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Covid-19 and America’s November election

And there is no doubt that the 2020 race could become the ‘coronavirus election’ – coronavirus would possibly influence that election more than anything else.

Atanu Biswas | Kolkata |

The second round of French municipal elections has been postponed. Three states in India – Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and Maharashtra – also postponed their civic polls due to Covid- 19 pandemic. However, the all-important US presidential election is scheduled in November. And there is no doubt that the 2020 race could become the ‘coronavirus election’ – coronavirus would possibly influence that election more than anything else.

The US is already in recession due to the deadly Covid-19. “We are officially declaring that the economy has fallen into a recession… joining the rest of the world, and it is a deep plunge,” Bank of America US economist Michelle Meyer wrote on March 19. According to an estimate, GDP of the US for the full year will contract by 0.8 per cent.

An estimated 25 million jobs will be lost worldwide, and a big chunk of that will be in the US. The job market is in free fall. Importantly, Meyer asserted that “confidence (would be) depressed”. And that is very alarming for Donald Trump in his re-election bid. Trump is possibly facing the first true crisis of his presidency, just months prior to the November election. He was enjoying a comfortable popularity even after his impeachment.

This is not surprising though – even President Clinton’s job approval rating reached a peak after his impeachment. However, the global outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic is now threatening to destabilise Trump from his comfort-zone. Everything would now depend on the outbreak’s trajectory over the next few weeks or months.

Certainly, the economic comfort is more important than the president’s personality flaws or global warming for American voters of the 21st century. Most domestic economic indicators that matter, like jobs report and unemployment levels, growth rates, the stock market, wages, were on a bull run until a few weeks ago. And that was the real strong point of Trump in his presidency. But the US economy is now estimated to lose $420 billion in 2020.

And that might be an underestimation to a great extent – who knows! The Dow Jones Industrial Average was at a record high at 29,568 points on February 12. Ending its longest running bull market, within just five weeks of the coronavirus trauma, it has now shrunk 32 per cent and dropped to 20,087 by March 19. Republican strategist Mike DuHaime has opined, “The president’s greatest strength has been the economy.

If the stock markets continue to tank, and real people begin to hurt financially, it will hurt the president politically.” Normally an American president has won a re-election bid nearly three-fourth of the times. But, incumbency might begin to glance adversely at President Trump, due to the severity of the pandemic. This is turning out to be an acid-test of President Trump’s administration, his leadership, and the private healthcare system’s ability to protect all Americans.

The personal experience of American voters during this Covid-19 – issues such as sick leave, loss of income, pre-existing conditions, testing and drug costs, access to adequate medical care, and premature death of loved ones, would build the narrative of the November election to a great extent. From the Trump impeachment to North Korea to global warming – all other issues would invariably lose their electoral importance.

To be fair, Trump isn’t responsible for a ‘black swan’ (or highly improbable) event like a coronavirus outbreak. His administration has already announced a massive stimulus package to blunt the impact of the coronavirus crisis, which includes sending payments directly to Americans totalling $500 billion, broken up into two tranches – the first one would be direct payments of $1,000 for adults, $500 for kids.

However, Trump’s “Covid-19-asseasonal flu” comment, reportedly ignoring early warnings of the severity of the virus, and even showing anger at a Centre for Disease Control and Prevention official who in February warned that an outbreak was inevitable, might haunt him even after the epidemic ends. The debates concerning affordable healthcare, single-payer options, and the future of Obamacare, would become major issues in the coming election, for sure.

During the coronavirus-driven recession and health crisis, Democrats wouldn’t miss hitting the bull’seye. They’re already up at Trump accusing him of risking a (Hurricane) Katrina-level disaster for America. Joe Biden went on to accuse that “a pervasive lack of trust in this president” had hindered the response to virus which has left the country “woefully unprepared”.

According to the polling agency, FiveThirtyEight, Trump’s ratings with all polls, as on March 19, are currently 42.3 per cent approve, 53.6 per cent disapprove (net -11.3 per cent), which have slid since their mid-February peak. It was 44.3 per cent approve and 51.0 per cent disapprove (net – 6.7 per cent) on February 19. Nobody knows how it will take shape in the coming months.

However, Trump’s political career is at stake as the coronavirus pandemic spreads – the White House’s response to the pandemic and how it would hit the economy would frame his re-election prospects. States like Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana have postponed their presidential primary elections due to Covid-19. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden debated without an on-site audience to avoid the possible spread of the virus.

None of the presidential candidates currently have scheduled events in public. However, Trump’s politics hinges on big rallies, and if rallies need to be restricted for longer duration, he will lose more and more mileage in this election year. Let’s review history a bit to have a glimpse of what virus epidemics can do in US politics.

About a century ago, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, regarded as one of the deadliest epidemics in human history, infected 500 million people – about a quarter of the world’s population. Amid America’s involvement in World War I, the 1918 US mid-term elections to elect the 66th Congress took place during this pandemic.

It was the second term of Democrat President Woodrow Wilson. In that election, the Republicans took complete control of Congress from the Democrats for the first time since the 1908 election, which was followed by a huge Republican victory in the 1920 presidential election. And, subsequently, the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress until the 1930 election.

On at least half a dozen occasions, Trump tweeted about staying in office for a few extra years. He even said that he’d “ultimately leave office in six years”and added that it could be “10 or 14”. Of course, he added “just kidding” after this obviously unconstitutional idea. The obvious query is whether Trump can cancel or postpone the 2020 presidential election by citing the coronavirus pandemic – possibly by declaring a national emergency. Certainly, he can’t. A US president cannot defer an election unilaterally – even if he enjoys the support of Congress and the states.

It would be extremely difficult, perhaps logistically impossible, to postpone the presidential general election, which, according to ‘3 U.S. Code §?1’, is scheduled “on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November, in every fourth year succeeding every election of a President and Vice President.” This year, the scheduled date is November 3.

Poor Donald Trump! Perhaps incumbency has seldom pinched as much.

(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)