2020 U.S. Presidential Election result: No, it wasn’t COVID or the economy, stupid

It’s the economy, stupid — The popular political phrase was first coined by top-level Democrat consultant  James Carville in 1992.

The cliché is repeated often in American political culture during election time and those who use it insist the state of the economy is the primary influencer of winners and losers in presidential politics.

Following the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, experts are divided about why President Trump lost. Some say it was his handling of the Coronavirus pandemic while others suggest the crashed economy (due in part to the pandemic) was Trump’s downfall.

Either way, experts seem convinced Trump would have cruised to a convincing win hadn’t the pandemic hit.

Wrong.

Shockingly, data suggests Trump would have had difficultly retaining the White House regardless of the pandemic and subsequent economic tumble.

In fact, Trump’s approval ratings increased during the pandemic versus 2017-2019.

“I think if [President Donald Trump] would have been publicly empathetic [during the pandemic], he would have won by a landslide,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s former campaign manager, told Fox News in early December.

Instead, he said, Trump decided “to go for opening the economy first.”

And on the surface, that theory makes sense. After all, in the days leading up to the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, voters gave President Donald Trump a poor verdict on his handling of the coronavirus outbreak. For instance, a HuffPost/YouGov survey found voters disapproved of Trump’s own handling of the pandemic 59 to 38 percent.

However, despite a low rating on his handling of the virus, Trump’s approval rating, according to Gallup polling released during early voting and just days prior to the general Election Day (November 3), was among the highest in his entire presidency.

Gallup, a leading pollster that has been tracking presidential polling averages since the 1940s and releases 20 such polls annually, gauged Trump’s pre-election approval rating at 46 percent via a survey released October 27.

President Trump’s best approval rating scores, Jan 2017 – Nov 2020
Pollster: Gallup

Polling DatesApproval %Disapproval %  
Apr 14-28, 20204945 During pandemic 
Feb 3-16, 20204948  
Jan 16-29, 20204950 
May 1-13, 20204948During pandemic 
Feb 17-28, 20204751` 
Oct 16-27, 20204652Election time /
During pandemic
*
Apr 17-30, 20194650  
Sep 14-28, 20204652During pandemic 
Jan 20-29, 20174547  
Jun 11-17, 20184550  
Apr 1-9, 20194551  
Dec 2-15, 20194551  

Of the nearly 80 presidential tracking polls conducted by Gallup during the Trump presidency, 4 of the president’s top 8 scores were generated during the Coronavirus pandemic and well after the economy started to nosedive.

In fact, his best Approval vs Disapproval rating ratio (49/45) was reached about 4-6 weeks into the pandemic.

Incidentally, to Gallup’s credit Trump received 46.9 percent of the popular vote which was extremely close to the pollster’s 46 percent presidential approval rating estimate during election time.

Trump’s 46.9 percent of the popular vote in the 2020 election was significantly higher than the 46.1 percent of the same he received in 2016 when he defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Trump lost this year because his opponent, Joe Biden, benefitted greatly from the lack of interest in third party candidates. Hence, the anti-Trump vote wasn’t nearly as split.

But Gallup is just one pollster. What about others?

On November 3, general election day, FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate of respected pollsters showed Trump with a 44.6 percent approval rating. The score was Trump’s highest since April 3, when the President held 45.8 percent. Overall, 52.6 percent of people disapproved of him, slightly more than the 52.3 who disapproved in April.

Pollsters included in FiveThiryEight’s daily poll include but aren’t limited to Quinnipiac University, Harris, Rasmussen, Morning Consult, Gallup and YouGov. And according to, both, Gallup’s polling and FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate of top pollsters, Trump’s approval ratings during election time (from mid October to November 3) were peaking and among the highest of his presidency.

And, based on data from both sources, Trump’s approval rating during from the start of the pandemic (early March) until election time was higher than at anytime during the same period in any of his three previous years as president.

So, what impact did the downturn in the economy, as a direct result of the pandemic, have on Trump’s favorability?

Answer: Little, if any.

Fact: Polling numbers across the board suggest the president’s best year, popularity-wise, was far and away 2020.

It’s not always the economy, stupid!

History tells us the economy’s health is the best indicator of presidential favorability. However, Donald Trump was an outlier in two ways because:

a) When presiding over a surging economy, February 2017 to February 2020, Trump’s approval scores were low, sitting in the high 30s and low 40s most of the time and never reaching 50 percent, and

b) When the economy tanked badly after the onset of the pandemic, the expected dip in Trump’s approval never came.

What does all of this mean?

Decisions and divisiveness
Given Trump is so polarizing, the high majority of voters decided to vote for or against the president prior to the pandemic and didn’t waiver. Also, in a country so divided it’s common for citizens to be more set in their ways, politically, and less adaptive to change regardless of the social climate.

