May 5, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Doug Sosnik sees "the coronavirus election" tilting against Trump

Mike Allen
Graphic: Doug Sosnik

America was going through the final stages of a political realignment even before the virus hit. Now, our biggest national crisis since World War II has set off a tectonic shift, transforming the country in ways we couldn't have imagined.

That's the big idea of a new political frame by Doug Sosnik, a former White House political director for President Clinton whose periodic "big thinks" are eagerly awaited by political insiders and activists alike.

Here are some of his most provocative, market-moving top lines:

1) America was a divided country before COVID-19: President Trump’s election in 2016 was the culmination of a trend toward tribal politics in our country that began forming in the early 1990s. Early indications are that the fallout from COVID-19 will at least initially exacerbate these divisions.

  • This partisan splinter is evident in a Gallup poll out April 26, which found that 44% of Republicans say they’re ready to return to normal activities, compared to only 4% of Democrats.

2) For the next 180 days, Trump’s campaign will try mightily to make the election about a choice between him and Joe Biden.

  • But given the political landscape, it will likely come down to a referendum on Trump's presidency.

3) Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Trump entered his re-election race in a reasonably good position — undermined since the onset by his handling of the crisis and the economic devastation.

  • During this period, the Democratic Party consolidated behind Biden. This is the earliest it has united behind a nominee in 20 years.
  • Smart brevity™: Trump's chances for re-election have diminished significantly since early March due to: 1) Sen. Bernie Sanders, the presumed nominee in back then, won't be his opponent ... 2) Trump’s failure to prepare for and manage the pandemic ... 3) The resulting economic crater.

4) The six states that were considered battlegrounds before COVID-19 — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — will continue to define the presidential contest.

  • Early polls of registered voters in those states show Biden performing very well against Trump.
  • Midwestern states, Michigan and Pennsylvania in particular, have been really hard hit by the crisis.

5) Trump’s campaign strategy: Tear down Biden, focus on the six battleground states, energize his base, and make it as difficult as possible for infrequent, anti-Trump voters to turn out.

  • Conventional wisdom is that larger turnout benefits Democrats, but that's not necessarily the case in the swing Midwestern states. As the Trump campaign discovered, there were large number of non-voters in these states who would have supported Trump in 2016 if they had turned out.

6) Given the critical role that Trump’s job approval and the economy will play, there's a real question whether the campaign will affect the arc of the race in a significant way.

  • Past presidential re-election campaign outcomes, and extensive academic research, suggest that the answer is not much.

Sosnik's bottom line: Trump based his entire presidency on appealing to his base, focusing on the strength of the economy — which has now collapsed.

The full deck:

The full memo:

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