While President Trump entered 2020 with a firm grasp on his base, the federal government’s response to the coronavirus crisis may have weakened his hold on supporters.
That’s according to experts who spoke during the Institute of International Finance (IIF) Washington Policy Summit webcast Thursday.
“The way we’ve been talking about this to our clients, President Trump was a formidable candidate going into 2020,” said panelist Libby Cantrill, managing director and head of public policy for global investment management firm PIMCO.
The president entered the year with the bully pulpit, holding press conferences daily. And along with the Republican National Committee (RNC), he had raised about $220 million for his reelection campaign.
“His floor is very stable,” she said, calling him a “formidable incumbent.”
However, Cantrill said, the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the dynamic for the president in just a matter of weeks.
“The only incumbents who haven’t been reelected have been those who oversaw a recession within two years of being elected,” she said, and this crisis could shatter the president’s generally favorable economic record.
Trump saw a “tiny bump” in favorability ratings as citizens looked to the commander in chief for leadership during the rise of the crisis. But Cantrill said further reports that the “federal response hasn’t been competent,” which will inevitably escalate in the coming months, could become a major issue for Trump heading into election season.
“I looked for that rally around the flag,” said Stuart Rothenberg, founding editor and publisher of The Rothenberg and Gonzalez Political Report. Rothenburg expected a surge in presidential support as the virus gripped the nation, similar to the patriotism that Americans often display at wartime.
“I saw no surge,” he said.
Normally, presidents poll 10, 20 or even 30 points higher when a national emergency threatens the country at large, but Trump gained “about two points, and now they’re falling back.”
That’s because Trump’s greatest asset—his relentless omnipresence—has become his Achilles heel.
“He’s suffocatingly present in all of our lives; he’s on TV all day and on the front page of the newspaper,” Rothenberg said. “His great weakness—and his strength—is that he thrives on creating chaos, and he was elected to do so by a plurality of Americans who were sick of the status quo.”
Now, as they flail about in uncharted waters, Americans who once called for a “draining of the swamp” to rid Washington of its jaded insiders are seeing the upsides of seasoned leadership.
Rothenberg said he characterizes elections as either a choice between two candidates with different political worldviews, or a referendum on the incumbent’s leadership.
In the case of the 2020 election, he said, it’s likely to be the latter.
In ballot tests, Trump is averaging between 43 percent and 44 percent, he said, which is “not ideal for a sitting president.”
Carroll Doherty, director of political research for the Pew Research Center, agreed that Trump’s overexposure might cost him.
During the 2016 campaign, 70 percent of voters said that then-candidate Trump had received too much media attention. “That was four years ago,” Doherty said. “The exhaustion is there.”
A contender emerges
The Democratic field has narrowed in recent weeks, finally revealing a presumptive nominee in former vice president Joe Biden. This election season has served up unprecedented challenges, experts agreed, but there are also opportunities to be found for the Democratic contender.
News of the pandemic has overshadowed almost everything, including what would normally be a contentious race toward the November election, Doherty said.
The current landscape, which could have given the president an opening to grab the reins, hasn’t yielded any political advantages. “Trump’s ratings don’t look all that different than they did a few months ago,” he echoed, and Biden-Trump match-ups show a small edge for Biden among registered voters.
“I think Joe Biden has a narrow but clear lead,” said Rothenberg. “He has the advantage, but the president has the megaphone.”
As the president contends with the spread of the virus, and is forced to answer for his administration’s clumsy initial response, his challenger just needs to wait out the storm, Rothenberg said.
“The freeze of the past month is a benefit to Biden—it gives him a chance not to screw up,” he said.
But Biden’s record might offer the president some footholds to climb his way out of the rut, PIMCO’s Cantrill warned.
“In some ways, President Trump is already laying the groundwork for attacks against Biden,” she said, citing criticism of the former vice president’s approach to relations with China during the Obama administration.
Biden favored the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and during his time in the Senate, he was “more friendly toward free trade.”
As tensions with China reach an all-time high, that record will undoubtedly be used against him.
While politicians on both sides of the aisle have approached China with suspicion and skepticism, the president has made the country a “boogeyman” during his tenure in office, Cantrill said.
“The day that President Trump was inaugurated, there was a narrative about trade and protectionism,” she said. “But folks really underestimated the sincerity and how fundamental his view is on that—he’s been talking about the U.S. getting screwed on trade since the 1980s.”
Congress has bestowed the executive branch—and Trump—with great legislative authority when it comes to enforcing tariffs, she said, and the continued power struggle with China’s president Xi Jinping has become a hallmark of his presidency.
“If COVID-19 doesn’t totally absorb the campaign narrative, and we’re back to some normalcy in September or October, there could be more saber-rattling around China,” she said.
“This is a well that he will continue to go back to during the campaign, and certainly if he’s reelected,” she added.
What it will take to win
While Cantrill characterized Trump’s base as made of Teflon, she said Biden now has an opportunity to woo two key groups who could shift the tides in Democrats’ favor: independents and suburban women.
She believes his campaign will “rev up” their focus on those demographics in key states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, as well as Arizona Florida, Ohio and North Carolina.
In 2018, Democrats gained control of the House through engaging these groups, she argued.
Pew Research Center’s Doherty said data shows voters are inclined to blame the current administration, to some degree, for the coronavirus crisis—and even some Republicans have copped to disappointment with the president’s actions. He questioned whether their malaise is enough to sway them in a general election, however.
Doherty also believes most voters who characterize themselves as independents are actually partisan, and tend to vote closely with the party that most aligns with their views. That leaves fewer truly undecideds up for grabs, he said.
Biden, Rothenberg said, represents a more palatable Democratic choice than his former rival, Bernie Sanders, and that might make it easier for the Trump-weary to jump ship.
“Dems rallied behind a generally acceptable candidate instead of an ideologue,” he said, adding that Biden’s nomination makes it harder for the president to hang onto—or get back—swing voters like college-educated women.
If Wisconsin’s recent primary is any indicator of what’s to come in November, it could spell danger for Trump.
“Democratic turnout has been through the roof,” Rothenberg said. Even during the pandemic, Wisconsin voters turned out in droves to cast ballots for newly elected State Supreme Court justice Jill Karofsky, who hammered Trump-backed incumbent Justice Daniel Kelly with a 120,000-vote victory.
Biden beat out Sanders handily in the presidential primary, with 63 percent of the vote.
While Sanders’ supporters are heartbroken to see their champion exit the race, Rothenberg said those feelings will likely subside as the election draws nearer, and Democrats will rally behind the nominee.
“We’ve entered a stage where the extended narrative will be about who is at fault” for the crisis, he said. “This will take up a lot of the discussion, instead of debating policy.”
Democrats may face criticism in the coming months for delays on stimulus dollars, he said, while Trump will undoubtedly face scrutiny for his administration’s handling of containment measures.
In addition to college-educated women, Rothenberg said the election hinges on the participation of black, Latino and progressive voters.
“I continue to believe the race leans to Biden,” he said, but hedged that the former vice president could beat Trump with five million popular votes and still lose the presidency.
The electoral college will be pivotal, he said, echoing Cantrill’s assertion that states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania will be instrumental in any candidate’s win.
“It will come down to six to eight states, no more than that,” he said. “I expect a competitive race.”