On November 3, for the first time in 50 years, a pandemic collided with a presidential election in which former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to win. If the new outbreak of the corona virus had never happened, Biden’s return to the White House might not have happened either.
In the last ten months before the election, President Donald Trump basked in low unemployment and, at least on a national level, in a booming economy. But Trump’s re-election bid was quickly wiped out by the pandemic, which according to polls became the second-biggest issue in voters’ minds after the economy. In a campaign cycle that usually focuses on individual policy areas, the 2020 presidential election was one in which all issues lead back to the pandemic.
“It underscored existing flaws in Trump’s leadership, as the Iranian hostage crisis did with [President Jimmy] Carter in 1980, with the conclusion that he didn’t get the job done,” Thomas Whalen, political historian and Boston University author, told Washington Newsday. “When people ask ‘Why isn’t it better? Why hasn’t it been solved?’ you are lost when asked about a candidate.”
Without the ability to play through an alternative reality, it is impossible to know for sure what would have happened on November 3 if America had not been eight months away from a pandemic. But Steve Ansolabehere, a Frank G. Thompson government professor at Harvard University, says there would have been a significantly different outcome, with Republicans holding all three branches of government.
Back in January of that year, Ansolabehere met with colleagues and set the odds on a “solid trump card victory” of 2-1. By that time, Trump’s removal from office had “come to nothing. It was not a message that was well received by the voters, who were “very satisfied with the economy”. Given that the economy is one of the best predictions of a re-election victory for the incumbent president, Ansolabehere argued that the pandemic undermined her and raised questions about governance, “turning the election in the Democrats’ favor.
Sam Chen, a Republican strategist, also expected a trump re-election from the presidential inauguration until about April or May of this year. At that time, the Democrats had not yet found the right way to get their message across against Trump, Chen said, but in May, American approval of how to deal with the pandemic dropped to 39 percent, down from 60 percent in March. At that time, Chen foresaw a difficult re-election offer for Trump, which required him to finish the campaign stronger than he had.
“We do not vote on national issues, but on issues that affect us, our families and our livelihoods. That’s why the economy has always been so important, because people care about whether they can put food on the table, whether they have health insurance, whether they can take care of their sick parents or children, and COVID-19 has had an impact on all of that,” Chen said.
To contain the spread of the virus, companies closed their doors, raising unemployment to a peak not seen since the Great Depression. The rise in unemployment was in stark contrast to the low experienced by Americans in the months before the outbreak of the virus. Without the pandemic, Trump would have had a good economy to hang his hat on.
In that case, Democratic strategist Andrew Feldman would have said that the Democrats should have made a clear case for the President taking credit for the strong economy he inherited from former President Barack Obama and for Trump’s economy benefiting the top one percent of the population.
For some voters, the strong economy would have been enough to overlook Trump’s personality, one of his biggest flaws as a candidate in the minds of voters outside his core base, said Lonna Atkeson, director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of New Mexico. It is not unusual, however, for voters to view the economy through partisan glasses, Atkeson said, that it may still not have been enough to give Trump a second term.
“It would have been a very different election in February,” Atkeson said. “The economy was doing really well,” Atkeson said. Would people have wanted it to stay that way, or would they say we were complacent so we could try something new?
The Democrats and the Biden campaign hit Trump hard for his reaction to the outbreak, a bl