Democrats have been talking a lot about the coronavirus pandemic at their virtual national convention. Of course, they have been: The human and economic toll continues to mount from this historic national catastrophe. And they have a legitimate case to make against President Trump’s handling of the ongoing health disaster. Is there any country in the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, currently looking to the United States as a best-practices model of crisis management? More like a super-cautionary tale from a supposed superpower. American exceptionalism, indeed.
Yet one might wonder what Democrats would be focusing on this week if COVID-19 had never escaped from Wuhan, China. Let me put that another way: What would Democrats instead be focusing on that might get former Vice President Joe Biden elected in November? There certainly would be plenty of political ammo available for keynote speakers at the in-person convention in Milwaukee. Most rank-and-file Democrats anywhere in the country probably have a ready-to-go laundry list of reasons — from Russia to racism to corruption — for why it’s time to dump Trump.
But all that stuff wouldn’t be so much #FakeNews as it would be #OldNews. Whether it’s because of Biden’s current ginormous polling lead or a psychological inability to imagine fellow Americans actually giving Trump a second term, many Democrats seem to forget that pre-coronavirus there was good reason to think Trump might win. In late February — two weeks before the NBA suspended its season and Tom Hanks said he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive — Biden had a polling lead of just three or four points. It was a dead heat given Trump’s probable electoral college advantage. Betting markets sure didn’t think Biden had the edge, seeing Trump as a 60-40 favorite. (Those are also the odds they now give Biden.) Also skeptical were “superforecasters” at the Good Judgment forecasting and analytics firm. They had Trump as the 61 percent favorite.
The obvious reason Biden was seen to have a (slight) uphill climb was that the U.S. economy was also climbing. This is another reality Democrats don’t want to concede. Jobless rates were at their lowest levels in a half century last February. Real median weekly earnings for full-time workers were hitting new highs. And even as the debating Democratic presidential candidates kept harping about how the Trump economy was leaving most of America behind, wages had been rising fastest in traditionally low-wage industries. It may not have been the 1990s boom, but it was a kind of boomy. In its year-end report, JPMorgan said “a mood of renewed optimism is taking hold in financial markets. The recession fears that pervaded much of the year are fading, replaced by a sense that economic indicators are bottoming.” And it wasn’t just Wall Street. Americans consistently gave Trump a net approval rating of 10 percentage points or more on his handling of the economy. Even today, after an insta-depression, Trump still breaks about even on the economy.
It’s hard to figure how the economy will play in November. Many election forecasting models put a lot of emphasis on second-quarter GDP performance in an election year. Do that in 2020, and Biden wins a massive electoral college landslide. Back in April, The Economist assumed a 20 percent Q2 decline, and such a traditional model showed Biden probably winning at least 400 electoral votes. Now as it turns out, Q2 GDP shrank by more than 33 percent. Plug in that number and the model probably shows Biden winning everything including Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia.
That is probably not going to happen. The Canadian provinces, in particular, are almost assuredly out of reach for the Biden campaign. Those simple models weren’t designed to deal with such outlier situations as we are currently experiencing. And Biden’s big lead today may shrink tomorrow. Consider: The best virus models show a lot less deadly virus spread and a lot fewer daily deaths by November. And the third quarter GDP report, out the Thursday before Election Day, is almost sure to be a monster number. It won’t get the economy back to even, but the combination of a big GDP gain and a more contained pandemic might help power a sizable Trump comeback. He might at least win a news cycle or two. At least until his next tweet.
Will it be enough to get Trump to the finish line ahead of Biden? Probably not. Lots of us will have already voted. And even that relatively bullish economic scenario for the Trump campaign depends on at least $1 trillion or more in additional economic support and stimulus from Congress. Wall Street is betting it will happen, a belief helping the stock market to keep moving higher. No additional dough — which could also happen — might mean a return to recession in the fall if not sooner, economists warn. Still, Democrats might want to talk a lot more about the economy right now and about what Biden’s “build back better” plan really means — especially what it means for all those working-class voters the GOP has peeled off. Four years ago, Trump voters went to the polls with a pretty clear idea of the Trump economic agenda. Will Biden voters be able to say the same in three months? In a close race, it might matter plenty.
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