President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have both tested positive for coronavirus, and with just 32 days before Election Day 2020, their diagnosis could have huge implications for how the rest of the presidential campaign plays out until November 3.
Trump made the announcement that he had contracted COVID-19 — the disease that has resulted in the deaths of more than 210,000 Americans since March (and which the president has largely played down from the start) — on his Twitter account early Friday morning.
“Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19,” Trump wrote. “We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!”
Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic opponent in the presidential race, expressed his sympathy for Trump and the first lady, writing that he was hoping for both to have a “swift recovery.”
“We will continue to pray for the health and safety of the president and his family,” Biden added.
Trump has reportedly shown mild symptoms of the disease, and appeared to be lethargic during a fundraiser at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course on Thursday, sources close to him have said.
With only a few weeks of election season remaining, Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis will obviously impact both campaigns from this point on. Here are six ways it could play out.
1. COVID May Become the Top Election Issue
Coronavirus will likely become the top issue in the election, outpacing other issues that are currently deemed “more important” by voters. Given how much of an impact the coronavirus pandemic has had around the world and in the U.S., COVID-19 is obviously a top issue on many voters’ minds. However, recent polling has shown that it’s not the top issue, with 25 percent of respondents in an ABC News/Washington Post poll late last month saying that the economy was their prime concern. Coronavirus came in second place in the poll, with 17 percent saying it was their top issue, but it was also on par, statistically speaking, with other matters, including health care (15 percent) and “equal treatment of racial groups” (14 percent).
Trump’s diagnosis will undoubtedly focus the national conversation on the pandemic, with the media focused on his condition, his campaign and whether this situation alters the president’s views on the disease itself.
2. Trump’s Diagnosis May Create a “Rally Around the Flag” Moment
Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis could win him the sympathy of some voters, but some analysts believe more voters will see it as proof that he has failed in addressing the pandemic. Previous polling on the issue of coronavirus found that only 40 percent thought Trump would be a better leader on the issue, versus 51 percent who said Biden would do better. A number of polls across the board also find that Biden is ahead of Trump in the presidential race, both nationally and in a number of contested swing states.
In the first few days after the coronavirus pandemic became “real” for many in the U.S., Trump actually had a net positive approval rating in many polls over his handling of it. It’s not outside the realm of possibilities that the same response could happen for him now.
Trump’s diagnosis could also win him broad public sympathy. Carole Cadwalladr, a British investigative reporter, explained in a post on social media that that’s exactly what happened in the United Kingdom, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson got sick with coronavirus.
“A reminder to all Americans that the net effect of our prime minister catching COVID-19 was that it prompted a surge of patriotic support,” Cadwalladr wrote, adding that Johnson “emerged with renewed popularity [that] enabled him to tear up key functions of the state.”
And if the president recovers swiftly and relatively unscathed, Trump could use it to his advantage by projecting himself as a strong leader.
On the other hand, Trump’s diagnosis may have the opposite effect. Due to his continued skepticism throughout the past eight months, including describing the virus as a “hoax,” refusing to wear a mask for several months (while arguing that masks are worn to spite him), doubting the efficacy of social distancing measures, demanding states “liberate” their economies while trying to stop the spread of COVID-19, and downplaying the number who have died from the disease so far, Americans may view this latest development as further evidence of his failure on handling the pandemic.
Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, described the White House’s failure to prevent Trump from getting sick as a “failure.”
“This is a nightmare. COVID19 is a serious infection, especially for someone who is older like Mr. Trump,” Jha said on Twitter. “I can’t believe he was infected. This is a total failure by WH [the White House] team to protect the President.”
Advisers to Trump acknowledged on Friday that his diagnosis would likely make him look bad on the issue, with one admitting to the New York Times that it was a political “disaster.”
Trump’s diagnosis could even cut into his base, Democratic pollster Geoff Garin suggested, opining that the president “is now in the position of becoming exhibit No. 1 for the failure of his leadership on coronavirus,” running “the risk that his supporters will feel misled by his dismissiveness of the virus and the need for precaution.”
Norman Solomon, who is the national coordinator and co-founder of RootsAction, an organization which advocates for progressive public policy, told Truthout he believes Trump’s campaign will do whatever it takes to get positive coverage of his diagnosis.
Their efforts won’t be successful, he predicts.
“Clearly, Trump has — over the course of more than six months — provided a massive self-inflicted wound for his reelection campaign,” Solomon told Truthout. “While he and other top Republicans will do everything they can think of during the next 32 days to spin and manipulate their way out of this huge PR disaster, they have been plunged into an extremely deep hole.”
