PUT THE POLLS ASIDE ON TRUMP AND PANDEMIC
Back on February 9th, I wrote a piece for the Bulwark entitled “Beware of the Polls”. That piece argued that in light of the inherent weaknesses in the public polling data, especially in regard to their inability to accurately measure the minority vote and their highly suspect sample shares of key voting blocs (e.g., partisanship and age), we ought to practice caveat emptor towards the data put out by the public pollsters.
Today, given the pandemic plague our nation and world is battling, when it comes to measuring President Trump’s prospects for re-election, I would go beyond that admonition to let the buyer beware on polling data. I would suggest that we simply put aside current polling data and wait for events to lock in the true judgment of public opinion towards President Trump. This admonition does not mean that current polling data is unimportant, but it does mean that current polling data will not be dispositive as a predictor of Trump’s true standing with voters come November.
Moreover, the polling data on President Trump has been bouncing around since last Summer, through impeachment and on to this Coronavirus pandemic. Trump’s poll ratings were down as Summer turned to Fall, stabilized post-Impeachment and then rose towards 50 percent job approval and over 50 percent on the President’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, once Trump finally was taking this pandemic seriously in mid-March.
The most recent polling data, however, is showing Trump’s job approval numbers dropping back towards the 44-45 percent level in both the Real Clear Poll averages (45.2 percent) and Five Thirty Eight averages (44.5 percent). Moreover, while much of the media saw the ABC News/Ipsos’ March 20th poll as significant: which found a rebound for Trump as public approval to disapproval of Trump’s handling of the Coronavirus crisis surged to 55-43 percent. But by April 3rd, that same ABC News/Ipsos poll showed that the public now rates Trump at 47 percent favorable to 52 percent unfavorable in his handling of the Coronavirus crisis. That polling data from the same pollster presents starkly different and changing portraits of where President Trump stands with voters.
My central point is that any fair analysis would not cherry pick the polling data to sustain anyone’s political bias, instead it would be prudent to realize that events will determine where Trump will ultimately stand with voters this November. The double trauma of this pandemic upon both public health and the economy, will almost certainly not lead to a neutral reaction from the American people and hence voters.
Not to mention that events along both the public health and economic ends of the continuum attending this pandemic, are hurtling at warp speed. Therefore, polling data, which by definition measures public opinion as snap shots in time, is simply unable to accurately measure where public opinion will ultimately land in the wake of the events emanating from this plague.
Remarkably, Trump allies and most pundits, aligned with both parties, reject the near certainty of my admonition to wait until events play out, rather than rushing to draw conclusions from any single poll or even a group of contemporaneous polls. Trump and his partisan and media allies, saw the President’s rising poll ratings in late March as rock solid, while many Democrats wanted to ignore or even dispute that rise. The reaction from both sides ignores the essential lesson to be gleaned, namely that the true public reaction to this pandemic lies in the future.
As usual, the essential wisdom of Lincoln teaches us an enduring lesson worth learning. Richard Hofstadter correctly centered his essay on Lincoln, in his classic The American Political Tradition, around Lincoln’s quote that” I confess plainly that I have not controlled events, events have controlled me.” Lincoln correctly saw that the power of events in a cataclysmic crisis, acts as a gravitational force and for any President to pretend that he or she can control, much less order the tides to follow his command, is pure folly. Instead a President’s task is to manage events in a crisis with skill, resolve and purpose.
Alternatively, Trump seems to feel that as President he must pretend that he is control, always correct, and ready to attack anyone who suggests otherwise, even when it comes as constructive criticism. In effect, Trump is providing the nation with a bad impression of King Canute, presuming that he can control the tides. That approach will only make Trump look smaller, whereas Lincoln’s humility portrayed the Sixteenth President as larger when he fully confronted the fiery trial that was the Civil War.
My advice to pundits therefore is not to focus upon today’s polling data or even next week’s polling data, but to patiently await how events play out for at least the next few months. Let’s wait to see how events play out so we can see clearly where public opinion stands (or more accurately congeals), in regard to President Trump’s handling of this crisis. Read all the polls, but wait to study the data that comes out around Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and of course Halloween, before projecting where Trump’s re-election prospects actually lie.
The public reaction to four events is likely to drive the ultimate verdict of voters, with a fifth reaction to events serving as a balancing factor. One could think of these factors as akin to five fingers, controlling the palm of the electorate’s hand, which in turn holds Trump’s re-election in its grasp.
The first factor is what level of death is caused here in America by COVID 19? Derivatively, the key reaction will be what level of death do the American people think is acceptable? Most importantly does the public believe that the Trump administration succeeded in lowering or raising that level of death and hence grief for and among the American people?