Protests / Civil unrest
Despite experiencing an initial drop in his approval ratings, Trump seemingly wasn’t impacted by the protests and civil unrest in the long run.

Demonstrators walk along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.

Per Gallup and FiveThirtyEight polling data, we saw an immediate and clear drop in Trump’s numbers in early June, about a week after the protesting started. However, even with the all of the civil unrest, shootings, and racial injustice controversy following the death of George Floyd on May 25, Trump’s approval ratings dips were only temporary and would make a full recovery by late September / early October after the protests and rioting had tapered off.

COVID vs the economy: The top influencer in presidential choice
According to a NBC News 2020 Election Exit Poll, only 18 percent of voters said the pandemic mattered most in their choice for president. Thirty-four percent listed the economy most influenced their decision while 21 percent said racial injustice.

Per the same poll, just 52 percent of voters believed controlling the pandemic was more important than reviving the economy.

Of note, it was Trump supporters who overwhelming said the economy was their primary influencer in the presidential election. However, instead of voting based on current conditions, they chose to put more emphasis on the “pre-pandemic economic gains” under Trump.

That mindset represented a strong shift from previous elections where voters evaluated the economy in “election-day terms.

And that’s yet another reason Trump wasn’t hurt by the economy. Those who made it their top issue generally supported him.

Increased voter participation
As stated earlier, Trump received a higher percentage of the overall vote in 2020 than in 2016 so it’s unlikely COVID-19 hurt his re-election chances. In fact, he might have benefitted indirectly.

As result of the pandemic, most states made it a lot easier to cast a ballot so voter participation in the 2020 election was as high as it had been in the U.S. in nearly 100 years. Conventional wisdom told experts an increase in voter turnout would benefit Democrats but the surge in voter participation wasn’t nearly as friendly to them as many of us had predicted.

Although urban and suburban America, minorities included, voted in high numbers, increased voting may have benefitted Republicans due to their major gains in turnout – and support – in rural areas. Consequentially, the GOP can thank rural America for keeping President Donald Trump competitive, saving Republicans a few Senate seats, and unexpectedly flipping several Democratic seats in the House.

How much did the pandemic / economy hurt Trump’s re-election chances?

A review of Trump’s approval / disapproval data suggests the pandemic and economy had no meaningful negative impact on President Trump in the popular vote, which he lost by 7 million.

Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings just prior to the pandemic were very comparable to his numbers at election time.

In fact, one could make the case, via an aggregate of top pollsters, Trump’s favorability was slightly higher at election time.

Either way, the afforementioned scores were practically in lock-step with the popular vote totals so we can safely assume the data, on a national basis, accurately represents voter sentiment, give or take a percentage point.

Per Gallup, for example, Trump’s approval / disapproval ratings heading into election time were 46 / 52 percent. Not surprisingly, Trump, in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, received about 47 percent of the vote while 53 percent voted for Biden or someone else.

Electoral outcome
Although FiveThirtyEight’s data suggests Trump’s approval rating was higher at election time than just prior to the start of the pandemic, Gallup’s polling tells us his favorability dropped a single point, from 47 to 46 percent, from late February to late October.

Was the point drop was due to the pandemic/economy, Trump’s inadequate response to the social unrest or something else?

If 1) Gallup was deadly accurate in its polling and 2) the lost point was solely due to attrition in Trump’s favorability resulting from his handling of the pandemic and the state of the economy, results in three key states may have been impacted.

Obviously, the winner of the electoral college, which isn’t always the popular vote winner, attains the presidency. And only a deeper dive into voter sentiment in the three most competitive states, all won narrowly by Biden by less than a percentage point, could give us any indication on what impact the pandemic / economy had on the election’s outcome.

WisconsinBiden + 0.7 percent
ArizonaBiden +0.3 percent
GeorgiaBiden +0.2 percent

If the pandemic was more important to voters in those states than voters nationally it’s conceivable, based on Gallup’s polling, Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 or the subsequent economic downturn might have cost him election.

Had Biden lost Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia, the electoral count would have ended in a 269 to 269 tie. In that case, the winner would have been selected by state congressional delegations with each state getting one vote regardless of size. Trump would have prevailed because state delegations with a Republican majority outnumber those with a Democratic majority.

Takeaway: Trump’s poor handling of the pandemic and the weakened economy may or may not have ultimately determined the election result. However, even in the absence of the pandemic and subsequent widespread economic setbacks, Trump would have seemingly had to have a few things go in his favor in order to win… And any Trump victory would have been thin and only in the electoral college.

Tags: coronavirus, U.S. Presidential Race 2020

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