On The Trail: A campaign defined by a pandemic

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After eight months of downplaying the threat of a pandemic that has killed nearly a quarter-million of his constituents, President Trump faces voters Tuesday in an election that has become all about a virus that is running unchecked throughout the nation.

Voters will head to the polls in what is expected to yield the highest turnout in more than a century, with the coronavirus top of mind. At least 96.5 million people have already cast ballots, according to the U.S. Elections Project, run by University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald.

At the same time, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is racing toward a third apex, one that has already surpassed the first two spikes in April and July. Nearly 100,000 people are testing positive each day in the U.S., and hospital capacity is being strained in states across the Upper Midwest and the Mountain West.

Case counts are rising in 45 states and the District of Columbia. The Covid Exit Strategy, a group of independent analysts, rates the spread of the virus as uncontrolled in all but one swing state; the lone exception, Georgia, is “trending poorly.”

“It’s hard to imagine a worse confluence. Cases are surging in most of the United States,” said Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the Obama administration who now runs Resolve to Save Lives, a global health nonprofit. “One of the most startling things is just how deeply incompetent the U.S. federal response has been.”

On Election Day, those who go to the polls will be confronted by the ubiquitous signs of the virus that stalks the nation. They will be asked to wear masks, they will be offered hand sanitizer and they will be required to stand six feet apart as they wait in line.

Trump once planned to run his reelection bid on the strength of his economic record, on rebuilding America’s image on the global stage and on his ability to get things done. But in the months since the pandemic began, he has instead insisted the virus is not as harmful as it appears — or as voters perceive it to be. 

At virtually every turn, Trump has promised normalcy is just around the corner. In March, he predicted cases would decline in April; they peaked instead. He has routinely promised a “miracle,” whether a vaccine or a treatment; none has emerged. He has darkly predicted that the virus would subside just after November’s election, evidence of a conspiracy against him; there is no sign in any of the data to suggest the current spike in cases has peaked.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows acknowledged a week before Election Day that the Trump administration could not bring the virus under control. Trump’s campaign events routinely flout local ordinances aimed at mitigating the spread — most recently Sunday night, when he held a rally for thousands at a Miami-area airport late into the night, keeping his supporters out past a curfew set in place by a Republican mayor. 

The political consequences of Trump’s inability to bring the virus under control are manifesting in battleground states like Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin and even Texas, states that are in play in part because seniors — those most at risk of the worst effects of the virus and who have suffered most from the necessary social isolation — say they believe former Vice President Joe Biden is better able to bring the pandemic under control.

Late polls show Biden is poised to become the first Democrat to win seniors this century. 

Trump has spent his final days on the campaign trail brooding over the polls that show Biden ahead. On Sunday, he entertained a crowd that urged him to fire Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious diseases expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force. Earlier last week, he mocked conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, who had the audacity to wear a mask in public. 

Public health experts and political strategists alike have marveled, exasperated, at the administration’s unwillingness to heed medical advice or to exchange the short-term pain of lockdowns for the long-term gain of economic revival. Even economists agree that the economic crisis will not abate until the health crisis is brought under control.

“Rising and falling rates of COVID will occur, it’s the nature of a new infectious disease and a pandemic. What you’d like to see is any changes in spread are followed by appropriate public health messaging and appropriate action, and that’s what we’re lacking in America,” said Richard Besser, a former CDC chief who now runs the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “It would benefit us to have a big dose of humility in terms of how much we know about this infection.” 

The politicization of the coronavirus pandemic has left health experts deeply disturbed about the coming months, whether or not Trump is reelected. Though a vast majority of Americans report wearing masks in public and social distancing, the federal government — and many states — have made it clear they do not intend to reimpose the sorts of lockdowns that many European nations are going through right now. 

“The way forward is to recognize that we’re all connected,” Frieden said. “It takes hard work. It takes all of us working together by staying apart.”

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 election Anthony Fauci Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Laura Ingraham Mark Meadows Pandemic

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