WSJ op-ed: Could Trump's great equalizer on Election Day be ... coronavirus?

Lotta grim takes about the election floating around lately, but one that imagines Trump winning because people are afraid to walk into a raging ‘rona storm and catch their death in order to vote deserves some sort of award.


This is by Ted Rall, a left-wing bete noire of the early conservative blogosphere and not someone you’d expect to find in the Wall Street Journal gaming out Trump victory scenarios. Some vestigial part of my memory of that era makes me wonder if he submitted this as a goof, just to see if they’d print it. But his argument is serious enough, and simple: Trump has the more enthusiastic base, ergo the more deterrents there are to voting this fall, the more you’d expect him to gain on Biden. Hardcore MAGAites would inject themselves with the coronavirus if it would guarantee a second term for their guy. There are zero Biden voters who’d do the same for Joe.

…but there are probably quite a few Biden voters who’d inject themselves to make Trump a one-term president, irrespective of who replaced him in office. That’s the important wrinkle to all the chatter about how motivated Trump’s base is to support him. Unquestionably they love their candidate more than Democrats love theirs. But it’s very much in question whether they love Trump more than the left hates him. For the moment, this is an election entirely about the president. And liberals are highly motivated to defeat him.

Highly enough to brave a second wave of COVID-19 to vote? We shall see.

Who will turn out in greater numbers to stand in long, socially distanced lines outside voting stations—Republicans, who are relatively unconcerned, or Democrats, terrified that going outdoors could kill them? A Pew Research Center poll from late June found that 61% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believed “the worst” of the coronavirus crisis “is behind us,” compared with 38% who thought the worst is yet to come. Among Democrats, only 23% thought it was mostly behind us; 76% said the worst is still to come…

Which points to another problem for him: There’s also a big enthusiasm gap, which works in the president’s favor, between Biden and Trump voters. To be sure, unlike in 2016, the Democratic nominee is far less widely disliked than Mr. Trump. But a June USA Today poll found that “half of Trump backers say they are ‘very excited’ about their candidate, almost double the 27% of Biden backers who say that.”…

If you’re a Democrat, you’re probably voting against Mr. Trump rather than for Mr. Biden. You’re probably not thrilled about it. Add fear of the virus and you might decide to skip voting entirely…

Mr. Trump’s suggestions that Covid is no big deal mitigates the main reason his voters might otherwise stay home. Democrats’ emphasis on the danger may end up suppressing their own votes.


Points taken, but remember that we already had a trial run for this in April. The virus was decimating New York at the time and every state feared it would be next to be ravaged. Wisconsin was set to vote on electing a new justice to the state supreme court on April 5; Democrats wanted the election postponed for safety reasons but Republicans resisted, expecting that the logic of Rall’s op-ed would help them hold the seat. When push comes to shove, Republican voters are more motivated than Democrats are, right? So the election was held as scheduled, with masked-up Wisconsinites waiting in long lines to cast their ballots despite the threat of infection.

Result: Liberal Jill Karofsky whipped conservative Daniel Kelly by 10 points. Maybe that had nothing to do with COVID and would have been the result even in normal times, but it’s possible that Democrats resented the GOP’s strategic insistence on holding the election in the middle of a pandemic and decided to take it out on them at the polls. It’s easy to imagine Democrats nationally adapting that sort of mentality this fall as well, especially with the media hooting at them nonstop about Trump’s “plot” to use the virus to his advantage. “He wanted the virus to spread so that you wouldn’t vote! If you stay home his plan will succeed!”

Beyond that, it would be illogical on a basic level for an anti-Trump voter to skip the election over COVID. The president’s biggest electoral liability right now is his handling of the pandemic, a subject on which he routinely polls poorly and lately has polled abysmally. Not voting due to fear of infection would ensure that he continues to shape policy on the virus throughout 2021 and beyond, assuming we hit a snag with the vaccine. It’s all too easy to imagine the Dem messaging machine warning their base in the fall that if they don’t suck it up and turn out, whatever the health risk to them personally, Trump’s incompetence will guarantee that the risk from COVID-19 will persist for them and their family far longer than it would under Biden. “You want to end this now, or you want to take your chances with corona circulating widely all next year?”