Trump will make “attempts to milk whatever fawning media coverage and sympathy votes might be available,” Solomon added. “The narcissistic and demagogic politics of the Trump regime call for nothing less. The potential is there, but any of that would have a very steep climb for appreciably getting Trump out of the political hole that his calculated insanity has dug for himself.”
3. Biden May Face Calls to Suspend His Campaign
Should the Democratic candidate suspend his future travels out of respect for his opponent’s current situation? Biden tested negative for coronavirus on Friday, and is able to continue campaigning in the same limited way he has been — but some are arguing maybe he shouldn’t.
“Does Biden suspend his campaign as Trump is quarantined?” political analyst Jeff Greenfield asked. “Is the White House failure to observe protocols a reason for Biden to continue his campaigning?”
Others have scoffed at those notions, however, arguing that it’s not Biden’s fault that Trump didn’t take coronavirus more seriously. Biden “should not suspend his campaign,” author Jill Filipovic said in direct response to Greenfield, “because the president is now seeing the totally predictable and avoidable consequences of his reckless, science-denying behavior.”
Democrats are reportedly conscious of the fact that they need to be careful with whatever statements they or their surrogates make right now, noting that the Trump campaign could pick up and use any insensitive remarks to their advantage in the next few days or weeks.
4. Trump’s Infamous Rallies May Come to a Temporary Halt
This is perhaps one of the more obvious outcomes of Trump getting coronavirus, but it’s still worth noting that his infamous rallies, which rarely enforce social distancing precautions among participants, will likely come to an end.
But beyond those events, Trump will also be hurt in another way: fundraising. The president was scheduled to host multiple fundraising events in California next week. The ability to raise huge sums of money is one of Trump’s most important strategies to beat Biden, who is currently ahead in the polls. It’s still likely that Trump will be able to pull in big money before Election Day (and likely from some questionable sources), but it’s likely he might not bring in as much cash if he’s not there in person.
If and when Trump recovers, the question remains whether he will continue to skirt social distancing norms and carry on as he has over the past several months. There are signs that he’s already not taking the matter seriously, as members of his own White House — including his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and his favorite (as well as controversial) coronavirus adviser, Scott Atlas — were seen outside the White House on Friday still not wearing masks or facial coverings.
5. Trump’s Diagnosis May Hurt Him on National Security and the Economy
Trump has polled well on some issues as president, but these numbers could be negatively impacted by his COVID-19 diagnosis, which in turn could hurt his electoral chances.
Trump does better in polling on the economy more than any other issue. While the stock market is in no way any indicator of how the economy is actually faring, particularly for working-class Americans, he has frequently touted its performance throughout the year (with a short dip due to coronavirus being the exception) as a sign that he’s a good president.
Whether that’s true or not is debatable, depending on whom you ask, but Trump contracting COVID-19 has put a damper in his talking points. Wall Street saw significant losses upon news of Trump getting sick, and if that trend continues for the remainder of the campaign season, what small chances of Trump being able to prop himself up as good for the economy could fly right out the window.
A number of Americans also view Trump positively on national security matters. But if other nations use it to take advantage of their own interests, Trump’s image on the issue could take a hit.
6. The 25th Amendment May Come Into Play
It’s unclear what might happen if Trump is unable to serve as president — or candidate — during the next few weeks. Then there are the looming questions on everyone’s minds: If Trump gets sicker, or even perishes, from the disease, what happens then? The short answer is, we don’t know, and it depends.
If the president is incapacitated, he would be able, under the terms of the 25th Amendment of the Constitution, to discharge his duties voluntarily and temporarily to Vice President Mike Pence. Trump would then be able to resume being president upon declaring he’s ready to get back to work.
If he becomes incapacitated and unable to discharge his duties — if he slips into unconsciousness, as an example — Pence, with the consent of a majority of Trump’s cabinet, may assume the duties of the president. When the president recovers under this scenario, he may resume his role.
And, of course, should Trump die from complications of COVID-19, Pence would be sworn in as president. That, perhaps, would bring about one of the most unpredictable aspects of this whole matter: Does Pence then run for president as the Republican nominee?
The leaders of the GOP would have to make that decision, but it’s more complicated than that, as ballots across the nation have already been sent out, with some being returned already, that have Trump’s name at the top of the ticket.
“If either nominee dies or withdraws before the Nov. 3 election, his party — @DNC or @GOP — has to designate the replacement,” Sewell Chan, Editorial Page Editor at the Los Angeles Times, explained. “But whether there’s enough time for that nominee to get on the ballot is…up to the states. Given that 29 states have already begun mailing ballots to voters, this could be a big legal mess, tied up in state and federal courts.”