RCP Poll: Viewing the Election Through a Pandemic Prism

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Until this year, no U.S. president had ever faced impeachment while running for reelection. Neither had Americans experienced a deadly global pandemic during a presidential election year. Both of those tribulations have taken place in 2020, and with six months to go until Election Day, COVID-19 and its ensuing lockdown have cast a cold shadow over President Trump’s quest for a second term.

Those are among the implications of the latest poll by RealClear Opinion Research, one revealing that the coronavirus challenge has overwhelmed all other issues on voters’ minds in the runup to the 2020 election. The survey also shows that Trump’s leadership during this crisis has engendered little confidence among the electorate -- especially when compared to voters’ views of their governors.

“At a critical juncture in our nation’s history, with our health care system and economy under what was once unthinkable stress, voters clearly prefer the leadership coming from the chief executive in the state capitals instead of the White House,” said RealClear Opinion Research director John Della Volpe. 

The survey, which entailed interviews with 2,122 registered voters, was conducted April 18-21 as the United States entered its second month of the pandemic lockdown and the number of known infections surpassed 800,000, including 45,000 deaths. The number of confirmed cases -- even in a nation where widespread testing is not yet in place -- is now around 1.2 million, with more than 68,000 fatalities.

In efforts to stem the tide, most states ordered widespread closures of “non-essential” businesses, which in turn led to a secondary catastrophe: 30 million Americans thrown out of work in only six weeks, a more precipitous plunge in the workforce than at the onset of the Great Depression. Unemployment insurance of a type that did not exist in the 1930s has softened this blow, but besides being locked out of their jobs, Americans have been forbidden to go church, patronize restaurants, visit loved ones, attend sporting events, or even walk in parks or on beaches.

Protests have been launched, with the battle lines taking shape along depressingly familiar partisan lines. In this context, 76% percent of registered voters reported in the RCP poll that COVID-19 is “a major concern” when they think ahead to the 2020 election. The economy, an issued inexorably entwined with coronavirus, ranked second in the survey at 72% -- far ahead of where it was in Della Volpe’s February survey when 58% cited it as a major concern. (Health care, also closely associated with the current crisis, remains at 67%, unchanged since February.)

African Americans (84%) and Hispanics (82%) are more likely than whites (73%) to view coronavirus a major concern relating to election politics. Likewise, women link the crisis to November’s election more than men, and Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation more so than Millennials and voters in Generation Z.

As with many issues facing this country, the most predictable fault lines fall along political affiliation -- as 85% of the respondents who currently support Joe Biden view the pandemic as a major election worry, while 66% of Trump supporters feel the same way.

Leaving aside the logistical challenges of holding an election in an environment of forced “social distancing” -- and the predictably partisan wrangling over how such votes should be cast -- Americans are judging their leaders through a pandemic prism. According to the RCP poll, this is not necessarily good news for the president.

In the new survey, Della Volpe asked registered voters to assign a letter grade to Trump for his handling of the crisis. Overall, the president got a numeric grade of 1.81, barely a C-minus, a grade that wouldn’t have gotten him into the University of Pennsylvania -- or even Fordham, the college that young Donald Trump attended before transferring to Penn’s Wharton School of business. Governors, by contrast,  earned a 2.68, a solid B-minus.

To be fair about it, Democrats are extremely tough graders when it comes to this president, and the 56% of Democrats who gave him an F (and the 19% who gave him a D) obviously brought his grade down. That’s to be expected. What should worry the Trump-Pence reelection campaign is that 45% of independents also gave the president a D or an F.

The China Factor, and More

The RCP survey also delved into issues with a potentially longer shelf life than the 2020 presidential race. The poll gauged Americans’ attitudes on a host of issues ranging from how they feel about religion, restaurants, and the nation’s health care system to their attitudes towards China, the country where this virus originated -- and which hasn’t been straightforward about it since Day One.

Although Republican public officials tend to be more critical of Beijing than Democrats, both the Biden and Trump campaigns have aired attack ads accusing the other candidate of coddling China. Americans have been doing their own reflecting on this topic and many expect things will change regarding U.S. relations with China. Using a seven-point scale from 1 (“things will not change in a significant way”) to 7 (“they will completely change and never be the same”) only 16% were in the status quo half of the cohort -- options 1, 2, and 3 -- while 64% believe things will not stay the way they are (options 5, 6, and 7). A noncommittal 20% were right in the middle.

