THE Covid virus that sent President Trump to hospital has thrown his campaign into disarray, breaking its momentum at the start of the final frenzied stretch towards election day.
First, a little perspective. Trump has not had a disabling heart attack or worse. According to his doctors he has a fairly mild form of coronavirus. Republicans have not been hit by the equivalent of the banking crisis, threatening the entire US economy, that rolled Barack Obama into the White House in 2008.
November 3 is a month off and depending on the speed of Trump’s recovery, the Republican campaign has time to adapt to an unexpected challenge which has arrived while its candidate lags in the polls and media hostility to him is hitting crescendo levels.
There’s no hiding that this is a crisis for Trump, whose exuberance – with which some think he is over-endowed – has been a selling point when compared with Joe Biden. The Democrat candidate is 78 and has been careful to stay out of Covid’s way, letting the partisan media be his willing chief proxy.
Assuming that Trump will be fit enough soon enough to resume a public role, the remarkable 2020 campaign for the nation’s highest office will be led by two low-energy men in their 70s – Trump because he’ll be convalescent and Biden because he’s frailish anyway and is known to tire easily.
The final month of a presidential election campaign is never a cruise. October is famous for surprises that deal a fatal electoral blow to one or other of the candidates. The surprise this time is that it didn’t come from a campaign’s dirty tricks department. It was an act of God if not Trumpian hubris.
Democrats see Trump as the victim of his own insouciance towards the virus after refusing to wear a mask in public and urging the reopening of the economy before a vaccine has been found. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi (who is 80) wished Trump well but took the opportunity to have a grandmotherly jab at the President over his ‘brazen’ failure to wear masks at his rallies.
The immediate consequence of Trump’s hospitalisation is that his second debate with Biden, set for October 16, will be called off or, if it happens, will not be in the usual face-to-face format. That may be to Trump’s advantage since the hostile media will hammer him whatever happens.
The spotlight will therefore shine all the brighter on the October 7 debate between Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence and the Democratic senator Kamala Harris whom Biden chose.
The veep debate between second violins is usually a sideshow. This time it has much more significance. With the bull in the White House suddenly exposed as a mortal being after all, Pence’s readiness to take over the presidency has more significance than usual. Pence, a safe pair of hands and known quantity, has been a loyal deputy to Trump.
Harris is under greater pressure. Officially, she’s running for the vice presidency but she’s really auditioning for the top job should anything happen to a President Biden. Although he survived the chaotic first debate with Trump well, there is still a big question mark over Biden’s ability to complete four years if elected. Harris really needs to convince middle America that she’s of commander-in-chief calibre despite a slim political curriculum vitae.
Trump, up and dressed and sounding normal, issued a video from Walter Reed hospital last evening saying he felt much better and that ‘I think I’ll be back soon.’ The question is in what capacity? His personal doctor, Dr Sean Conley, said that the president’s physicians were ‘cautiously optimistic’ but that he is ‘not yet out of the woods’. We are not much the wiser about what comes next.
Anonymous sources claim to be less optimistic but since they refuse to be named, what they say should be treated with more caution than identified sources.
The aftermath of coronavirus affects people in different ways. Patients who suffered mild attacks have complained of taste and smell loss and, crucially in Trump’s case, lethargy.
The 2016 election was settled by small majorities in what used to be called the Democrats’ electoral firewall which Hillary Clinton lost unexpectedly to Trump. To win the White House, the Biden/Harris ticket needs to win back Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan and also to hold endangered Minnesota. Minneapolis in Minnesota was ground zero for the wave of rioting that has swept Democrat controlled cities after George Floyd’s death in police hands in May.
Florida, which Trump won last time, is also crucial. Republicans won the governorship in 2018 and the big Jewish vote may want to reward Trump for his recent Middle East diplomatic triumphs.
The national polls give Biden a 6 per cent lead overall. But the balance between the two camps is much narrower in the battleground states with the difference down to 1 per cent in Biden’s favour in Minnesota. It is the electoral college votes which will decide the outcome.
Given their importance, these are the states which require tender loving care from the candidates. The narrow majorities they yielded last time were a firm answer to shoulder-shruggers who argue that individual votes don’t matter. They do, and they decided the last election in Trump’s favour.
Will they get this attention from rival candidates who are lame ducks healthwise? Perhaps their separate infirmities will cancel each other out but Trump will be cursing the virus for interfering with the campaigning zeal that was his big advantage over Biden.
There’s a month to go and a lot can happen yet. The fight over mass mail-in votes isn’t over. The pace of economic revival is an issue. Trump could come roaring back whereas Biden has already roared as loudly as he’s capable of. A more conventional October surprise could turn the election upside down again and it’s worth remembering that both sides have dirty tricks specialists.