News broke to the World via President Trump's Twitter handle on 2nd of October that he and First lady Melania had contracted the coronavirus. Trump got admitted to Walter Reed immediately for practicing caution from the coronavirus hit White House. Later President Trump returned to the White House after spending precautionary days in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and projecting strength when he stepped on to the Truman Balcony. A poll taken by ABC News shows that the majority of Americans believe that had Trump taken more precautions, he could’ve easily kept himself from getting infected. The President of the United States of America getting coronavirus is by no means a minor news. The health status of the President of the US has always been a huge priority for American voters. Americans by their very nature, prefer that their Commander in Chief is in good health as it symbolises American power, strength, and greatness. These are the reasons why this news is important, even more so when elections are less than a month away.
Historical importance of Presidents' health
In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson downplayed Influenza, like Trump has downplayed the Coronavirus. Both had their reasons, while Wilson didn't want to shut down or affect the war efforts by the United States, Trump did not want to shut down the booming US economy which could have potentially affected his re-election bid in 2020.
Wilson later got infected by the influenza as Trump got infected with the coronavirus. The virus had a grave effect on Wilson's presidency as he became paranoid and ill. This led to problems during the Peace Deal in Versailles. Furthermore, Wilson also lost support among his close aides and government officials. History shows that all US Presidents have downplayed their illnesses and personal threats to project power and strength just to make sure that their presidency is not affected, be it President Reagan, after the assassination attempt or now President Trump after being infected.
Is Trump's campaign trumped?
Trump’s campaign has openly ignored the social distancing norms and held campaign rallies as the President seems to love large crowds which depict his strength. This, however, is likely to change whenever Trump returns to the campaign trail. The Campaign team can no longer afford to be seen as incompetent and irresponsible. As the Elections come close, election campaigns become more intense but the magnitude will now be affected as to portray an image of acknowledgment that the President had a virus. As the Vice-Presidential debates have not been affected and will be held as per the schedule, the last two Presidential debates hang in jeopardy.
In the US, debates hold an important place as it helps the undecided and independent voters to make their call. This, in turn, would hamper Trump’s campaign more badly than Biden, as Biden is already ahead in the polls among independent voters too. The final call on many campaign events is yet to be taken. Meanwhile, as Biden’s campaign has stopped streaming negative advertisements against Trump, this will affect Biden’s campaign too.
The politics of mask mandate
President Trump was already trailing by 8 points against former Vice President Joe Biden because of the Pandemic handling, the Economy, and the Racial issues in the US. He downplayed the Virus and mocked Biden for wearing a mask frequently during the debate. All this has now certainly backlashed.
The reason for ditching a mask was simple for Trump. Having recurrently portrayed the strength and American greatness in his campaigns, he was aversive of a mask mandate, and in the minds of many Americans, masks symbolise restrictions and weakness. The other reason for the decision against a mask mandate was was the limitations that it could potentially have to open gatherings like schools and the obvious inconvenience to businesses who couldn't wait to re-open. As a result, Trump made wearing a mask a political issue.
Importance of perceptions
Trump getting the virus also hurts his public perception of being powerful, tough, and healthy. Health status is among the top priorities for the American voters.
In 2016, Trump slammed Hillary Clinton for being lazy and having low strength, This time he slammed Biden for being sleepy, slow, and weak. All this is backlashing now as Trump’s health and ability to handle the office is being questioned.
Top democrats like Pelosi have slammed Trump and the outbreak in White House. Pelosi says that the White House is now "one of the most dangerous places in the country". On the other side Mike Pence has defended President Trump's coronavirus response. Pence stated that "Because of the unprecedented action by President, states across the country are in a much better place today than they would have been and we are on our way to putting the Coronavirus in the past".
Many voters are questioning whether Trump is ready to serve a second term if elected. Also, the voters who have lost a loved one to coronavirus are apprehensive of Trump, blaming the President for not doing enough to contain the virus. This image of being weak and unhealthy doesn't resonate with Trump’s voter base, and as a result, a decrease in Trump’s popularity within his own voter base wouldn’t be surprising.
A blessing in disguise?
Despite the many cons that this challenge presents for Trump’s presidential bid, there are some advantages for President Trump. When Trump was discharged from Walter Reed, he went back to the White House where he saluted all the doctors and marines who took care of him. This salute has had a symbolic meaning, as it shows his comeback and the Great American strength by portraying that he is back and is fully capable of performing the duties of the President. This comeback conveys the image of a fighter, which is the need of the hour for Trump in his attempt to resonate with his supporters and undecided voters. His salute to the marines and doctors also shows his gratitude and it resonates with the working class and military voters. Many voters who hold the belief that Trump is fighting for them in Washington D.C, will have empathy for the President.
This virus has dramatically shaped and changed the election race and the fact that Trump has tested positive, has had numerous implications on the race. Whenever Trump recovers from the virus, it will be projected as the Great American recovery, so that the voters are convinced that Trump is capable of performing his duties. However, the havoc wrecked by coronavirus to his presidential campaign, similar to the worldwide chaos that he virus has ensued, are beyond repair. With less than a month left to the election day, Trump has initiated damage control. The more time Trump takes to recover from the virus, the greater the damage it will have on his odds.
Analysing the odds as of now, it would be fair to say that thanks to Covid 19, Biden has a considerable edge over Trump. How will Biden’s campaign navigate this situation to further consolidate his popularity? What all damage control measures will be taken by Trump? Only time will unravel.
By Harsh Suri
Harsh is on his mission with political science as his partner. He is driven by geopolitics and geo-strategic issues. He loves to blend and understand international affairs with the domestic characteristics that shape it. He believes in digging down any topic rather than having a cakewalk on it. Harsh is a member at The Symposium Society and is in his penultimate year at Hindu College, University of Delhi.