Imagine there’s no COVID. It’s not that easy even if you try. The pandemic fogs up everything now. But it’s worth pondering: what would the presidential election look like if the novel coronavirus had never escaped Wuhan? Who would be winning?
It‘s easy to assume that President Trump would be cruising towards re-election. He would be swanning around the country touting his Greatest Economy Ever. The crisis would not have revealed his eccentric attitudes towards the human body and medicinal cures. His strange and erratic reactions to the virus would not have left voters wondering how America ended up with a conspiracy theorist billionaire in charge. He might have even started to look more, er, presidential.
Without COVID, Trump would probably still be talking about the Democrats’ dubious attempt to remove him by impeachment. That was a major news event in February, one that made Trump’s opponents look silly. It feels like a century ago now.
Joe Biden, meanwhile, would be far more exposed. His physical and mental frailties would be much more obvious to all voters because he simply would have had to campaign more than he has. Most of the media would still be boosting him, of course, but it would have proved harder for the pundits to gloss over Biden’s glaring flaws and his endless gaffes. The media might also have had to take the Hunter Biden laptop story more seriously — or at least speculate a bit more as to whether it was true — simply because there wouldn’t be much else to talk about.
The Trump exhaustion factor — the factor that will probably win the election for Biden tomorrow — would not be as potent. The American people would be thinking about more conventional election questions. Who do I trust on the economy? Who has better ideas for improving education? Who loves America more?
The Black Lives Matter protests and riots would probably still have happened over the summer, assuming the shocking footage of George Floyd’s death had circulated as it did in May. But the eruptions would not have been so widespread or violent, because urban populations would not have just spent weeks locked down and afraid. There therefore wouldn’t have been quite the same pervasive sense across America that, under Trump, the world was falling apart.
Then again, the age of Trump is inherently unstable. Trump doesn’t do conventional politics. He would have triggered some other crisis, perhaps a foreign policy one. More to the point, without the pandemic, the Democrats would have had to find some scandal to obsess over. Maybe the New York Times’s investigation into tax affairs would have dominated the news for weeks on end.
In a COVID free world, the Democrats would still have focused on the issue that did so well for them in 2018: healthcare. Biden promises to protect and improve the Affordable Healthcare Act. Trump wants to take away your coverage and so on. That argument might have worked better than it does in the middle of a pandemic, when most Americans are so alarmed by the spread of the virus that they aren’t much focused on
Biden, for all his flaws, would probably still have had his mysterious appeal in swing states — he’d still be leading in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Trump wouldn’t be able to excite his base with the idea that the Democrats are using COVID COVID COVID to try to remove ‘your favourite president’. There would be far less mail-in or early voting, and less concern, at least on the Republican side, that the election was going to be rigged. The Democrats would no doubt have continued to fantasise about Trump turning into Idi Amin if he felt the election was going against him.
In other words, a COVID-free 2020 election might have been surprisingly similar, if somewhat less stark, to what we have now. Trump-hatred would still be the biggest motivating factor for Democrats. A loathing of ‘the swamp’ would animate Trumpism. And the polls would still almost certainly have had Biden ahead going into election day.