A New Poll Shows That Trump Likely Cannot Win Without Controlling the Pandemic

Yet another poll has been released showing Biden in a dominant position against the incumbent president with just over 100 days until Election Day. A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Trump trailing Biden by a shocking 15 points nationally against Trump. The latest survey backs up other recent polls all showing Biden anywhere from 8 to 15 points ahead. Gone are the days when a 15-point lead in this race would be seen as a comical outlier. This is the new normal.

Worse for Trump, it is likely to stay the new normal barring an unforeseeable event. Skeptics will point to Clinton’s similar lead at one point in 2016, only to lose to Trump in the end. But it’s important to note that Trump’s double-digit deficit to Clinton occurred very briefly in the immediate wake of the release of the Access Hollywood tape, and that that incident was followed immediately by the Wikileaks release of Clinton campaign emails. Both were deeply unpopular nominees. No such dynamic exists with Biden, nor is there any ray of hope for the president in the latest polling. The voting public already knows Biden well, and Trump trails the presumptive Democratic nominee in every geographic area including the South, and on practically every measure of public policy.

Trump’s unpopularity has many obvious causes, but the one singular metric that has damaged Trump the most has been his response to the COVID pandemic crisis. Per the WaPo-ABC poll, Trump has moved from 2 points ahead of Biden on dealing with the pandemic, to Biden leading by 20 points. Even controlling for every other demographic factor from race to partisanship itself, the one indicator that determines Trump’s slide in approval is whether the respondent fears that they might catch the disease. As COVID has moved from blue to red states and from cities to rural areas, the president’s standing has fallen even among his core support groups, including Republicans, evangelicals, seniors and non-college whites.

Trump and the GOP believe that their only path to victory lies in forcing the American economy to reopen, riding on the coattails of an optimistic recovery. But as Trump’s failed rally in Tulsa demonstrated, you can lead that horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Even if you force schools to reopen and even if teachers don’t strike en masse as they deserve, most parents won’t send their kids if they don’t feel it’s safe to do so. Most populous states will not allow restaurants and bars to reopen–and even if they did, it’s not clear that enough people would come to drive a recovery. Meanwhile, Republicans have turned even a beneficent practice as basic as wearing a mask into a culture war football infused with conspiracy theory and toxic masculinity, such that it will be nearly impossible for conservative-leaning communities to reopen safely.

Republicans have spent the last five months blithely assuming that the COVID problem would mostly take care of itself without resorting to a strict test, trace and isolate regimen alongside massive public support, wage guarantees and housing assistance. They feared disrupting the “normal” functioning of the economy, and obsessed over whether people might be disincentivized from going back to work in a pandemic by getting unemployment benefits higher than their previous wages. They did everything they could to make sure that the stock market stayed nominally healthy even as the rest of the country sickened, while doing the bare minimum to provide assistance for the affected individuals.

The end result has been disastrous. One third of Americans couldn’t make their rent or mortgage payments, tens of millions face eviction, droves of small businesses are closing forever, hospitals are overflowing, case counts and COVID deaths are exploding, and the oh-so-precious stock market has been exposed as little more than a Rich People’s Feelings Index rather than any credible metric of the health of a society or economy.

The real economy cannot recover without bringing COVID under control. American children cannot go back to school without bringing COVID under control. Americans will not be able to travel abroad until the pandemic is brought to heel. While the rest of the world has mostly put out the fire, Americans are being forced to live in an inferno. Republicans, meanwhile, are just hoping that we’ll act like it’s the new normal and accept another several hundred thousand dead and millions permanently damaged by the disease as just the cost of doing business.

Most people will not do that. But they will take out their anger on Republicans at the ballot box.

Republicans deeply deserve the drubbing they’re likely about to receive. But if they want to gain any hope of avoiding it, the only measure beyond attempting to destroy democracy itself must be to do the hard work to deal with the pandemic directly and give Americans the necessary economic tools to survive the truly strict lockdown in place that we should have implemented in March and April.

They won’t do it, of course. Neither their base voters nor their donors will tolerate it. But it’s the only legitimate way out that doesn’t end in either the destruction of democracy or an electoral landslide for Democrats.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.