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US president Donald Trump at the White House removing his mask before making an announcement.
Taking off the mask. EPA-EFE/Erin Scott / POOL

Donald Trump: how COVID-19 killed his hope of re-election – new research

When Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19 on October 2 and was hospitalised a day later it was widely assumed this would put a major crimp in his re-election campaign. In the event, the US president recovered quite quickly and returned to the campaign trail with gusto after a typically bullish photo-op as he arrived back at the White House.

But survey evidence – initial findings from which are published here for the first time – shows that, despite having apparently triumphed over the virus, he did not escape the grasp of COVID-19 and that his handling of the pandemic played a crucial role in his defeat in the November 3 election.

COVID-19’s horrific toll on human life and its devastating effects on millions of people’s economic and psychological wellbeing have become omnipresent realities. So it’s hardly surprising that the University of Texas at Dallas’ national Cometrends survey, which was conducted in the two weeks before the presidential election, indicates that the pandemic was the dominant issue on many voters’ minds.

Graph showing key issues in US election 2020
Graph 1: Important issues facing the country, October 2020. Source: Cometrends October 2020 pre-election survey, Author provided

As the first graph, above, shows, 62% of 2,500 respondents cited the COVID crisis as one of the top three issues facing the country, while 39% said it was the single most important. No other issue – not even the ailing economy – was chosen as most important by one person in five.

The salience of the pandemic as an issue was a major problem for Trump because an overwhelming number of voters judged that he had mishandled the crisis. As the second graph, below, shows, two-thirds of the Cometrends survey respondents said that they disapproved of the president’s response, while only one person in four approved. When given another chance to comment on his pandemic performance later in the survey, 51% said it had been “bad” or “terrible” and only 38% said “good” or “excellent”.

Graph showing Trump's approval ratings on various key issues
Graph 2: Approval of Trump’s job performance on most important issue. Source: Cometrends October 2020 pre-election survey, Author provided

These dismal ratings for the president on coronavirus were quite opposite to those for the economy – among people who thought the economy was the most important issue, 69% approved of the job the president was doing and only 25% disapproved. Although this was good news for Trump, only a relatively small minority (17%) of voters gave the economy top billing as their most important issue. Moreover, he could not rely on various other issues to improve his job approval rating – across all issues other than the pandemic, only 41% approved of the president’s performance compared with 50% who disapproved.

Graph showing probability of voting for Trump on each key issue
Graph 3: Probability of voting for Trump by importance of COVID-19 issue. with statistical controls for other issues, partisanship, ideology and demographics. Source: Cometrends October 2020 pre-election survey, Author provided

The third graph, above, shows clearly that if electors were not that concerned about the pandemic they were more likely to vote for Trump as president. But if they gave the issue the top priority they were much less likely to do so. The graph illustrates the impact of COVID-19 on voting for the president, while at the same time statistically taking into account a number of other factors that influence voting behaviour.

The latter include attitudes to the economy, the environment, healthcare, law and order and race relations, as well as other important measures such as identifications with the Democratic and Republican parties, liberal-conservative ideological views and socio-demographic characteristics. The probability of voting for Trump is only 42% among voters who thought COVID-19 was the most important issue but 53% among those who prioritised some other issue in the top three.

This pattern is the opposite for that of the economy. More than three-quarters of voters who gave top priority to the economy supported Trump. That number fell to less than one in three among those for whom economic conditions were not a major concern.

These numbers are nearly identical to those for the large group of potential swing voters who think of themselves as political independents and have no attachment to either of the parties. Independents giving top priority to the pandemic made up nearly 13% of the voters in the Cometrends survey and, other things being equal, the probability of them voting for Trump was very mediocre, at just slightly over 40%.

Game-changing virus

As he was preparing for the 2020 campaign, Trump repeatedly emphasised that his case for re-election was strengthened by his demonstrated ability to deliver economic prosperity. Soaring stock prices and record low unemployment numbers for many groups of voters including ethnic and racial minorities, women and young people were helping the president to make his case. Then the pandemic came along and profoundly changed America and the election-year issue agenda.

A protester holds up a 'Stop Trump' sign in front of the White House, October 2020.
The sun sets on the Trump White House. EPA-EFE/Samuel Corum

As the election date of November 3 approached, most people focusing on the economy as the number one priority continued to give Trump high marks. But these people were now a distinct minority of the electorate. COVID-19 had become the dominant issue for millions of Americans and our survey evidence strongly indicates that most of them judged Trump very harshly for how he was handling the crisis. In many cases, those adverse judgements translated into votes for Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden.

Trump may have recovered physically from COVID-19. But his prospects of re-election took a body blow that he would not recover from.

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