Is Trump’s COVID Infection 2020’s October Surprise? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and Britain's Boris Johnson saw spikes in support after they tested positive for COVID-19. Is it Trump's turn?

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

  • A pandemic that has already upended the election campaign just added another twist with Trump testing positive for COVID-19.
  • Other world leaders accused of underplaying the virus who then contracted it saw spikes in support. Will Trump see a bump?

A presidential election campaign that had already broken with any sense of normalcy got another twist early Friday when President Donald Trump announced that he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for COVID-19. But the biggest twist from that diagnosis might be yet to come, if the impact on similarly infected global counterparts is anything to go by.

It’s just the latest shadow of the pandemic to fall on an election that Trump once appeared poised to enter with a booming economy. Instead, the coronavirus has claimed more than a million lives globally, including 212,000 in America. It has sparked an economic recession unlike any seen since the Great Depression and accelerated a brutal trade war between the world’s two largest economies, the U.S. and China. And it has left Trump trailing his Democratic opponent Joe Biden nationally and in key swing states, in many cases by substantial margins. Biden had an 80 percent chance of winning as of Sept. 30, per the OZY/0ptimus election forecast.

Then October began, bringing with it the news of Trump’s infection. Traditionally, October surprises are associated with dramatic political moves made by the incumbent or his opponent in the final weeks of the race with the potential to influence the outcome.

But this is 2020, and it looks like it was the pandemic that pulled the October surprise this time.

Sure, Trump’s illness means he won’t be able to hit the campaign trail for at least a fortnight, and his Oct. 15 debate with Biden is uncertain. While publicly wishing the president a speedy recovery, Trump’s critics will privately point to his repeated insistence on eschewing masks and social distancing and to his downplaying the severity of the virus as the errors that have brought us to this moment. Yet could the pandemic’s latest strike reset political equations once again and potentially benefit Trump?

Consider the leaders of Britain and Brazil, two men whom Trump considers friends. In the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government were accused of underplaying the pandemic and of not taking strict enough measures to tackle it. On March 16, 10 days before Johnson tested positive for COVID-19, his approval rating of 46 percent was only barely above the 42 percent who thought his government was doing “badly,” according to a YouGov poll.  But after the British prime minister fell ill and was hospitalized, his ratings soared. On April 13, a day after he was discharged from hospital, Johnson’s approval rating was its highest to date: 66 percent.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro famously dismissed the pandemic as mere “sniffles” and battled state governments that wanted to enforce lockdowns. Like Trump, he refused to wear a mask and made a point of shaking hands with his colleagues and supporters and hugging them, in defiance of scientists’ recommendations for distance. Brazil has the world’s second-highest fatalities from the virus, with more than 144,000 deaths.

In early July, Bolsonaro tested positive for COVID-19. A month after he recovered, in August, a poll by Datafolha, Brazil’s largest polling firm, showed Bolsonaro’s approval rating at its highest since he came to office last year, up by 5 percentage points from before he fell ill.

How does one explain this surge in popularity for leaders believed to have botched their response to the COVID-19 crisis, once they themselves became sick? For one, experts have argued that contracting the disease helped Bolsonaro and Johnson squash the argument that their approach to the crisis was because they were disconnected from the dangers of the virus faced by ordinary citizens. Nations struggling against the pandemic had leaders who — whatever they might have done until then — were suffering alongside their citizens.

In Bolsonaro’s case, the far-right leader has also adopted traditional left policies to help Brazil’s most vulnerable, topping up the country’s cash transfer program for the poor, Bolsa Familia, with an additional stipend. Finally, their ailments blunted the ability of opponents — at least while they were sick — to target Bolsonaro and Johnson with the sharp political attacks they might otherwise have faced.

Already, Trump’s positive test has turned Democrats more circumspect in their language, with many of the party’s leaders publicly wishing him well. Three days after calling Trump a “liar” and a “clown” and telling him to “shut up” on the debate stage, Biden wished Trump and the first lady a speedy recovery.

There’s no guarantee that Trump will benefit from a bump in support the way Bolsonaro and Johnson did. And any bump can evaporate too: Johnson’s confused negotiations with the European Union over Brexit have led to a steep fall in his popularity ratings, down to 35 percent as of Sept. 28.

But Trump has an advantage. With just a month to go until the Nov. 3 election, any gain in support he receives is likely to stick with him for this period.

That’s assuming the pandemic doesn’t have yet another trick up its sleeve between now and then.

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