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Mellman: Is it Trump or the virus?

Mellman: Is it Trump or the virus?
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While only a fool would take November for granted, in recent days, the commentariat’s consensus has moved in the direction I’ve been arguing for months — concluding former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump Cruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge MORE occupies a very strong position.

Which raises an important question: is it the virus or is it President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE

Most analysts suggest it’s the coronavirus killing Trump. I’d argue the opposite case — that Trump’s a victim of political suicide.

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Murder by virus will be a more congenial explanation for a president who believes his every action is “perfect.” He’s just a victim of circumstances far beyond anyone’s control. 

We won’t know for sure until after November, and even then, disentangling the entrails may prove difficult. But before conventional wisdom freezes, we should consider the possibility that while coronavirus may have blocked avenues for a revival, fundamentally, Trump did himself in. 

What’s the evidence that Trump himself, more than the virus, is destroying his chances?

His approval rating is down to just above 40 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s tracking. But it was at, or below, that level on several occasions in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and not far above it for most of his presidency. Trump’s perfectly capable of generating extremely low approval ratings even absent the coronavirus.

Look more closely at the ABC-Washington Post poll that made news for pegging Trump’s approval at 39 percent recently. Low, for sure, but he’s been at 39 percent or lower in more than half the polls they’ve conducted since 2017.

Turning to votes, RealClearPolitics’s average puts Trump 9 points behind Joe Biden today. If that was the virus, how can one account for the fact that Trump was that far, or further, behind Biden through much of the winter of 2019?

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Again, consider the ABC-Post poll, which seemed like an outlier with Biden 15 points ahead of Trump. They polled that match-up three times in 2019, before COVID-19, and found Biden ahead by 17 points, 15 points and 10 points, so their current margin is just 1 point higher than their average for 2019.

In fact, negative evaluations of Trump’s character and fitness for office settled in long ago.

Recently, 57 percent told Quinnipiac pollsters Trump was abusing his office, a view shared by the same number three years ago. At the end of May, 62 percent said Trump was not “honest and trustworthy.” That number has been over 60 percent consistently since the fall of 2017.

Similarly, 61 percent say Trump does not have the “personality and temperament it takes to serve effectively as president,” a number that’s fluctuated within a narrow 3-point range since January 2019, well before the coronavirus.

So why do many think it’s all about the coronavirus? 

First, the coronavirus is judged the nation’s No. 1 problem and Trump’s ratings continue plummeting in this arena.

However, public assessments of the most important problem often don’t correlate with the basis on which individuals make voting decisions.

Second, Biden’s horserace lead is clearly larger than it was just before the coronavirus hit. 

But what else was happening just before the outbreak intensified?

Biden was struggling in primary polls, and then struggled in Iowa and New Hampshire, reflecting Democratic division and uncertainty about his candidacy.

Once Biden started sweeping primaries those uncertainties were resolved, he became the presumptive nominee, and the horserace numbers went right back to where they had been earlier.

If you start history in January, you see Biden doing less well against Trump, then doing better as the coronavirus ravages the country.

If you start your examination earlier, you see Biden way ahead, based on character and temperament. You then see him fall a bit as his leadership is questioned, but return to previous levels as Democrats reunited around him.

Trump or the virus? I’d say it’s Trump, with his devastating psychological, intellectual and moral impairments, matched against a strong Biden whose strengths are Trump’s weaknesses. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.