The second factor that will have a political tail, becomes does the pain of those losses remain lodged in the coastal states (NY, NJ, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Washington and California) or does it hit the Heartland sates? I almost wretched writing that sentence, because a life is a life, wherever that loss hits our fellow Americans, so the political tail should be of no consequence. But it does seem that many of Trump’s supporters in the media have been sending signals to Trump’s base, that this pandemic will largely pass over their communities and people. So even as I reject placing any political value on the loss of life broken down by region, I think if this scourge of a plague does hit the Heartland, it will be a cruel surprise to many Americans, especially older voters in Trump’s base.
If COVID 19 spreads in the states ,along the Mississippi River, up from New Orleans and down from Detroit and Chicago (particularly if it turns out that the forced in person voting in the Wisconsin primary on April 7th results in the spreading of the virus),results in a collapse of the rural based hospital systems that dot the length and breadth of the Heartland, the shock of that collapse could leave a devastating crater in Trump’s coalition, not to mention repelling the Independent voters who hold the balance of power within many of those states.
In brief, those who sent the subliminal message to the Red states that this pandemic was an overrated threat to their communities, when it was really a threat to the large metro regions in the Blue states, may find that Americans were craving a Red White and Blue response that unified our nation’s response to the pandemic.
The third factor is the extent of the economic travail and hardship that this pandemic leaves in its wake. Does the economic shock linger or does our economy bounce back with a tight V shaped recovery? Does this turn into another Great Recession or perhaps heaven forfend a Depression? In terms of November, the public’s psychology will resonate more deeply than the verdict of economists.
The fourth factor will almost assuredly be how the public rates the efficiency and administrative skill that the Trump administration brings to the implementation of the stimulus packages passed by Congress and signed into law by the President. Will the unemployed and the small businesses knocked flat on their back through no fault of their own, see the promised aid delivered in terms of unemployment insurance and small business loans? Or will they see a combination of ineptitude and worst of all profiteering? Here again the public’s perceptions will have more of an impact than the writings of economists on this question come Election Day.
The fifth factor will act as a kind of pinky finger in terms of tracking public opinion. That factor is how the public comes to view Trump’s “cheerleading” advocacy of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID 19? Clearly if this drug emerges as an effective treatment for COVID 19 that will be a big win for Trump. On the other hand, if this drug Trump is continually pitching, does not pan out as an effective treatment option, especially if harmful side effects to the drug emerge as a serious problem, then Trump’s cheerleading will be seen as a loss for Trump.
Meanwhile, the extent of gain or loss for Trump accompanying whether or not hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment option for COVID 19, will not be an independent factor in terms of public opinion. In fact, the public reaction to Trump’s repeated pitching of this drug, will likely depend upon how the public rates the other four factors.
So, if Trump comes out of the other four factors in good shape in terms of public opinion, even if the drug is not seen as having a big positive impact on treatment, then Trump likely finds a comfortable place cradled in the palm of public opinion. But if the Trump administration is perceived to have mangled some or certainly most of the four major factors and this drug had little or no positive impact and the side effects proved harmful to even a small percentage of patients, then Trump’s harping about this drug, would be seen a frivolous waste of time in a serious crisis. That in turn could place Trump in a position where this pinky finger becomes the final digit turning the hollow of the hand of public opinion into a crushing grip on Trump’s fate in November.
I must confess that I don’t think anyone yet knows where Trump will land in terms of public opinion regarding this pandemic. I for one do not claim to know what the electorate’s verdict on Trump will be.
Nevertheless, were I a Trump supporter I would be quite concerned that Trump has made no real effort to unite the country behind his administration’s approach. Especially given that so many Governors have chosen a non- partisan approach designed at unifying their states to confront this pandemic, led by Andrew Cuomo from New York. But that non- partisan approach has been emulated by many other Governors on a bi-partisan basis: Hogan (Maryland), Whitmer (Michigan), DeWine (Ohio), Inslee (Washington state), Baker (Massachusetts) and Newsom (California): three Republicans and three Democrats.
Therefore, it is of little surprise that on April 9th, Monmouth released a national poll that found over 70 percent of Americans rate the Governors as doing a good job confronting this crisis, but only a little under 50 percent rate President Trump’s efforts favorably. That should be a flashing yellow light politically for Trump and his supporters.
In the final analysis, by all means read all the polling data, but I would suggest not getting swayed by any one poll. Instead, wait to study the polling data which settles in right around the three Summer Holidays and then of course on Halloween, just before Election Day. Above all channel your inner Lincoln and remember that when it comes to this pandemic and its impact on November’s election, events control Donald Trump, Donald Trump does not control events.
Bruce N. Gyory is a Democratic political strategist and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY-Albany.