also help take additional pressure off of Trump and redirect media attention away from him. However, there’s a long ways to go, and with so many Americans personally impacted from the recession and feeling the financial strain, any failure to alleviate the pressure could result in widespread gravitation towards Biden, who continues to offer assurances that his plan for coronavirus recovery is superior.

Ultimately, if Trump is able to reopen the economy and potentially find a vaccine for COVID-19 before the elections, I believe these two major victories would be enough to spike his approval in a crucial moment and overtake Biden, who would lose his biggest angle of attack. However, with so much still to unravel before voting takes place in November, the pendulum could still swing either way.