In the early hours of Friday morning, President Donald Trump announced via Twitter that he and the First Lady Melania Trump both tested positive for COVID-19. With that single declaration, just a month before the vote takes place, an already unprecedented election cycle was spun round in the dryer yet again, and it is anybody’s guess what emerges from here. Notwithstanding, there are some clear political implications to the news.
The first of these involves the political treatment of the virus itself, which could play out one of two ways, polar opposites of each other, and relate to how severely Trump is personally affected. Nonetheless, both eventualities in favor of the incumbent candidate. Should the President fall seriously ill – a situation which would spread his inability to campaign up to and beyond election day, he is likely to receive a significant sympathy bounce in polling. On the other hand, if he is able to glide through the illness unaffected, his downplaying of the virus will achieve more traction than ever and embolden his supporters and his administration’s response to the virus.
Across the aisle, Democrats will also have to pull back from overt attacks during the President’s isolation, or attacking his Covid-response record during its term, for fear of being cast in the role of political opportunists. In many ways, the positive test is more a challenge for Democratic strategists than Republican, who have to date held a healthy, albeit single-figure, lead for Biden over Trump. For Trump to start to close the gap, the GOP needed either a public implosion from Biden (most feared by Democrats), or ‘an event.’ In the absence of the former, the latter has materialized and sent shock waves through the country, throwing an already highly unpredictable election further into the unknown.
The announcement comes merely three days after the President mocked Joe Biden during the first presidential debate for always wearing a mask – but it comes months into a pandemic that he has labeled a hoax on numerous occasions, infecting – to date – over 7.5 million Americans with over 200,000 deaths – the worst affected country in the world.
Both Trump and Biden are in high risk categories and – in another aspect of political fall-out – the nature of campaigning undertaken by both parties will suddenly have to be rethought, as it is inconceivable that expansive rallies of maskless supporters will continue to take place, despite warnings from scientists. At least, that would be the conventional political response to the news, but the current President of the United States, whilst he can be accused of many things, is way over the horizon from predictability.
For what comes next, polling a fortune teller is as likely to prove accurate as seeking the opinion of a political expert. All bets are off, a new election starts now.
For Times Media Mexico
Sydney Fowlkes in Philadelphia and Jon Bonfiglio in Mexico City