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President Donald Trump’s early morning announcement that he’s tested positive for Covid-19 throws an already chaotic 2020 presidential race into a new realm of craziness that’s almost unfathomable. Some commentators rushed to pronounce last rites for Trump’s campaign. “It’s hard to imagine this doesn’t end his hopes of re-election,” Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant, told the New York Times.
But since there’s no precedent for what’s happened—especially not this close to an election—nobody can say with certainty what the political fallout ultimately will be.
Still, it is possible to say that Trump’s diagnosis and the facts surrounding it will almost certainly amplify a trend that already threatens his chances at reelection: the defection from Trump to Democratic nominee Joe Biden of white women without a college degree.
In 2016, Trump won this group by a historically large margin, 27 points, according to exit polls. The overrepresentation of these women in the Upper Midwest states that decided the election was especially important for Trump. (In the critical swing state of Wisconsin, for instance, non-college-educated whites represented three-fifths of the overall vote in 2018.)
Trump’s positive test, his handling of the pandemic until now, and a Bloomberg report on Friday thathe traveled with staff to a campaign rally even after being notified that his close aide, Hope Hicks, had contracted Covid—exposing many more people to the deadly virus—will almost certainly make it harder for Trump to win back these voters who were crucial to his election four years ago.
Even before the coronavirus struck, many of these “waitress moms” had soured on Republicans. In 2018, the GOP’s margin with white non-college women slipped to 14 points—and lower in the Upper Midwest. That erosion continued as the virus spread. In a Sept. 13 Washington Post-ABC News poll of Wisconsin voters, these women favored Biden by 10 points (51% to 41%) when asked who they trusted more to handle the coronavirus outbreak, the same margin by which Biden led on the question of who “better understands the problems of people like you” (52% to 42%). This mirrors national trends.
The news of Trump’s positive test, following his regular refusal to wear a mask and take basic precautions against the virus, isn’t going to make it any easier to win back the women he’s lost. The president spent part of Tuesday’s debate mocking Biden for wearing a mask, but polls have consistently shown that the public supports (and practices) mask-wearing. A recent YouGov poll found that 95% of women reported having worn one in the last week, and that only a fraction (25%) believe a federal mask mandate would violate their civil liberties. Trump’s diagnosis—and Biden’s negative test Friday afternoon—will further highlight the importance of basic public health precautions.
More worrisome for Trump is that the details of what happened in the last 48 hours reinforce the claim made by his critics that Trump only cares for himself. As Bloomberg reports, “In between learning the news of Hicks’ infection Thursday morning and announcing his own early Friday, Trump stuck to his prepared schedule. That decision would appear to contradict the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on COVID.” By maintaining his campaign and fundraising schedule, instead of quarantining, Trump exposed many more people to the virus.
On Friday, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters that he expected additional White House staffers to test positive.
Even before the news of Trump’s infection, the election was shaping up as a referendum on the president’s handling of the crisis. Now that the crisis encompasses his personal health and potentially the health of dozens or hundreds of people he’s come in contact with over the last few days, an already tough job of climbing back into the race has become that much harder.
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