- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The 2020 presidential race is the tale of two campaigns.

First came the time before coronavirus — B.C., if you will — and then everything P.V., or post-virus.

In B.C., President Trump was riding an economic boom and watching his approval ratings surge as a fractious Democratic field of opponents debated how far to tilt into socialism. Oddsmakers gave the president better-than-even chances of winning in November.

Then the virus infected the political debate, the stock market shed 30% of its value and Mr. Trump stumbled through an Oval Office address that failed to calm things, sending his job approval ratings tumbling. And Democrats quickly settled their socialism debate, rallying around former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.

Political analysts studying the race say there’s no way to predict what happens now. The only certainty P.V. is chaos.

John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College who’s written post-mortems on the last three presidential elections, said in the days before the virus he had given Mr. Trump “a decent chance at reelection.”

“Now that a recession seems very likely, the advantage shifts to Biden,” he told The Washington Times. “The magnitude of a recession effect is hard to reckon. There have been very few presidential elections with economic conditions as dire as they are now.”

Brian J. Gaines at the University of Illinois agreed the tanking economy deprives Mr. Trump of his best argument for re-election, but said there is also a tendency for voters to rally around a president at a time of crisis.

“Whether the sense of crisis prevails for months and, if so, whether there is a rally that either carries on or dissipates is hard to guess,” he said.

G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said Mr. Trump had been nearing the 48% job performance mark, and no president has failed to get re-elected with that number. Now, however, he’s tumbled to about 44% when current polls are averaged.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re going to have one. The question is how deep is it, how long is it going to last, and is there sufficient recovery by the fall?” Mr. Madonna said. “It doesn’t matter whether you caused it or not … A president rises and falls on the economy.”

But the uncertainties are huge.

Candidates are canceling rallies and turning to online events to reach voters. Fundraising could look dramatically different. Turnout in the primaries is already being reshaped by COVID-19.

“The virus is creating such havoc that I think all forecasts are up in the air,” Mr. Gaines said. “I hope that the weird quasi-curfew spring is a distant memory by November, but it seems likely that life will not be back to normal in all ways by then.”

Before the virus struck, Mr. Biden was telling voters he would be able to put together the old Obama voter coalition that captured the White House in the 2008 and 2012 elections.

But polling suggests his voters in a head-to-head match-up with Mr. Trump look more like Hillary Clinton’s 2016 coalition, which powered her to a 3 million vote lead in the popular vote — but which was too concentrated in coastal states, denying her the win where it counts, in the Electoral College.

Mr. Biden has made new strides in wealthier voters. Those with annual incomes above $100,000 used to tend GOP, but in 2016 Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump tied, according to exit polling. Now, Mr. Biden holds a lead, according to a set of new polls this month by The Economist/YouGov.

A gender gap remains — Mr. Trump holds a slim lead among men, while Mr. Biden holds a wider advantage among women — and it gives Mr. Biden a lead in YouGov’s head-to-head match-ups.

Mr. Biden has also eaten into the white vote totals Mr. Trump posted four years ago, though black and Hispanic voters are more skeptical of him at this point than they were of Mrs. Clinton in 2016, and far more skeptical than they were of Mr. Obama in 2012.

Mr. Pitney said that the economic distress could help limit some of that shift, with Mr. Trump’s support among Hispanics weighed down.

The president also faces some more fundamental demographic headwinds with older voters, who are a reliable GOP bock.

Mortality rates mean a significant number of those who backed him in 2016 won’t be voting for him this year, even as the pool of younger voters, who are overwhelmingly Democratic, is restocked.

In Florida, for example, Mr. Trump faces a net loss of more than 70,000 senior citizen voters, while Democrats are looking at a net gain of more than 150,000 young voters. That combines for a total net of more than 220,000 voters for Democrats, or about double Mr. Trump’s margin of victory in the state in 2016.

None of that accounts for Mr. Trump being able to win over Clinton voters, or turn out new voters who didn’t cast ballots last time. Or the reverse could happen, with 2016 Trump voters fleeing him, and Democrats tapping voters who couldn’t pull the lever for Mrs. Clinton, but don’t mind Mr. Biden.

But the same mortality math in Florida applies to other key states such as Pennsylvania, where Mr. Trump may cede about 45,000 votes due to demographics at the upper and lower ages — about equal to his margin of victory in the state last time.

Analysts say they expect this year’s race to come down to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida — each of which Mr. Trump carried in 2016.

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