Will the economy or coronavirus be the decisive issue on Election Day?

What you need to know:

  • Voters heading to the polls are looking for a candidate with one of three primary attributes — a robust plan to manage the pandemic, an ability to restore trust in American government, or is effective on the economy and job creation.
  • However, the coronavirus and economy have emerged as the two primary issues defining the 2020 election. A plurality of Democrats and Independents are looking for a candidate with a robust plan to address the pandemic, while a plurality of Republicans are looking for someone who is strong on the economy and job creation.
  • Biden is seen as the strongest on developing a viable plan for helping the nation recover from the virus, while Trump is seen as stronger on the economy and job creation.
  • Trump’s positive coronavirus diagnosis has made the pandemic even more central to the race, and underlines the two candidate’s very divergent approaches to the virus. And, for the time being, Biden is gaining in the polls.

Deep dive:

With much of 2020 overshadowed by the looming threat of the coronavirus, it follows that the presidential race can’t escape it either. With more than 215,000 deaths and the economy reaching a tipping point due to COVID-related business closures, the coronavirus is top of mind for many likely voters this election cycle.

This brings to mind that old adage, “It’s the economy, stupid!” In traditional election years, the economy is often one of the central determining factors in voter choice. But this is anything but a typical presidential race, and the economy isn’t the deciding issue. Instead, the election hinges on how the majority of the Americans feel about the coronavirus. It’s not the economy, but the pandemic.

This dynamic plays to Biden’s advantage. A plurality of Americans, both nationally and in key swing states, see Biden as stronger on addressing the pandemic. Conversely, Trump is rated stronger on the economy. So, as long as the coronavirus remains the number one concern for Americans, Biden’s chances of winning are higher. If that concern softens, or if the focus shifts, Trump’s chances of winning get stronger, even if he’s lagging in the polls.

Trump’s recent coronavirus diagnosis brought the pandemic even more adamantly front and center. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s diagnosis, conversations about the virus — which had been tapering online according to the Political Atlas — came roaring back, a trend echoed in social media tracking data from the US Ipsos syndicated online community.

In the wake of Trump’s diagnosis, the polls now show a larger lead for Biden. While there is still time for this trend to reverse, Trump’s doubling down on his more bellicose approach to the virus — telling Americans that he may be “immune” and to not let it “dominate” their lives — doesn’t appear to be helping matters so far.

That’s because throughout the pandemic, the underlying fundamentals of the race haven’t changed. When deciding who to vote for, a plurality of Americans consistently say that they are looking first and foremost for the candidate with the most viable plan to help the nation recover from the pandemic. In second place, they want a candidate who can restore trust in American government, and in third place, they are looking for someone strong on the economy and job creation.

At this point, Trump simply isn’t seen as the most credible messenger on the virus. As the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index recently found, just 19% of Americans would take a first-generation coronavirus vaccine if Trump said it was safe, well behind the 62% who would take one if their doctor told them to.

Of course, the coronavirus isn’t the only issue of note to voters. The future of the Supreme Court and Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings will no doubt be hotly contested issues leading up to the election. Any issue that takes attention away from the coronavirus benefits Trump.

These larger trends aside, it is critical to remember that the election outcome won’t necessarily hinge on the popular vote. As we saw in 2016, a few swing states can tilt the balance. But while the outcome of the election is still an open question, the broader outlines of the race make clear that for many Americans, 2020 will be a referendum on Trump and his handling of the pandemic.



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