Across Europe, heads of state are experiencing record-high approval ratings. Recent polls have shown a soar in popularity for German chancellor Angela Merkel, peaking at a massive 79 per cent. France’s Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte have seen similar growth in public support. Even in Britain, where Boris Johnson’s leadership continues to receive criticism, the government has achieved its highest public approval rating in a decade. Such a surge in popularity during a crisis is a well-observed phenomenon, indicating a sort of ‘rally-round-the-flag’ moment of national solidarity.
But Donald Trump was never one for following trends, and the maverick president will struggle to emerge from this pandemic without some serious damage to his political reputation. Following an initial boost in approval ratings – reaching a peak of around 50 per cent in several polls, an all-time high for his presidency – Trump’s popularity has slumped to its pre-pandemic levels. It currently sits at around 43 per cent, 10 points lower than the historical average, though consistent with his track record.
On 3 November, voters across all 50 states will cast their votes for America’s next president. Democrats and Republicans alike will undoubtedly be measuring up how COVID-19, and Trump’s management of the crisis, could affect their electoral chances. The GOP are unlikely to be happy with Trump’s performance, which could severely jeopardise his chances of a second term. As well as failing to boost his approval ratings as might be expected in times of crisis, the coronavirus is revealing widespread mistrust of the president. Meanwhile, American markets are down 35 per cent, GDP is predicted to slump and 26 million people have filed for unemployment benefit. In other words, coronavirus could deliver a fatal blow to Trump’s presidency. Research suggests that, assuming the US economy sustains its downward spiral, Trump’s approval ratings will fall even further, culminating in a loss in November.
Medical experts have expressed despair at Trump’s management of COVID-19, and his apparent insistence on perpetuating scientific falsehoods. Just yesterday, the president triggered outcry after seeming to suggest injecting disinfectant as a cure for the virus, a claim which has since been widely rejected by the scientific community. This instance is not an anomaly: Trump has been shown to have told ‘alternative truths’ about coronavirus testing, a potential vaccine and death rates from the virus. The president has also faced criticism for cutting WHO funding (after attacking their handling of the crisis); halting immigration into the US; and playing down the severity of coronavirus in its early days.
But opinion on Trump’s response to the pandemic seems to be wildly different depending on political allegiance. A Washington Post poll found that while 43 per cent of all respondents approved of his performance, on closer inspection just 6 per cent of Democrats approved while 92 per cent of Republicans held a favourable view. Perhaps more importantly for Trump’s chances later this year, only 39 per cent of independents approved of his performance. Support from non-partisan Americans, who constitute nearly a third of the electorate, will be vital for his success.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, will likely be hoping to benefit from Trump’s beleaguered record. So far, the two-time vice-president is outflanking Trump in terms of public confidence: by a 9-point margin, Americans surveyed in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll said that Biden would be better equipped to deal with a crisis and at managing the coronavirus.
Of course, the Democrats cannot rely on public perceptions of Trump to guarantee them electoral success. Just like his predecessor, Biden is vulnerable to Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric, which framed Clinton as ‘crooked Hillary’ and produced one of the most memorable motifs of the 2016 election. Those hoping to see Biden in the White House should not overlook the power of such a tactic, and its ability to infiltrate the public consciousness. After all, who could forget the sound of thousands chanting ‘lock her up’ at a Trump rally in 2016?
Critically, Biden has proven popular among African Americans and could gain even greater support from the community in light of coronavirus: many of the hardest-hit Americans have been black. Many African Americans occupy an intersection of risk factors for the illness, being on average poorer, more likely to be uninsured and to suffer from chronic health conditions than other ethnic groups in the US. This inequality has been reproduced in cases of and deaths from COVID-19: in Michigan, a state with a 14 per cent black population, African Americans account for over a third of mortalities.
An overwhelming majority of African Americans voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, compared with just 8 per cent who opted for Trump. But the president’s unpopularity will surely only deepen within African American communities as a result of his recent leadership, for example in Detroit, Michigan, a city with an 80 per cent black population where the pandemic is intensifying. The state of Michigan was only a marginal win for Trump in 2016; Joe Biden and his campaign will surely be looking to capitalise on perceptions of the president in swing states such as these.
Trump is also set to lose votes in rustbelt states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana (as well as parts of Illinois, Michigan and New York), the centre of US manufacturing. Before the word coronavirus had even crossed the lips of most Americans, Trump had been struggling to revive industrial activity in the US, which descended into lethargy over 2019. On the campaign trail four years ago, Trump made grand promises to revive blue-collar employment through a protectionist economic agenda, but he may well have disappointed rustbelt residents who in normal circumstances could be key to securing the president a second term. The situation may well worsen for Trump, as manufacturing industries could bear the brunt of economic damage inflicted by coronavirus. Many of them swing states, the rustbelt – and Trump’s handling of pandemic there – could prove pivotal in November.
Keen to boost his popularity and chances of re-election, conservatives have encouraged the president to ease lockdown restrictions or even lift them altogether in light of demonstrations against such measures. In recent weeks protests have cropped up in over a dozen states, some boasting thousands of participants, who decry social distancing as unnecessarily damaging to individuals and businesses. But polling indicates that protestors represent only a small minority of Americans. Most are more concerned that restrictions will be lifted too soon, causing further spread of the virus. And besides, the president has yet to clarify on what basis he has the authority to lift measures introduced by state governors.
The Trump campaign should not give up hope, however. Evangelical Christians, a mainstay of support for Trump, have been among those opposing lockdown measures. Some evangelical church leaders have encouraged their congregations to renounce social distancing and attend services in person, with one pastor in Florida suggesting that fear of exposure to coronavirus was a ‘demonic spirit’. When polled, evangelicals were nearly twice as likely to describe Trump as ‘honest’ and ‘morally upstanding’, suggesting he need not worry that their loyalties will shift as a result of his current leadership.
Overall, the coronavirus and its widespread social, economic and political impacts suggest a grim prognosis for Trump. As US cases rise to nearly 900,000, with deaths now in excess of 50,000, Trump ought to change tack swiftly and effectively if he wants to regain public trust and spend another four years in the White House. The Washington Post indicated that non-aligned voters want to see Trump heed the advice of scientists before they grant him their support, which he currently shows no indication of doing. Then again, firm predictions yielded unexpected results in 2016: no one expected Trump to win the first time around. It could be Biden’s undoing to take any number of votes for granted. Ultimately, as usual, the election will come down to swing states and non-partisan voters, whose decision at the ballot box could hinge on their president’s performance in the next few months.