Five unanswered questions on COVID-19 and the 2020 election

More than two months into the depths of the coronavirus crisis, it is obvious the issue will be the central one in November’s presidential election. 

But there are still numerous uncertainties. Here are five that will be pivotal to the election’s outcome.

What will an economic recovery look like?

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE has talked up the idea of a rapid recovery once the worst of the crisis is over.

Speaking at the White House on Friday, he insisted that “vaccine or no vaccine, we’re back. And we’re starting the process.”

“We’re going to have a tremendous year next year. We’re going to have a really good fourth quarter,” Trump added.

But even if that prediction were to come true — which is far from guaranteed — the timing of such a recovery would be perilously late for a president who had been banking until a couple of months ago on running on a robust economy.

The data, for now, is catastrophic. More than 36 million people have sought jobless benefits since the crisis began. The national unemployment rate, having been at just 3.5 percent in February, soared to 14.7 percent in April. 

On Friday, new figures showed retail sales falling 16.4 percent in April, while manufacturing output fell 13.7 percent.

At the outset of the crisis, there were suggestions of a “V-shaped” recovery, where the nation would spring back to something resembling normalcy quickly. Now, many experts think that is unlikely.

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Earlier this week, Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, told The Hill it could plausibly be the middle of the decade before the economy fully recovered.  

Zandi endorsed the increasingly commonplace view that a “swoosh-shaped” recovery — named after the Nike logo and suggesting a long, slow climb back — may be the most likely scenario.

If that happens, Trump will be fighting for reelection with an economy that is still reeling from the aftershocks of the current crisis. 

Such a scenario would be challenging for any president — and particularly for Trump, whose approval ratings were tepid even when the economy was roaring.

Will voters blame Trump?

Trump’s performance in response to the virus has been blasted by Democrats, including his near-certain opponent in November, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump campaign emails supporters encouraging mask-wearing: 'We have nothing to lose' Cuba spells trouble for Bass's VP hopes Democrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks MORE.

More strikingly, even some Republicans have lamented what they see as failures in testing. Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderChamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection Pelosi huddles with chairmen on surprise billing but deal elusive Senate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag MORE (R-Tenn.) and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySenate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Stimulus checks debate now focuses on size, eligibility CNN chyron says 'nah' to Trump claim about Russia MORE (R-Utah) both expressed misgivings on that score during Senate hearings last week.

Also last week, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony FauciAnthony FauciWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Fauci warns of 'really bad situation' if daily coronavirus cases don't drop to 10K by September Overnight Health Care: Trump criticizes Birx over Pelosi, COVID-19 remarks: 'Pathetic' | Democratic leaders report 'some progress' in talks with White House | WHO chief: There may never be 'silver bullet' for coronavirus MORE, expressed a notably more cautious view than Trump about the prospect of the nation reopening. Rick Bright, who alleges he was unfairly ousted from a senior position in the Department of Health and Human Services, contended that failings in the administration’s response had directly caused lives to be lost.

Trump has stoutly defended his performance. When it comes to testing, he said last week that “we have met the moment, and we have prevailed.” 

Trump has also noted that others, including many members of the media, underestimated the likely impact of the virus on the United States.

So far, polling suggests Trump’s performance is being judged as wanting, however. 

A CNN-SSRS poll last week found 55 percent of adults disapproving of his response and 42 percent approving, a deterioration from a month previously.

Those numbers are not good. But they also don’t indicate that Trump’s base has — yet — been significantly eroded. 

It is also possible that an unexpected strong rebound for the nation could buoy up Trump’s fortunes in advance of the election.

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Will older voters peel off from the president?

In 2016, older voters were a key pillar of support for Trump as he vanquished Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump vows challenge to Nevada bill expanding mail-in voting Biden should pick the best person for the job — not the best woman Juan Williams: The Trump Show grows tired MORE. Now, those same voters are in the gravest danger from COVID-19.

In 2016, Trump carried voters 65 or older by 52 percent to 45 percent over Clinton, according to exit polls.

Any serious erosion in that position would cause him major difficulties, not just nationally but in key swing states such as Florida that have unusually high proportions of retirees.

The New York Times reported last week that the Trump campaign’s internal polling was showing some softening of support among older voters.

However, the HuffPost-YouGov poll released Friday showed 48 percent of the over-65s approving of Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis — a minority but a larger number than among any other age group.

Trump faces an additional challenge because Biden, whose supporters see him as an avuncular, reassuring presence, performed very strongly with older voters during the Democratic primary. 

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Trump’s support won't collapse among older voters. But given his narrow margin of victory in 2016, even a shortfall on the margins could be crucial.  

Will there be a second wave of coronavirus?

For now, almost everyone’s attention is on when the current wave of COVID-19 infection will recede and whether there could be an instant resurgence if jurisdictions reopen prematurely.

But another huge problem is looming — whether there will be a full-fledged second wave of the virus in the fall. If that were to happen, it would coincide with the peak of the presidential campaign and with flu season.

Many experts regard some kind of second wave as almost inevitable. And they see other complications too. 

“We will have a harder time controlling coronavirus in the fall ... and we will all be very tired of social distancing and other tactics. The hard thing will be to keep enough of it to protect our ICUs and keep the number of cases from flaring up,” Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch said in a recent podcast with Howard Bauchner, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

A major second wave would throw all kinds of issues into question. It would curtail orthodox campaigning, presumably strengthen the impetus for widespread voting by mail — and pose a huge hurdle for Trump to overcome. 

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Suggestions that the election itself could be postponed are likely alarmist. This would be impossible without legislation (which Democrats would surely resist), and the United States has held elections amid crises on other occasions. The Civil War did not prevent the 1864 election from going ahead.

Still, an already strange election year would get a lot stranger if held amid a serious resurgence of the virus.

Will the election be a referendum or a choice?

An election that is fought as a straight up-or-down choice on Trump looks unpromising for the incumbent. 

His approval ratings remain mired in negative territory as they have throughout his presidency. In the RealClearPolitics polling average as of Friday evening, Trump’s job performance was disapproved of by 51.4 percent of the electorate and approved by 46.1 percent.

It’s now clear that the brief polling bounce Trump saw in the early days of the crisis has largely dissipated.

But the president is far from counted out. And he can give himself his best chance if he is able to raise questions about Biden’s competence and readiness. 

His campaign has begun that effort, especially on social media, where negative ads assailing the Democrat are already prevalent. The New York Times described current Facebook advertising Friday as the “first wave of a long-promised campaign of attack ads from the Trump campaign.”

So far, Biden remains ahead in national polls and, by and large, in critical battlegrounds. 

But the Democrat is also facing an early and vast money disadvantage. In late April, the combined forces of the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee had almost $200 million more cash on hand than Biden and the Democratic National Committee.

Money isn’t everything in politics — Trump himself was outspent by Clinton in 2016 — but it still gives the president a lot of muscle to punch at Biden for the next six months.