By Richard Hansen
WHAT a week we have had in US politics.
It was less than seven days ago when the New York Times broke the story that President Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750.
Since then we have had the “debate” between the President and Democratic Nominee Joe Biden.
I use inverted commas when describing the event only to highlight the chaotic nature of the evening where only one man looked remotely presidential on the debate stage in Cleveland, Ohio, and it was not the incumbent.
Trump interrupted, ranted, raged, spewed lies and interrupted some more. He also passed on an opportunity to condemn white supremacists, instead telling them to “stand back and stand by”.
Jake Tapper of CNN summed up the debate rather well, saying “That was a hot mess inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck.” He went on to say “That was the worst debate I have ever seen. In fact, it wasn’t even a debate.
“It was a disgrace and it’s primarily because of President Trump.”
Then, on Thursday night came the bombshell news that the President and First Lady had tested positive for Covid-19.
The President has since been admitted to Walter Reed Military Hospital where there have been conflicting reports about the state of his condition.
The President’s medical team refused to provide critical details and left open the impression that he was known to be sick a day earlier than previously reported, forcing them to backtrack later.
On Saturday, just minutes after the president’s doctors painted a rosy picture of his condition on television, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, gave reporters outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center a far more sober assessment off camera, calling Mr Trump’s vital signs worrisome and warning that the next two days would be pivotal to the outcome of the illness.
“The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning, and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care,” Mr Meadows told the reporters, asking not to be identified by name. “We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.”
By evening, the president released a four-minute video meant to reassure the nation, showing him sitting at a conference table at the hospital and wearing a suit jacket but no tie.
He looked pale and sounded less energetic than usual in a rambling message that included campaign talk and boasts about his record.
He acknowledged that he “wasn’t feeling so well” but said that he felt “much better now” and that he expected to return to work shortly.
“I think I’ll be back soon, and I look forward to finishing up the campaign the way we started,” he said, although he acknowledged, like his chief of staff, that the next few days would be “the real test.”
But what does this all mean? Now the President has fallen ill and is forced to spend time off the campaign trail, what will this mean for the election?
The short answer is – I don’t know. This is truly an unprecedented situation in American politics with the president contracting a serious virus weeks before the election.
I also cannot think of any leader in any other country who has had a virus like this just weeks before the election either.
I truly have no idea what to expect. How will the voters react to Trump’s positive test? How will the media cover it? And how will Biden’s campaign react?
The situation could very much depend on what happens next. Does Trump become gravely ill? Or will he stay mostly asymptomatic? How far did the virus spread in the White House?
We have already seen a number of figures in Trump’s orbit test positive in the last few days, namely confidants Hope Hicks, Chris Christie and Kellyanne Conway as well as Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Ron Johnson (R-WI).
Their positive diagnoses raised concerns that the virus had spread at a Saturday Rose Garden ceremony, at which Trump announced he was nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
This may delay the confirmation process until after the election which could prove significant in her chances of being placed on the bench.
What we do know is that Covid-19 is a huge liability for the president, and so placing more focus on Covid-19 in unlikely to help his numbers. Trump getting Covid-19 could perhaps change his messaging around the virus and pandemic, but this is unlikely.
Trump is not inclined to be overly disciplined or deferential to scientists. He is very unpredictable, and we do not know a lot about how serious his symptoms are. The disease could potentially have cognitive effects in addition to physical ones.
It is also important to remember that the president’s re-election bid was in trouble going into this, at least by conventional measures. The small amount of post-debate polls we have received had been particularly bad for him.
We have also seen some arguments that Trump’s diagnosis may help his numbers as voters feel sympathy towards their leader as he recovers in hospital.
I do not buy this argument, mainly because Trump has staked so much of his reputation on being the “strong man” and this diagnosis will not help that image one bit, at least not in the eyes of his base.
The president testing positive for Covid-19 is obviously hugely significant, but it’s unlikely to change the outcome of the election. We already knew Trump was not taking the virus seriously enough. Now, we have a much more obvious manifestation of that fact, but nothing is really different.
Biden may not be able to attack Trump as bluntly on Covid now, for decorum reasons, but this positive test reinforces Biden’s message that Trump has let this crisis get out of hand.
We have seen Biden’s campaign pull all negative advertising for the time being and I believe this is a smart strategy as it will not allow the Trump campaign to accuse Biden of opportunistic political point scoring while the President is unwell.
This situation matters in terms of the way all Americans respond to the management of the virus, but I do not think it matters electorally in terms of shifting a lot of people’s votes.
Trump is already seven points down nationally, and trailing Biden by an average of four points in all crucial battleground states.
It is Trump who needs a gamechanger moment to turn his campaign around and he is going to find it more difficult being holed up in a hospital suite for a crucial fortnight in October.
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