The coronavirus crisis seems to have wedged itself into the view of the media, sucking up the oxygen that might otherwise have fueled reporting of other newsworthy events. However, even as the pandemic continues, one should not forget the elephant in the room: the 2020 elections. Although the coronavirus’ effect on politics will not be clear until after the quarantines end and the infections subside, it is possible to create political predictions based on our current knowledge of the crisis. For example, the coronavirus has introduced three main variables that will impact, to different degrees, the reelection chances of President Trump.
One of the greatest predictors of a president’s reelection chances is economic performance, with GDP growth leading to reelection and GDP shrinkage to defeat. Examples of this effect are the elections of 1980 and 1992, where weak economies led to the defeats of Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, respectively, and in 1948 and 1964, where good economic conditions led Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson to victory. On the economic front, the current coronavirus crisis seems to predict a bad election for President Trump. Economists at Goldman Sachs predict that the US economy will contract at an annualized rate of 24% in 2020’s second quarter, and The New York Times’ data visualization and analytics column, The Upshot, estimates that the United States’ current unemployment rate is near 13%–the highest since the Great Depression. While it is possible that the economy will recover after the crisis peaks, especially if the government adds to the $2 trillion stimulus package already enacted, such a recovery will likely not be complete when Americans go to the polls.
Another effect of the coronavirus on the election concerns the president’s approval rating. The statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight reports that since February 29, the date of the first coronavirus death in the US, President Trump’s approval rating has risen by just over three percentage points. While a higher approval rating would certainly help his chance at reelection, the examples of previous crises shows that this small boost in approval is probably momentary. 9/11 and the Cuban Missile Crisis both resulted in large jumps in the approval ratings of Presidents Bush and Kennedy, but these increases faded away over time, at a rate of about one percentage point every two or three weeks. Although the coronavirus crisis occurs more gradually than either of these events, the examples of 9/11 and the missile crisis show that, barring any unforeseen events in the interim, the slight increase in the president’s approval rating will probably disappear in one to two months.
The final ramification of the coronavirus is probably the least predictable. Quarantines and fears of infection will impact the way the presidential candidates campaign. The Democratic National Convention has already been postponed, and if current conditions persist, it will be impossible for either candidate to campaign in the traditional sense. On the outset, this would probably play to Trump’s favor, as his daily press conferences make him much more visible than his Democratic opponent, Vice President Biden, who can campaign only digitally. It is possible, however, that Biden might relish the lack of the scrutiny that normally accompanies presidential campaigns.
These three factors are by no means the only ones affecting the presidential race. Questions surrounding the extent of the damage caused by the coronavirus and its effect on politics cannot be answered now and will most likely not be answered for some time. For example, the recent primary in Wisconsin has shown that the pandemic, if it continues into November, could lead to changes in voting and possible disenfranchisement, depending on how they were carried out. What is clear is that while the coronavirus has created (mostly through its economic effects) some problems for President Trump’s reelection campaign, it has also introduced some factors that could be used to his advantage, leaving the results of the election still very much in doubt.