COVID-19 and the 2020 election

During public health crises, politicians often become crisis managers. Some politicians try to increase popularity by becoming the hero who enters the situation to help people but politicizing the issue in the process. While politicians do not create public health crises, they are responsible for performing an effective crisis response. Politicians use the “crisis performance” for political gain or to limit the political harm from the crisis. Support is gained when politicians are perceived as heroes for their crisis management performances. We can judge crisis manager performance along four criteria found in the crisis management research: (1) be quick with action, (2) be consistent with messages, (3) be honest about the crisis, and (4) show concern for the crisis victims. COVID-19 created a public health crisis and the need for political leaders to become crisis managers. In the United States, an election later in the year increased the pressure to perform as an effective crisis manager. Trump’s COVID-19 crisis response was widely criticized in the news media for failing to take the advice of medical experts and Trump showing more concern about the economy than for the safety of the U.S. population. Expert analysis (how crisis experts evaluate the crisis management effort) suggests Trump failed on each of the four crisis management criteria. Trump was slow to respond to the crisis with a lack of testing and protective equipment. The response was inconsistent on key concerns including the wearing of face masks and drugs to be used to treat the virus. The response was viewed more as stonewalling than being honest and Trump showed little compassion for victims.

But did Trumps’ questionable performance as a crisis manager seem to affect voters? Beginning in July, U.S. polling data related to COVID-19 consistently found that registered voters were far more disapproving than approving of Trump’s handling of COVID-19. In the summer of 2020, on poll showed the disapproval to approval was 55% to 39%. By October of 2020, the polls indicated disapproval to approval was 61% to 35%. Voters were being influenced by the rising COVID-19 death tolls attributable to an ineffective crisis response. Registered voters favored Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden by 17 points for the person they wanted handling the pandemic. In Pennsylvania, a key state in the upcoming Presidential election, 52% of registered voters trusted Biden to handle the pandemic compared to 32% for Trump (Voters). Two-third of registered voters polled by Powered felt Trump failed to take appropriate action while 62% distrusted what he says about the virus. The week before the election, 56% of likely in Pennsylvania voters are reported as saying it was more important to control the virus than to restart the economy compared to 38% favoring restarting the economy. The numbers did not change significantly even after Trump contracted the virus. These numbers reflect a feeling that Trump had failed on the crisis manager evaluative criteria. However, we need to consider how Trump’s crisis management messages politicized COVID-19.

Polling data can hide important details if we only examine the total numbers. It is instructive to look more closely at how the COVID-19 polling numbers vary between Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. This closer look can expose how an issue becomes politicized; viewed through partisan lenses. Democrats consistently rated Trump low for his COVID-19 response with 92% disapproving of how he has handled the situation and only 5% approving. Independents express less disapproval at 35% and 61% approval. Republicans reported only 23% disapproval and 74% approval of Trump’s handling of the virus. The numbers reflect how in politics, the evaluation of the crisis manager is in the eye of the beholder—will follow partisan lines. Moreover, the polling data found while Democrats viewed COVID-19 as an important concern, Republicans did not see as an important issue (Poll). Though experts being cited in the news media deemed the crisis response a failure, Trump supporters were willing to believe Trump’s claim that he was doing a great job. The closer examination of the polling data indicates the COVID-19 crisis management was not a problem among Trump supporters. Trump’s reality has him doing a great job managing the crisis and his supporters largely accepted that reality. Furthermore, the crisis management effort was galvanizing the opposition and was a minor factor among independents (more approved than disapproved). Even though COVID-19 had killed more than 200,000 citizens and cases were rising quickly prior to election day, pre-election and exit polls indicate the virus had a minor effect on the election results. The virus simply reflected pre-existing party preferences.