2020 Election
March 10, 2020 3:00 PM EDT

The biggest threat to Donald Trump’s re-election in 2020 may be COVID-19.

The spread of the novel coronavirus is shaping up as a test of Trump’s core pitch to voters: that they are better off than they were when he took office. Sharp drops in the stock market, school and office closures, crashing oil prices and widespread disruptions to other major industries have some Trump supporters concerned that the virus is triggering a new financial crisis that could hurt Trump’s bid for a second term more than any political test he’s faced so far.

“The economic ramifications of the coronavirus are increasingly likely to weigh heavily on Trump’s re-election chances and quite possibly could cost him re-election,” says Republican donor Dan Eberhart.

One recent historical precedent in particular troubles Trump’s close allies. After the housing bubble precipitated an economic meltdown in 2008, voters turned from incumbent Republicans to opposition Democrats in that fall’s election, voting Barack Obama into the White House and sending Democratic majorities to both the House and the Senate. The parallels to 2008 “are especially frightening from my vantage point right now,” Eberhart says.

Some Republicans privately concede that the Administration’s response has not inspired confidence. Trump has repeatedly downplayed the threat from the virus in press briefings, saying on Feb. 26, for example, that the risk to Americans “remains very low” and “may not get bigger.” He contradicted his own experts in saying that the the virus can be contained and its spread in the U.S. is not inevitable. U.S. public health officials were late to pivot from a strategy of containing to virus to one of mitigating its impact, and Trump Administration officials fell behind understanding how pervasive the virus is inside the U.S. because the initial set of tests designed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) didn’t work well enough.

“If he can’t and his government doesn’t get a handle on this thing and start to show some competence, yeah, there could absolutely be electoral fallout in November,” says Reed Galen, an independent political strategist who was deputy campaign manager for John McCain’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign, which was hampered by McCain’s mishandling of the economic swoon that fall.

Trump’s re-election campaign is emphasizing the actions the President has taken to contain the virus so far, from tapping Vice President Mike Pence to lead the government response to the virus to restricting travel to the U.S. from China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. Public health officials, including Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director at the CDC, believe the travel restrictions bought valuable time for the U.S. to prepare for the rise in COVID-19 cases. But some of that time was squandered by a flawed roll out of test kits, which has limited the U.S. ability to detect the domestic spread of the virus. State and local labs are still facing shortages of tests.

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If there was any doubt that the virus will be a key campaign issue, polling shows that COVID-19 has already become one of the top news events of the last 10 years in Americans’ minds, according to a Public Opinion Strategies poll published Monday. So far, public opinion is mixed on whether the country is prepared for a broader outbreak, with 49% of Americans believing the country is ready and 46% saying they don’t believe the nation is prepared.

Trump has been keenly focused on the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. On Friday, while touring the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Trump said he would rather the passengers aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship remained aboard offshore, even as public health officials planned for the ship to dock and passengers to disembark. “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship,” Trump said.

Trump has pushed White House aides to develop a package of aggressive measures to stimulate the economy, including a payroll tax cut, relief for hourly wage workers, loans for small businesses, and bailouts for the cruise-ship industry and airlines, he told reporters in the White House briefing room Monday night. Those steps, which weren’t ready to release Monday, will be presented to lawmakers on Tuesday, Trump said, and will be “very dramatic.”

“We are going to take care of and have been taking care of the American public and the American economy,” Trump said, adding: “It’s not our country’s fault. This is something we were thrown into and we’re going to handle it.”

Trump has been resistant to scaling back his activities as a precaution even as several Republican officials have announced plans to self-quarantine — including Trump’s newly named chief of staff, former North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows — following interactions at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference with an infected individual. Trump himself had contact with two Republican congressman, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, before both lawmakers announced on Monday they were isolating themselves for 14 days. Collins shook hands with Trump at the CDC on Friday and Gaetz rode on Air Force One with Trump on Monday. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Monday evening that Trump hasn’t been tested for COVID-19 because “he has neither had prolonged close contact with any known confirmed COVID-19 patients, nor does he have any symptoms.”

Nor has Trump slowed down his campaign activities at a moment when many big public events are being canceled to stem the spread of the virus. On Monday, Trump attended a $4 million fundraiser with 300 people at a private home in Longwood, Fla. He’s held six rallies in the past month. When he toured the CDC on Friday, his red campaign hat was perched on his head, Trump said he’d continue to hold rallies and it doesn’t bother him to have thousands of supporters standing close together in an arena. “The campaign is proceeding as normal,” said Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for Trump’s re-election campaign. “We announce events when they are ready to be announced. The President held a rally last week, then a town hall, and fundraisers this week and over the weekend.”

Trump’s campaign strategy involves boosting turnout among Republicans, but if the public health crisis extends to Election Day on Nov. 3, it could potentially suppress the number of voters willing to go to the polls. In the meantime, the campaign has sought to blame Democrats for criticizing the Trump Administration’s handling of the virus response. “What is not helpful is the politicization of the coronavirus, which is exactly what Democrats are doing on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail. Once again, we see politicians trying to scare people to score political points. It’s reckless and irresponsible,” said Kayleigh McEnany, the Trump campaign’s national press secretary, in an email.

What’s clear is that a President who has been in permanent campaign mode since the first day of his term is keenly aware of the stakes. “What we know is from natural disasters is the way a political leader handles a disaster can make or break a campaign,” says Whit Ayers, a Republican pollster at North Star Opinion Research. “Focus on the performance and the poll numbers will take care of themselves.” Trump’s performance is still unfolding, but one thing he knows for certain is that voters are watching.

With reporting by Alana Abramson/Washington

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