The findings on health care were similar with only 16% choosing the neutral option of category number 4, with an overwhelming majority (69%) choosing 5, 6, or 7-- the ones leaning toward drastic change.

If one considers the two highest or two lowest numbers the more valid measure, the numbers are still stark: 45% when it comes to China (compared to 9% for “no change”) and a similar ratio for health care: 43% to 9%.

On a host of other questions, it is clear that Americans believe this pandemic will have enduring consequences. The areas of everyday life that they fear are permanently altered include how we will educate our children; patronize locally owned restaurants and retailers; travel for business or pleasure; attend conventions and sporting events; work or socialize; and participate in religious practices and services. Just about everything, in other words.

“While this and all of the other polling reveals significant anxiety about the short- and longer-term impacts of this virus,” noted Della Volpe, “this research also highlights the empathy and resilience that are core American values -- and out for full display.” Other interesting findings include:

Americans are more critical of how other Americans have responded to the crisis than themselves. They may be tough graders on the president, but the respondents tended to give themselves the benefit of the doubt: Nearly half gave themselves an A, with the grade inflation being highest among Trump voters (64%) and those 65 and older (61%). Perhaps influenced by those notorious photographs of people their age partying in private or crowding onto beaches, Gen Zers and Millennials gave themselves a C. Their parents and grandparents – Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation -- were even more critical of them: They gave young Americans a D-plus.

For good or for ill, Americans are still cockeyed optimists. Despite their view that long-term changes are afoot, a majority expect their day-to-day life will “return to normal” within six months. Only 8% say their life has not changed significantly due to COVID-19. Among the others, 22% say their life will return to normal within two months; 29% within three-six months; 18% within six-12 months; 13% say it will take more than a year; and 5% say “never.” Here again, one finds a partisan divide, with Trump supporters being much more likely (29%) than Biden supporters (17%) to expect a return to normal within two months.

On financial impact, the divide is generational, not ideological. Nearly two-thirds of Millennials and Gen Z members say their family’s finances have been adversely impacted by the pandemic and lockdowns. A stunning 55% of all Gen Z/Millennials have been laid off, furloughed, or had their hours or pay cut. This compares to 46% of Gen X and 14% of Boomers and Silent Generation members. Older Americans were found to be far more confident that their finances will rebound compared to younger Americans.

The pandemic has helped Americans become closer to their friends, family, and God. Again, weighing responses on a scale, Americans generally believe that the pandemic and lockdown have had a “net positive” effect on their personal health and relationships, despite a negative pull on their family finances: 71% of Americans in the survey say that as a result of the quarantine, they feel closer to their family. At least two-thirds of every generation, gender, race/ethnic group, political party, education and income level agree with this sentiment. Nearly half (47%) say they also feel closer to God -- a feeling most prevalent in the African American community (70%).

Handshakes may be out, but hugging will never go away. About two-thirds of Americans are most looking forward to visiting friends and family, resuming their daily routines, and hugging loved ones. Other activities, including watching or playing sports, going to the gym, attending worship services and -- listen up, employers -- going back to the workplace, lag far behind. “Hugging loved ones you’ve been separated from,” for instance, was chosen by 64% of respondents, easily outpacing going to the barbershop or hair salon (48%), attending sports and entertainment events (38%), or returning to work (32%).

The Libertarian Party has its work cut out for it. Nearly nine out of 10 Americans support mandatory testing to ensure people are symptom-free before boarding an airplane (85% support, 13% oppose). Mandatory testing to ensure people are symptom-free before returning to work is an idea that attracted overwhelming support, too (84% support, 13% oppose). Likewise, requiring the use of masks while in public for those who live in cities and states where the virus is not under control (84% support, 13% oppose).

No proposals designed to stop the spread of the virus, it seems, is too intrusive. A majority (54%) even back the idea of the government using mobile phones to track movement so that those who come in contact with someone diagnosed with coronavirus “can be alerted” -- with only 39% opposed.

Irrespective of what they may view as Donald Trump’s imperial impulses, Democrats in this present crisis are more authoritarian than Republicans. When it comes to using cellphones Big Brother-style, Republicans are nearly evenly divided while registered Democrats favor it 2-1. Coronavirus, one might say, makes strange bedfellows. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.