COVID-19 has changed the tenor of the election in unmistakable ways. Optimism has nosedived: the share of people who believe the U.S. is on the right track has declined 20 points since March. The pandemic has brought new urgency to issues like access to health care, inequality and the social safety net, while driving Trump’s preferred topics of immigration and trade out of the picture. “The voters are fundamentally the same, but the context of the 2020 election has changed,” says UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck, author of Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.
Trump’s character flaws suddenly loom larger for voters. “For a long time, it was annoying but it didn’t necessarily change anything in their lives–‘I wish he’d stop tweeting, but the economy’s good,’” says Lanae Erickson, senior vice president at the center-left think tank Third Way, which commissioned polls and focus groups of thousands of voters in suburban swing districts. “What this has done is to put the perception they already had about Trump together with real, horrific impacts on them and their family and their country.”
Asked an open-ended question about Trump’s vision for the country, about half the respondents in Third Way’s surveys volunteered “self-serving” or “divisive.” Respondents also rejected his calls for “law and order” in response to street protests. Asked who is hurt by Trump’s vision, 30% of undecided suburban voters said “all of us.” “It used to be people would say LGBT people, or women, or people of color,” Erickson says. “Now, 4% say immigrants, 6% say minorities–but 30% say all of us.”
Some focus-group participants were asked what they were looking for in the election. The responses were heavy on leadership qualities: people yearned for someone who was strong, compassionate and listened to experts. People agreed that Trump was strong (and questioned Biden’s strength) but rated the President abysmally on the other two.