Three Scenarios for the November Elections
By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst
The coronavirus is paralyzing — from the fear of the physical toll, to the economy, to the end (at least for now) of normal everyday life. There’s also a temptation to put a pause on political analysis. If the country is in the middle, or even beginning, of a once-in-a-generation (or two) event, how can we even think about elections or know what the political fallout might be?
That’s not an unreasonable approach. But the fall elections are going to happen whether the country is ready or not, and the results are arguably more important than ever as voters choose politicians to lead the country into an unprecedented chapter.
And even though there is significant uncertainty, particularly in the physical and economic impact, it’s possible to identify some potential scenarios that could play out.
Scenario 1: Return to Partisanship
Months from now, when the immediacy of the current lockdowns is over and the country is moving closer to the new normal, the elections default to the status quo. That means a set of November elections that look a lot like what they were before the coronavirus outbreak: a competitive presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, a legitimate fight for control of the Senate, and Democrats likely maintaining their majority in the House.
Arguably, the country hasn’t left its partisan stance. It’s just that some campaigns are on pause and the elections are getting less attention. Trump’s national job approval improved a bit briefly to his best standing since his inauguration. But he’s come back to reality in recent days and remains an unpopular and polarizing president. According to the RealClearPolitics average as of Tuesday, April 14, 46 percent of voters approved of the overall job Trump is doing, compared to 51 percent who disapproved.
Trump has a limited political ceiling because he will never get significant crossover support. Even if the coronavirus fallout is less severe than expected, Democrats will criticize the administration’s slow response, or fall back to other sins they believe the president has committed during his first term. On the other hand, Trump’s base is unlikely to waver. If the situation deteriorates more than anticipated, Republicans will blame China, Democrats’ focus on impeachment, the media, and state and local governments instead of their commander in chief.
The greatest danger for Trump is likely to be the economic fallout. For independent voters who don’t blame the president for the pandemic and don’t criticize his response, a loss of faith in the economy and Trump’s handling of the economy (which has consistently been higher than his overall rating) leave them without a reason to overlook his Twitter feed and personal style.
One lesson from Trump’s first three years in office is that hardly anything changes public opinion about him, whether it’s a tweet, a speech or impeachment. It’s certainly possible that a pandemic falls into the same category. That’s why this seems like the most likely election scenario.
Scenario 2: Punished President
Cases and death tolls increase beyond predictions and saturate the news night after night for months. After a brief reprieve in the late summer, a second wave of coronavirus infections in the fall forces the country into lockdown as Americans get ready to cast their votes.
Unsurprisingly, Democrats blame Trump, and the president continues to be a rallying point for those who have opposed him for four years. Base Republicans stick by the president’s side, but independents turn their backs on him en masse in a recession without an end in sight.
The president’s poor performance at the top of the ballot hurts Republicans down the ballot. Trump loses Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina by margins that GOP incumbents can’t overcome, while also hurting Republican chances in Georgia and Iowa. Democrats take control of the Senate and increase their majority in the House.
If the death toll mounts and stimulus bills fail to stimulate the economy, there will be talk of a “throw the bums out” election. According to this narrative, voters are so disgusted with the government’s handling of the response that they seek to punish politicians at all levels and from both parties. The problem with that scenario is that it would be unprecedented. There are plenty of wave elections in which one party benefits from sweeping victories. But it’s never equally against both sides. In this case, if voters are upset, they’re likely to blame the president and Republicans or Democrats for a poor performance or having misplaced priorities.
Scenario 3: Rally Around the Flag
Everything goes right, and President Trump gets credit. What looked like drastic measures taken by federal, state, and local governments in the spring pay off with fewer infections, sicknesses, and deaths than were projected. Multiple stimulus bills pushed by the White House and passed by Congress help the economy bounce back even quicker than expected. Treatments and vaccines become available in record time.
With an emboldened bloc of loyal Republicans, independents encouraged by the recovery and direction of the economy, and support from some soft Democrats who want to stay the course, Trump wins reelection. His performance helps Republicans keep control of and minimize losses in the Senate, even though the GOP defended far more vulnerable states. Republicans come close to a majority in the House as voters punish Democrats for spending too much time on impeachment and opposing the president in the face of a pandemic.
The rosy scenario for Republicans is possible, but not probable at this stage. Trump is a polarizing figure and if the rally-around-the-flag dynamic were in place, it probably would have happened by now. Not only did President George W. Bush start from a stronger position (his national job approval rating was 53% approve and 40% disapprove on Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Real Clear Politics average), but the dynamic changed quickly. A week after the terrorist attacks, Bush’s job approval rating skyrocketed to 81% approve and 12% disapprove. A few weeks after the country started taking the coronavirus seriously, Trump’s numbers have marginally improved, in contrast to some governors, including Andrew Cuomo of New York, who have seen significant improvement.
One thing is certain: The elections could take days or weeks to resolve, because more states and localities will move to voting by mail. Ballots won’t have to be postmarked until Election Day, which means some won’t even be received until after Nov. 3 and could take days to count. If the right states in the fight for the White House or Senate are close, it might be closer to Thanksgiving before there is finality.
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