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Trump Is Gambling for His Political Future with American Lives

Voters have turned against Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, so he’s going for broke.
May 7, 2020
Trump Is Gambling for His Political Future with American Lives
(Digital collage by Hannah Yoest / photos: Shutterstock)

President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is now running headlong into a silent majority of opposition. This has become apparent not just in a handful of polls, but in the full trend line of polling data that has emerged since early April.

And now, as spring prepares to become summer, Trump and his red-state gubernatorial allies are about to take a huge gamble.

If the “reopening” leaves the heartland states (the South, the Plains and the Midwest) relatively unscathed in terms of COVID-19, jumpstarting an economic recovery—even an incomplete one—then Trump’s Republicans will have a better than even chance to hold both the White House and the Senate.

But if the Trump-inspired push to reopen leads to COVID-19 spreading into the heartland states, then the higher ages and rates of smoking, obesity, and diabetes there could become the kindling for a political fire. And the shock to the economy from a botched reopening would not only deny Trump re-election, but probably lead to the Republicans losing control of the Senate, too.

At this stage of the race, events control Donald Trump, not the other way around.

But over the last fortnight the polling data has revealed a strong predisposition in the electorate to not trust Trump when it comes to confronting the pandemic. His public prestige has been slipping at a startling pace as April closes. What this means is that if events do not turn in Trump’s favor, he has no reservoir of goodwill to draw on with an electorate in the face of hard times.

Let’s parse the polling data, not for the horse-race numbers on Trump versus Biden, but for how the public is starting to settle in its view of Trump as a crisis leader—which is likely to be how the referendum on his presidency will be decided.

Trump seems to be gambling that protesters demanding an immediate reopening of the economy speak for the American people.

The polling data says otherwise.

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll taken April 14-19, revealed that 65 percent of the public felt that it would be June or later before people could safely gather in public.

This same poll also found that 57 percent of respondents were worried about being infected by COVID-19 and that 26 percent knew someone who had been infected (up from 11 percent in March). In addition, only 37 percent of Americans felt that the economy would recover quickly, while 63 percent believed that the economy would recover slowly.

In an April 13-15 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 73 percent were very or somewhat worried that they or someone in their family might catch COVID-19. Moreover, only 36 percent trusted what Donald Trump said about the coronavirus (versus 52 percent who did not). This while 60 percent said they trusted Dr. Anthony Fauci (while 8 percent did not).

Comparing Trump’s numbers with those of respondents’ governors, 66 percent trusted the information the public got from their governors—putting Trump’s trustworthiness at a staggering -30 relative to the governors.

Underscoring those results was an Axios/Ipsos poll taken April 17-20, which found that 64 percent of respondents were now wearing a mask when they went outside (up from 56 percent who said they wore masks in their prior week’s poll) and 72 percent felt that returning to normal pre-coronavirus life was taking too big a risk. Meanwhile, 92 percent reported that they were practicing social distancing.

An AP-NORC poll taken April 16-20, found that 87 percent of the public felt that the stay-at-home measures were about right—or did not go far enough. In this poll, only 28 percent of those in that same poll saw Donald Trump as their source of information on the coronavirus crisis and only 23 percent said they trusted information from President Trump.

Among independents, this number was 12 percent.

When you boil down all of the polling data you see that Trump and his political allies have built for themselves a trap. If the pandemic does not recede and the economy does not recover this summer and early fall, then they have nothing to run on. Because the voters have already signaled that if things aren’t in good shape, they do not trust the president.

So as of the end of April:

  • Only a quarter of the electorate appeared to trust Trump to make the decision on when and how to re-open;
  • Only about a third of voters believed Trump was providing credible information;
  • By margins greater than 4-to-1 the public supported the effectiveness of the stay at home measures;
  • And by just shy of a 2-to-1 margin, the public recommended opening the economy slowly and carefully with an eye on testing and protecting public health.

In other words: He has already placed a bet in opposing the views of large majorities of the public. If that bet isn’t objectively borne out by results?

Think Herbert Hoover.

Because it is one thing to suffer through hard times while the people are with you, and vice versa.

To wind up in hard times while explicitly defying the wishes of the people is another thing entirely.

In the April 21-26 Washington Post/University of Maryland poll, 60 percent of respondents said they were worried about catching COVID-19. In the crosstabs this translated to 67 percent of women, 62 percent of independents, 66 percent of moderates, and 71 percent of Hispanics.

Other polls have suggested that Trump is facing trouble with seniors, too. In a Quinnipiac poll of Florida voters released on April 22, only 18 percent of Florida voters said that they relied upon Trump for accurate information on coronavirus Trump trailed Biden by 10 percent among Floridians over the age of 65.

There have been other data points that echo this finding. A Morning Consult poll from mid-April found that by a 6-1 ratio, seniors prioritized defeating the coronavirus over healing the economy.

The NBC News poll of April 13-15 found that among seniors nationally, Biden was ahead of Trump by 9 percent. This is big news: In 2016, Trump was +7 over Hillary Clinton among seniors, which marks a swing of -16 points.

My point is not to argue that the electorate has rendered a final verdict on Trump that cannot change between now and November, but rather to note that Trump’s Republicans can’t win with a significant erosion of support among independents, seniors, and married white women in the suburbs. And there has been both long-term and short-term erosion in the level of support Trump is drawing from each of those pools.

That trend is not yet irreversible. But the erosion is significant and is accompanied by an energized Democratic base. Which suggests that Trump is close to the point where he needs either a vaccine or an effective treatment and something portending a V-shaped recovery in place by Election Day.

Events could still rescue Trump and the Republicans.

But they are probably the only thing which can save them. His conduct during the pandemic has put him at odds with a significant enough majority of Americans that he is unlikely to be seen as a good president who’s been dealt a hard hand, or given the benefit of the doubt.

Bruce Gyory

Bruce Gyory is a Democratic political strategist and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY-Albany.