The thoughts and concerns of most people these days are focused on their families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Zooming out, they’re also concerned about the impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on the economy, their job, and their place of businesses.
But for those in the political business—or addicted to it—there is the additional factor of what the outbreak’s effects will be on the races for the White House, Senate, and House.
There is no real precedent for this. The 9/11 attacks don’t seem quite analogous, nor does the 1918 influenza pandemic, the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003 or MERS in 2008. The closest analogy may come from 50 years ago, when so many Americans attended funeral services for family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers killed in Vietnam.
As the number of tests are conducted, the number of positive diagnoses will increase substantially; the prediction that things will get worse before they get better is undoubtedly correct. Discussing the modeling that epidemiologists are doing, someone I spoke with Monday suggested that we are trying to fathom the implications of something far too big for any of us to get our arms around. On an economic level, Republican economist Kevin Hassett told CNN that the April 3 unemployment report for the month of March could show a million jobs lost.
But what about the political fallout? No one doubts that this will have an electoral impact, but how much, how fast, and in what form? As of Monday afternoon only one high-quality, new national poll covered the topic, a March 11-13 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. Jeff Horwitt of the Democratic firm Hart Research and Bill McInturff of the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies surveyed 900 registered voters showing President Trump's approval rating ticking down just 1 point from last month, from 47 to 46 percent. His disapproval rose a point from 50 to 51 percent. It showed Joe Biden with a 9-point head-to-head lead over Trump, 52 to 43 percent, almost identical to his 52-44 percent lead last month. Bernie Sanders had a 4-point lead over Trump, 49 to 45 percent, almost the same as his 50-46 percent advantage last month.
On the question “do you think things in the nation are generally headed in the right direction, or do you feel things are off on the wrong track,” 37 percent actually said right direction, up 2 points from February. The wrong-track number remained constant at 56 percent. On how they rated the state of the economy, 47 percent said it was excellent or good, while 52 percent said it was only fair or poor, down slightly from 53 percent who called it excellent or good in February, against 44 percent who called it fair or poor. Over the next 12 months, 34 percent expected the economy to get better, 31 percent chose worse, another 31 percent said about the same.
Some seemed shocked by these numbers. Why did they not move more? One reason is simple partisanship. More than three-quarters of Americans are split between two parallel universes. They look at the same things, and interpret them almost totally differently. While 53 percent of the voters interviewed worried that a member of their immediate family might catch the coronavirus, there was a 28-point gap between Democrats (68 percent said they were concerned) and Republicans (only 40 percent). Sixty percent thought that the worse is yet to come, but 79 percent of Democrats believed that, versus 40 percent of Republicans. Forty-seven percent of all voters said they have stopped or plan to stop going to large gatherings. But Democrats were 31 percentage points more likely to do so, 61 percent to 30 percent. On how Trump has handled the coronavirus, 45 percent of all voters approved and 51 percent disapproved, similar to his overall approval numbers. But 81 percent of Republicans approved against just 13 percent of Democrats, a whopping 68-point difference. When you have so many partisans anchored in their views on each side, that diminishes the volatility.
The NBC/WSJ findings echoed the views of political pollsters from each party that I traded emails with Monday. They had seen little movement so far in their numbers, even though most expected to see some impact. “I have a sneaky feeling we’re not even out of the first inning of a VERY long game,” said one.
Private polling several months ago indicated that narrow slice of swing voters, those in the middle who neither loved nor loathed Trump, were genuinely torn. On the one hand, they gave Trump full credit for the economy being strong for the last three years. On the other, they saw Trump as having serious character flaws, which bothered them greatly. There was a balance there. The question is whether the absence of that strong economy effectively upsets that delicate balance, allowing questions of his character and other misgivings that they have about him become the dominant factor in their decision-making. If Trump doesn’t face a headwind, the loss of what tailwind he had might be decisive.
None of the strategists and pollsters I reached on Monday seemed to think that this would end well for Republicans. One longtime Republican said, it is “clear that Trump has not managed to stay ahead of this crisis and that we’re all going to pay a price,” adding that, “the big question is whether the expected coming recession will be dumped in his lap or whether it’s an act of God.”