What the Coronavirus Pandemic Says About the November Election

Donald Trump

Some of my friends are feeling way too cocky about the upcoming November election. They see that tens of thousands of people have died and that the economy is in trouble, and they think Trump cannot survive. What’s more, Trump has clearly screwed this up and more recently he seems like he’s losing his mind.

It does seem like a slam dunk. But both Obama and Bush Jr had low approval ratings at this point and they went on to win re-election. And the opposite is also true. A year out, Bush Sr had almost a 70% approval rating and he lost badly. I have little doubt that if the election were today, Trump would lose in a landslide. In six months? I don’t know.

Two Scenarios

Roughly speaking, there are two ways this can go. Things could stay bad. The cases could keep mounting and the deaths could continue to climb. The economy could struggle along but more or less stay where it is right now.

If that happens, not only is Trump going down big, so is the entire Republican Party. We could see Mitch McConnell lose his seat in Kentucky. And as much as I do not want to see this happen for my own sake and that of everyone else in the nation, such a defeat would be a silver lining. (But don’t kid yourself: after the Democrats began to heal the economy, the Republicans would come roaring back.)

The other possibility is that things slowly start to get better. In two months, new cases come to a trickle. In 4 months, most people are back at work. And in six months, sports return but with limited seating.

If that happens, people will likely re-elect Trump. They will only see that things are improving; it won’t matter at all that he is the guy responsible for making things so bad. I know: it’s crazy! But this is how people vote.

(I know a lot of my leftist friends are learning this painful lesson. I’ve seen people complaining that most Biden voters are more in agreement with Sanders’ policies. Welcome to the party! Politics really isn’t about policy; it’s about relationships. And if we are ever going to get the kind of power necessary to make systemic change, we need to embrace this.)

The Lynn Vavreck Election

Probably the best scenario is that things do return to normal quickly but we get an election like Lynn Vavreck laid out in The Message Matters. According to her research, an out-party (the Democrats in this case) can beat an incumbent despite strong economic growth if they can make the campaign about something other than the economy.

In general, it’s hard to do this. People care about the economy above all else. Think of it in the most blunt terms: people want to be sure they will have food and a safe place to live. That’s what a strong economy means to them.

I’ve often noted that had Howard Dean won the Democratic primary in 2004, he probably would have won the general election. That’s because he would have made the election about the Iraq War, which was unpopular by then. Instead, the Democrats nominated Kerry, who couldn’t make that case well because he had essentially voted for the war.

Can Biden Vavreck Trump?

Joe Biden 2019

If Biden is smart, he will make this election all about corruption. He could also make it about norms and civility. These are things where Trump is extremely vulnerable. Trump can counter, “Hunter Biden,” but I don’t think that plays outside the people who are guaranteed to vote for him.

One of the problems for Hillary Clinton in 2016 was this weird narrative that had been going on since the early 1990s about her being untrustworthy. Vince Foster killed himself just a few months after Bill Clinton took office and already there were claims that Hillary Clinton had him murdered!

Yes, that was all in the right-wing fever swamps, but it was something that accreted so much garbage over the years that mainstream journalist started thinking there must be something there. Either that or that they simply had to cover such nonsense as though it were real. (Also: it’s pure sexism — the idea that women are duplicitous and can’t be trusted.)

Biden doesn’t have that problem. And I think that whatever happens, Uncle Joe will come out like he did in the 2012 vice-presidential debate. You may remember that Paul Ryan was going on about how Obama was stealing money from Medicare to pay for Obamacare. And Biden came back with, “Look, folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this?”

I was blown away with that because it accepts the way people think. You don’t have to look at the numbers. You might not like Obama and Biden for a lot of reasons, but you know that they would protect Medicare better than Romney and Ryan would.

Help Joe Biden Win

So I think as long as Biden does not talk about the economy, he stands a good chance of winning. I can’t say more than that because, as Vavreck showed in her book, when this approach works, it leads to extremely close elections.

Of course, there is another possibility. It could be that our current situation is so unusual that none of the political science based on elections after World War II matter. In that case, we don’t know what will happen.

In that case, we need to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. And that means doing what we can to defeat Donald Trump in November. Sign up to make phone calls or send texts, help people get registered to vote and to vote when the time comes, talk to persuadable people, whatever it takes.

Most of all: don’t assume November is in the bag. We really don’t know.

