The coronavirus pandemic and the Trump presidency that preoccupied the United States and much of the world this year have finally met face to face over the weekend.
With his life and his presidency on the line, the president has put on a brave face, fighting to beat the virus with the same vigour he fought to downplay it.
If the polls are anything to go by, Trump is trailing behind his Democratic rival Joe Biden – at times by double-digit numbers with less than a month to go before the elections.
But since the pollsters were so wrong in their forecast of the last election results, many believe the incumbent will eventually pull ahead, as he did in 2016.
Moreover, the pandemic is casting long shadows over the elections, with its twists and turns affecting almost all citizens in the country. This was all too clear in both the presidential and vice-presidential debates.
In fact, the contrasted approaches of the candidates to the pandemic and its effects on the nation may well echo their overall approaches to the presidency and determine the winner of the elections, one way or the other.
The warrior vs the worrier
For now, the elections are Biden’s to lose.
He has wrapped himself in the image of an honest, considerate and compassionate leader, worried about the health and wellbeing of the country. He projects the image of a wise elder statesman, who could save the country from a reckless presidency that brought it to its knees.
Biden wants you to know he is no Donald Trump, that he is indeed pained and alarmed by the rising rate of COVID-19 infections that have already taken the lives of more than 200,000 Americans.
He wants to be the national healer, who puts “United” back in the United States of America.
He is also anxious about the US’s deteriorating standing in the West and around the world as its nemesis China garners ever more power and influence.
For his part, Trump has cultivated the image of a bold warrior who does not recoil, rest or retreat.
His COVID-19 diagnosis may have played into Biden’s hands, but he moved quickly to spin the ordeal as a blessing in disguise. By showing the public he is fighting hard to get back to work as soon as possible, he tried to demonstrate his unmatched tenacity and his determination to turn misfortunes into fortunes.
Trump’s coarse style of leadership may have alienated many at home and abroad, but it also convinced his supporters that he is an indispensable fighter for the nation, and made them believe his loss would be America’s loss come election day.
As the commander-in-chief, Trump has chosen to reassure not alarm the country about the pandemic and its related economic downturn, promising to beat the virus and get the country back on the road to greatness.
In theory, this may be the right approach. Statesmanship during a national emergency requires calming the panic and projecting confidence in order to reach sober decisions and implement urgent policies.
In reality, however, more and more people believe Trump’s mulling is as egregious as his motives are egotistical.
Either he does not think the pandemic is a national emergency, as his persistent disregard of scientific evidence and the comparisons he made between COVID-19 and the ordinary flu indicate, or he does consider the pandemic a national disaster, but chooses to downplay the threat it poses in order to preserve confidence in his presidency during an election year.
In fact, it is almost impossible to tell what he really thinks, as he tends to speak out from both sides of his mouth.
But regardless of whether it is willful ignorance or cynical calculus, the end result has been terribly painful and utterly avoidable – not only in terms of the great loss of life but also in terms of the damage to so many livelihoods.
Gaining the nation’s confidence
That is why Biden is pulling way ahead in the national polls.
Trump’s mounting scandals, including his tax avoidance – not to say tax evasion – his failure to mitigate the harm from the pandemic, his polarising policies and incitement to violence, and his inability to chart a clear and actionable vision for the future as the country descends into new lows, have all stacked up against him.
It is no coincidence, then, that professor Allan Lichtman, who rightly predicted every election result since 1984, including the 2016 Trump upset, forecasts a Trump defeat come November. Based on his model of 13 major indicators, including leadership, charisma, the economy, social unrest and scandals, Lichtman calculates seven of the 13 “keys” to the presidency work in Biden’s favour.
This is especially true when it comes to the effect of the pandemic fiasco on more fragile Americans.
For example, Biden’s popularity is growing among older American voters, 71 percent of whom turned up to vote in 2016. In the key state of Florida, where Trump won the elderly by 17 percent in 2016, he is now trailing Biden among the more than 65-year-olds, albeit by a small margin.
But while Biden, like Hillary Clinton, is certain to win the popular vote, ie a majority of American voters, he also needs to win the Electoral College to become president.
That requires winning in some key swing states like Michigan, Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Unlike the other states that generally vote Democrat or Republican, these states tend to swing both ways depending on the election cycle.
Mood swings in the swing states
Biden’s lead in the national polls remains greater than his lead in the “swing states” that will ultimately decide the elections. This makes it a close contest with the possibility of new extraordinary factors altering the result in the next four weeks.
But since their 2016 fiasco, pollsters have worked on improving their models to account for the Electoral College, notably in the swing states.
And they show that while many continue to place their faith in Trump, a growing number of working- and middle-class Americans in the battleground states are turning their back on Trump for failing to deliver on his promises in the past four years.
This can be seen in the poll results coming from seven key swing states, which show Biden performing consistently better than Trump, especially since the first debate and Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis.
Last but not least, Trump has finally lost his mojo, which thus far has been his greatest asset among wide segments of the electorate, especially the uneducated voters.
Indeed, since the start of the pandemic earlier in the year, his overall showmanship has been backfiring on him.
His attempts to appear in command after catching the virus less than a month before the elections have come across as too rehearsed, too bizarre, and utterly desperate.
So, other things being equal, again, other things being equal, Biden is destined to win the Electoral College and the popular vote.