Writer: Sarah Z.
Visual: Sarah Z.
On October 1, Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19. He has been forced to isolate himself while he is treated, meaning the presidential contest, or at least his side of it, has been fundamentally altered in numerous ways. However, the big question remains on everyone’s minds: How will this affect the election?
The physical implications are obvious. The president’s rigorous campaign tour – which included visits to six states in just the past week – is on indefinite hold. Then there are the political implications.
On September 29, Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden went head-to-head in the first presidential debate. The debate, which featured incessant interruptions and personal attacks from both candidates, received scathing reviews from critics and news anchors. Three polls asking who won the debate all found Biden to come out on top, currently putting Biden at least seven points ahead of Trump, which lines up with his statistically significant lead over the president for the past months in national polls.
Politically, the consequences of Trump’s diagnosis on these polls are unclear, and perhaps the effect will be minimal. Despite the extraordinary events antedating the race—which include discoveries about the president’s taxes, the death of a Supreme Court justice, and a chaotic debate at which Trump cast doubt on the election’s legitimacy—the polls remained extraordinarily stable, with Biden maintaining a steady lead in national and state polls.
However, it’s possible that Trump could earn some sort of a sympathy vote for his diagnosis. Some believe Trump could use this moment as a late reset to draw on his experience with COVID-19 to at last show empathy for those affected by a pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans, left millions unemployed and sent his poll numbers tumbling. Nearly three out of four Americans believe that Trump failed to take the “risk of contracting the virus seriously enough” and did not follow through with “the appropriate precautions when it came to his personal health,” according to two questions in a poll conducted by ABC News and Ipsos over the weekend. However, given his approach to the virus, as well as the fact that the US political spectrum is just so deeply polarized and entrenched, it’s unclear whether it will have any real sort of positive impact.
The public has consistently given the president low marks for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, so anything that puts the focus on the disease may be damaging for his re-election prospects. Nearly three out of four Americans believe that Trump failed to take the “risk of contracting the virus seriously enough” and did not follow through with “the appropriate precautions when it came to his personal health,” according to two questions in a poll conducted by ABC News and Ipsos over the weekend. Complicating matters for the president is what some may describe as his almost cavalier attitude toward COVID-19. Trafficking in questionable science, Trump has said the virus would disappear “like magic”, played down the severity of the virus, floated the idea of injecting disinfectant inside people’s bodies, demanded that lockdown orders be lifted, and denounced mask wearing.
“I don’t wear a mask like him,” Trump said to Biden during the debate on Tuesday night. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from them and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
Trump’s coronavirus infection will cast all of these past comments into the spotlight—raising questions about whether he took the pandemic seriously enough both on a national level and within the White House itself. Democrats and the president’s critics may even be inclined to engage in a chorus of “I told you so” and celebrate what they see as political karma, though they do so at risk of seeming callous or indifferent to the crisis that confronts the nation.
The president’s diagnosis also poses potential political challenges for Biden. The former vice president had been mocked as “Biden in the Basement” by Republicans for social distancing and his virtual campaign events. After months of asymmetric campaigning, in which the president paraded around the country and Biden isolated at home, the tables have suddenly turned: Now Trump is the one confined, while Biden has emerged for the last leg of the campaign, holding events in Pennsylvania earlier this week. The president’s contraction of the virus is the perfect metaphor for his failure to lead on this issue, and allows Biden to prosecute the case.
Despite the long list of turmoil this year – the pandemic, the nationwide demonstrations against institutional racism and police brutality following George Floyd’s death coupled with sometimes violent unrest in several major US cities – this presidential race has been remarkably stable. Time was running out for the president to change this dynamic, even before this week’s dramatic news; it seems that the virus is just another bad thing piling up on Trump’s plate.