Trump image cropped from Donald Trump Official White House Portrait by Shealah Craighead in the public domain. Biden image cropped from Joe Biden by Gage Skidmore via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “What the Coronavirus Pandemic Says About the November Election

  1. We really don’t know. I assumed up until recently that Biden was the only Democratic candidate whom Trump could defeat easily. Every argument against Trump could be made against Biden. The family corruption, the grabby hands, the serial lying (like Trump, Biden lies so naturally it’s doubtful he even believes himself to be lying at all). Of course, on all these matters, Trump is far worse (except mental competence — Biden has slipped hard from the skilled debater we saw crush Palin/Ryan).

    My guess was that, as you say, none of these things would turn loyal Democratic voters against Biden. But they would turn away intermittent voters.

    Now, who knows? Take the recent Wisconsin primary, where a Supreme Court race was supposed to be close. It wasn’t. The Democratic judge won easily. Republican legislators prevented the governor from postponing the election until everybody who requested an absentee ballot could get one. (And SCOTUS backed them up.) It totally backfired. Older Republican voters stayed home. Trump and Senate Republicans are firmly against a national vote-by-mail system (which the Post Office says it wouldn’t have the resources to deliver anyways).

    Even if the economy recovers by November (and no economist I read thinks it will), people will have taken a huge financial hit. Trump and Fox, in their usual savvy fashion, are trying to blame this on Democratic governors who shut down the economy too drastically. Will that work? Will people who get a one-time $1200 check with Trump’s name on it be absolutely furious that the amount is so puny? My crystal ball has fallen into a paint bucket. I just don’t know.

    As Medhi Hasan recently pointed out in The Intercept, this is going to be an election where VP really matters. Maybe not so much to voters, but in terms of actual governance. Any Biden VP will probably have a huge part in running the executive branch.

    • I’ve always thought Biden’s chances against Trump were okay. I think Trump’s success in 2016 was mostly due to the “I want an old white guy” vote. (That wasn’t true of the base, which loved everything we hate about him. But that wasn’t enough to allow him to win — even in the EC.)

      While I agree with you that he is not the man he was in 2012, I still think he’s fine on stage against Trump. As we are seeing in the daily “press briefings,” Trump isn’t all there. And I know that when Biden gets cornered, he will fight back.

      Another reason for a good VP pick is that Biden may not be up to running in 2024. I tend to think the best choice is Kamala Harris. She’s young and could take on the presidency. She didn’t run a great campaign, but she’s a fighter and I think she compliments him. Also: she’s a good signal to the African American voting block. And she got a bad rap from progressives in the campaign. She’s actually one of the most liberal people who ran this cycle. Regardless, I expect Biden to make a good pick. It won’t be like Clinton’s “do no harm” pick of what’s his name.

      • Harris would be a good choice. Yes, she was a harsh prosecutor, which is a flaw (so was Klobuchar). But that was a long time ago. And nobody gets to a serious level of national politics without having made some grievous mistakes in their day. The question is, do they learn from them? I’d be very willing to give Harris the benefit of the doubt that she has.

        Hasan liked Warren for VP, as do I. There would be a question, though, of how well she could work with Biden, they’re miles apart on financial regulation. (It’s about the only issue where Biden hasn’t moved left in this campaign.) It does no good to have a VP who’s capable of co-governing if the VP and Pres are at odds. You’d like to think that they could agree to disagree on one issue and work in tandem on the rest, but politicians carry grudges a looooong time.

        I’d enjoy watching Harris v. Pence in a debate, she’d eat his skin. VP debates tend to be more fun, in general. (Excepting Pence/Paine, why even bother.) Remember James Stockdale, Perot’s guy? Who may have had a distinguished record in his day, but was clearly crossed over into the Dementia Zone? Him, Gore, Quayle, it was the Tower Of Babel in English.

        Lord, how I wish Trump had picked Michelle Bachmann as his running mate. Trump’s been tediously dumb for decades. Pence is a deadly dull fundamentalist. Good ol’ Bachmann, she was dumb and fundamentalist in the most entertainingly wackadoodle way. If we have to have these wingnuts in charge, at least let them be different.

        • I think Warren and Biden would get along. At very least, he seems keen to do so. One of the first things he did after she left the race was to embrace her bankruptcy plan. My concern about her as the pick is that Biden is old and even though Warren has more energy and intelligence than I do, she’s still 70. Also: I think a woman of color would be helpful for the ticket. You are right: Harris vs Pence would be awesome. So would Harris vs Trump, but that is not to be.

          I think we have to understand that anyone who came up through politics via the cop-route must be given extra accommodation. They just can’t do it without having done some things that are going to annoy us lefties. Of course, as you’ve noted, that’s true of all politicians one way or another.

          Good point about Bachmann! And it really doesn’t matter which one you pick. Bachmann or Pence, they all do the bidding of exactly the same people for exactly the same reasons. Conservatism is a disease that presents differently in different people.

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