Could COVID-19 cost Trump the 2020 election? Trump himself certainly seems to think so. Yesterday saw stock markets around the world plummet, breaking records in all the wrong directions. The sharp drop, in the range of what economists politely call a 'correction', is widely understood to be a direct result of investor concerns about COVID-19, the novel coronavirus which emerged in China in January.
Reportedly, Trump is far more concerned about the economic ramifications of COVID-19 than he is about the health risks. This theory is borne out by his bizarre insistence at a press conference yesterday that the democratic primary debates were as much to blame for the market crash as a potential pandemic.
Trump has made much political hay out of the US's relatively strong economic performance during his first term. Only four weeks ago he used the State of the Union address to brag that the US economy is "the best its ever been"; while that is a clear exaggeration, it is nonetheless true that Trump has presided over a respectable 2.5% growth and a 50-year low unemployment rate.
The question of how much credit a president can rightly take for economic performance is very much an open one. Furthermore, how much credit this president can rightly take for this strong economic trend is hotly contested. What is clear though, is that if you stake your presidency on taking credit for a strong economy, you'd better have someone else to blame if you find yourself facing down the business end of a recession.
The received wisdom of much of the last few decades has been that, irrespective of what presidents claim about their role in economic performance, a strong economy favors the incumbent, and a weak economy favors the opposition. Indeed, there is a good deal of research which backs this claim; in that economic indicators have been found to retroactively correctly predict presidential election results fairly consistently. However, there is reason to think that the hyper-polarisation of current US politics may restrict the impact that economic performance has on voters' decisions. Whether this turns out to be true is interesting, in that it may help to determine the extent to which voters consciously decide to reward or punish a president based on how they view economic performance, as opposed to having their general attitude towards an incumbent shaped by material factors (like having a higher standard of living), which are themselves shaped by economic conditions.
Trump is clearly hedging against both of these possibilities: he is desperately trying to avoid an economic crisis, in case that by itself is sufficient to cool voters on the prospect of a second Trump term. But he is also trying to make sure (however clumsily and transparently) that, should the economy take a dramatic downturn, the blame can plausibly fall to the democrats; shoring up the partisanship which remains his best hope of a second term.
What might seem a strange tactical choice, in this context, is his apparent unwillingness to firmly lay the blame for the stock market crash on COVID-19. After all, partisan voters will probably have an easy time forgiving Trump for an economic downturn that is obviously due to circumstances beyond his control. Yet, Trump seems incredibly keen to downplay the seriousness of COVID-19; going so far as to contradict medical experts, and spread dangerous misinformation about the crisis. Why?
One plausible, and potentially alarming explanation is that Trump is privy to information about the state of US readiness to deal with COVID-19 should it spread further throughout the country; and it's very likely that this information is not reassuring. As politically awkward as it might be to defy the obvious by pretending that the stock market correction is due to Bernie Sanders, Trump's deflection may be an attempt to fend off an even greater political problem if his administration is seen to fail in containing COVID-19.