Rall also notes this interesting bit from a recent Fox poll:

Biden is preferred over Trump among extremely motivated voters (+8 points), those extremely likely to vote (+9) and those who feel it is extremely important their candidate wins (+13).

However, the number of Biden supporters who are extremely likely to vote drops 25 points if the virus is hitting so hard in November as to, for instance, close restaurants. Because the drop-off would just be 16 points among Trump supporters, that puts Biden’s lead at just 3 points over the president in that still-raging coronavirus scenario.

The virus is a campaign issue — but it could also be a factor, like bad weather, that reduces turnout.

Read that again. Contra the conventional wisdom, Biden leads big on enthusiasm — unless the virus is raging, in which case things get dicey. Which way does that really cut for Trump, though? If the country is mired in a second wave in November that’s so horrifying that people don’t want to go outside, his approval on handling the pandemic (and his approval overall) will likely be in the toilet. He might be at 35 percent or worse. He can’t win in that scenario. On the other hand, if America somehow gets the disease under control and averts a second wave whether through herd immunity or a wonder drug or what have you, Trump’s numbers may rise but the virus will no longer deter people from voting. He’ll need to count on the surge of goodwill resulting from the low case counts to be so strong that it’ll undo all the damage that’s been done to him this year and sweep him to victory. It’s a daunting scenario for him either way.


And then of course there’s mail-in voting. Democrats are surely already thinking about the problem Rall identifies, especially given how competitive they’ve been among senior citizens this year. They know some people might be spooked by the virus into not going out to vote. So they’re going to do everything they can organizationally to make sure everyone who’s not rock-solid on voting in-person on November 3 is on track to receive a mail-in ballot. They don’t need to push hard: Democratic voters are quite attuned to voting by mail, thanks in part to Trump ranting about it every day.

It may be that the partisan imbalance detected by Fox among voters who’d stay home amid a raging epidemic is either totally offset or more than offset by the imbalance in mail-in voting. Dems who anticipate that they’d rather not risk voting in person may apply for a mail ballot early but the same might not be true of Republicans, who have been conditioned by Trump not to trust that method of voting. (To the great protracted dismay of Republican strategists.) To put that slightly differently, Democrats have a Plan B for a “November COVID armageddon” scenario. The GOP doesn’t, thanks to Trump.

All of which is setting the stage for an unholy clusterfark that’s perfectly clear already from the graph above: Trump will win the in-person Election Day vote comfortably and then over the ensuing days Biden will cut further and further into his lead thanks to the Democrat-heavy mail-in vote. And of course Trump will scream “fraud!” because he’s incapable of believing that he lost an election fair and square. Everyone sees this coming from a mile away. Jonathan Last at the Bulwark says it’s already shaping up to be the most dangerous constitutional crisis in a century. Just this afternoon, WaPo is out with a piece wondering, “What would happen if [Trump] refused to accept a loss?” But it’s not really an “if.” Unless he loses the election by implausibly lopsided margins, he’ll refuse to accept it. That doesn’t mean he won’t stand aside in the end, but I can all but guarantee that if he loses there’ll be moments in early November and possibly even December and January where there’s some doubt as to whether America’s about to full banana republic.


But that’ll also be motivation for Dems to turn out big for in-person voting as well. The larger Trump’s lead at close of business on November 3, the easier it’ll be to claim “fraud” if that lead evaporates as the mail-in ballots are counted. I don’t think they’ll have a turnout problem, even if the health situation this fall is bad. Here’s Nate Silver mulling the disadvantage the GOP is at due to its new allergy about voting by mail.

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David Strom 5:00 PM | May 23, 2024