WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s prospects for reelection looked much brighter earlier this year, even during the first weeks of novel coronavirus infections, but now he’s trailing in national polls and fighting to once again win against the odds.
Trump often blames the pandemic for his uphill battle, and pollsters and political analysts agree that his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that’s now spiking to new record-setting levels has become a significant factor in who will win the election.
"It’s right at the top. Our whole way of life has changed for the worse, most people have taken a big financial hit and, worst of all, over 225,000 Americans have died with no end in sight," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
As Trump and Democrat Joe Biden crisscrossed key swing states in recent days leading up to the election on Tuesday, both prominently discussed the coronavirus and offered starkly different plans for the next steps in the pandemic.
"Remember, I said it right at the beginning: The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself," Trump said Thursday in Tampa, Florida, where he dismissed the danger of the virus and urged governors to open businesses, stores and schools.
"My plan for America will deliver a safe vaccine," said Trump, who gave governors the front-line responsibility for addressing the pandemic. "Our vaccine will eradicate the virus. By the way, we have it, but whether we have it or not, it's rounding the turn. It's rounding the turn."
Biden, at his own event later in Tampa, said that as president, he would play a more central role in addressing the coronavirus.
"I will put in place a plan to deal with this pandemic responsibly, bringing the country together on testing, tracing, masking — meeting doctors in America, including Trump's own CDC director," Biden said. He also backed the House Democrats' $3.4 trillion coronavirus relief bill, which the White House and the Republican-controlled Senate have stalled.
Supporters at rallies held by Trump applaud his assertion that the coronavirus is "ending" and that it’s time to get the economy moving again, but recent polls show that the people most likely to vote disagree — and they trust Biden more than Trump to manage the virus.
An Oct. 22 Quinnipiac University national poll found that 55% of likely voters said Biden would do a better job handling the response to the coronavirus, while 38% said Trump. And, in a criticism of Trump’s leadership, 59% said coronavirus was "out of control."
Biden also led Trump by 52% to 40% in an Oct. 20 New York Times/Siena College poll on who would do a better job on the coronavirus, and by 55% to 41% in an Oct. 15 NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist Poll asking who would handle the coronavirus better.
And the trend might be getting worse for Trump in states he narrowly won in 2016, a Washington Post/ABC poll released on Wednesday found.
In Wisconsin, where coronavirus cases have grown to an average of more than 4,000 a day, the poll found that 59% of registered voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of the virus and 57% trust Biden to do a better job at it.
The upshot: Biden led Trump by 17 percentage points, 57% to 40%, a Washington Post/ABC poll said. In September, that poll found a much closer 52%-46% Biden lead.
"There's a state that is suffering a tremendous surge in the virus," said Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute, which conducts polls for The New York Times. He called The Washington Post/ABC poll properly executed, but also an "outlier" among polls.
Levy said if the average disapproval in polls on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus jumps 3 to 5 percentage points higher, that would be an indicator that the virus and the way the president is or isn't addressing it "could have moved that last group of undecideds."
At the dawn of the pandemic in January, Trump weathered an impeachment trial and emerged with one of his highest marks from the public — a monthly Gallup poll reported that 63% of those surveyed approved of his handling of the economy, the best rating during his presidency.
In March, after he declared a national emergency for the pandemic, states began to shut down, and Congress passed and he signed three bills pouring $3 trillion into relief, business and health aid, Gallup reported that Trump’s approval rating for handling the coronavirus stood at 60%.
That high mark did not last long. After promising that the coronavirus would be gone by Easter, Trump began urging states to reopen their economies, did not wear a mask in public, sent mixed signals about health measures and openly disagreed with his medical experts.
And his approval rating on coronavirus in Gallup’s monthly tracking polls began to slide to 40% by June. After a second spike in cases in August following the lifting of restrictions on gatherings, businesses and restaurants, it hit a low of 35% in August.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres also noted the trend on Oct. 6.
"While evaluations of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic are to his overall job approval," he wrote, "the assessments of his handling of the pandemic have deteriorated sharply over the past three months."
During that time, author Bob Woodward released interview tapes of Trump saying in April that he knew early on how deadly the virus was but downplayed it in his public comments to avoid public panic. Trump also openly clashed with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, and held political rallies.
Then, after mask-less supporters crowded into the Rose Garden for Trump's announcement of his new Supreme Court nominee, a coronavirus outbreak spread through the White House and eventually infected Trump, the first lady and their son.
Trump on the campaign trail says that his administration did a "great job" with the pandemic as he downplays the virus and expresses frustration that it’s still a hot issue.
"We will deliver record prosperity, epic job growth and a safe vaccine that eradicates the virus and quickly ends this pandemic," Trump promised last week in Wisconsin. "And you know, with the fake news, everything is COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID."
Meanwhile, Democrats, who are campaigning to preserve the Affordable Care Act, charged on Friday that Trump failed to stop or even slow down the spread of the virus and failed to protect Americans from economic harm during the shutdown.
Gallup’s October monthly poll found that Trump’s overall approval rating stood at 46% — halfway between his 52% approval rate for the economy and 40% approval rate for his handling of the coronavirus.
"As president, he obviously has to balance the nation's economic health with its physical health, and he seems to be prioritizing the economic health," said Lydia Saad, director of U.S. Social Research at Gallup.
"But I think he’s really just misread the public," Saad said, basing her conclusions on Gallup’s polling. "The public is much more concerned, as a whole, about the health and safety issues."