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Covid is Trump’s last chance Is the President about to turn the race into a coronavirus referendum?

The great reality TV presidency isn't over yet. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The great reality TV presidency isn't over yet. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

October 6, 2020   4 mins

With less than a month to go, Donald Trump is way behind in his campaign to be re-elected. He’s eight points behind nationally, trailing in almost all the key swing states, and as things stand right now, he is on track to lose. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either a deluded partisan or is overcompensating, still burnt from the 2016 shock.

Our interrogation of the data in late September (Is Donald Trump toast?), left me so convinced, I went off and put some bets on high Electoral College totals for Joe Biden – mostly on 330-360 EC votes but a flutter on the two bands either side, including 360-390 votes (a candidate needs 270 to win). Ten days ago I got 12 to 1 odds, now the odds have been reduced to 8 to 1, meaning that pundits now see the chances of a huge Biden win as significantly less remote.

The polls we do have from the past few days suggest that, if anything, the President’s sojourn at Walter Reed hospital has made things even worse for his electoral chances: Biden’s lead has widened and other surveys indicate that voters think Trump could have avoided getting infected if he had taken the virus more seriously (including half of registered Republicans), and that since the President became sick, Republicans are more, not less, worried about the pandemic.

This is the context in which we have to interpret the President’s somewhat surreal communications over the past few days. First, there was the uncharacteristic note of hesitancy, that crept in on Friday and Saturday when he was moved to hospital. “Going well, I think,”was his first message, with that atypical caveat, and later, in his four minute clip from Walter Reed, he caveated again, “you don’t know, over the next few days, I guess that’s the real test.”

There was lots of talk of LOVE and the how a “bipartisan consensus was a beautiful thing to see… I won’t forget that.” By Saturday evening you could almost be forgiven for thinking he might emerge somehow softened and with a note of humility — how would “nice Trump” do with voters?

But by Sunday, the tone had changed again. Instead of ‘feel the love’, the mood was now ‘see the light.’ Along with a much-criticised drive-by, he said he had “learned a lot about Covid” by “going to school” at the hospital. Then, finally, with yesterday’s messages and his return to the White House, there was a new clarity: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”

The slow-mo montage of him flying back, removing the mask and saluting the helicopter from the White House balcony — to stirring soundtrack, naturally — does give a strong indication as to how the President will present himself in the final weeks of the campaign: he’s been there, done battle with the virus, and conquered it. Trump’s about to turn the rest of this campaign into a referendum on Covid-19. Strange as it may seem, it’s probably his best and only shot at retaining the Presidency.

Already, British commentators have been confirming the consensus view to the New York Times: that Covid-19 was a political disaster for Boris Johnson, and will surely be so too for Donald Trump.

But the contrast between the two could not be starker. The week when Johnson was in hospital was genuinely frightening and changed the national attitude to this crisis permanently — the high point of national fear was during that fortnight — but what was surprising was how little the Prime Minister exploited its symbolic potential. Had he emerged full of life, with talk of not being afraid, the whole story might have been different; he might even have finally become the leader he has always hoped to be.

As it is, he survived, but seemed defeated by the virus — he has cut a faltering, timid, hollowed-out figure ever since, and (despite an attempt to rediscover some vigour in this morning’s party conference speech) has presided over a Government that fittingly matches the same description.

We like to think, in our sophisticated democracies, that we no longer place much store in the symbolic power of our leaders — the idea of l’ètat c’est moi perished along with Louis XIV — but if anything, the Boris Johnson experience since his illness suggests the opposite. One can’t help but think the national loss of confidence is inextricably bound up with the prime minister’s loss of confidence. 

Which is why Covid-19 could still just about come to Donald Trump’s rescue. Provided he doesn’t relapse and is actually recovering — the footage of him apparently breathless upon his return to the White House is not encouraging — the idea that he has had the virus and thrown it off will inevitably endow him with a certain authority. If he now downplays the threat, Democrats will accuse him of dangerous ‘anti-science’, but in truth they are as guilty as the other side of politicising the issue. Doubts about blanket shut-downs in response to the virus are not irresponsible, but are entirely legitimate points of discussion in a free society.

Meanwhile, anxiety about the virus remains high in the States, but it has drifted down from its August peaks. And as every day goes by, with children in and out of school, students’ college experience ruined, and thousands of businesses folding, the sense of grievance in America will only grow. So what if the President were to campaign on a promise of moving to a policy of individual responsibility regarding Covid-19? What if he attached it to something like the ‘focused protection’ strategy proposed by the three epidemiologists we interviewed yesterday? After our interview, the three scientists met the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Capitol Hill: could the administration be taking their ideas seriously?

Back in June, I suggested that Covid-19 could help Donald Trump get re-elected:

“An election campaign in which Democrat voices are endlessly calling for further restrictions… while Trump is promising freedom and a return to the ‘old normal’, sounds like a fight he is aching to have. Not even Make America Great Again – just Make America Normal Again.”

It is probably too late. Real movement during election campaigns happens less often than people think: the YouGov US election forecast has barely moved throughout this drama. I’m not selling my bet yet. But if Donald Trump can recast this campaign as a choice between years of facemasks and shuttered town centres with Joe Biden, and a reinstatement of freedom and individual responsibility with him, it could be the best chance he has of a late change in the course of this election.

Freddie Sayers is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.


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Dave Tagge
Dave Tagge
3 years ago

“We like to think, in our sophisticated democracies, that we no longer place much store in the symbolic power of our leaders”

I largely agreed with Mr. Sayers’ points here, but this is one where I (as an American) think that the U.S. is still a bit different than the UK and many other countries. Because the U.S. president is head of state as well as head of government, it’s an office that has still retained a fair measure of symbolic power (though admittedly less than it had several decades ago). That’s been one of the complaints about Trump’s “unpresidential” behavior, including from some commentators who agree with him on many policy issues.