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Can the pandemic stop Donald Trump from winning the November elections?
This is a question puzzling many great minds. Unlike many scholars however, I would hesitate to give a clear answer to this question despite the availability of credible arguments indicating why Trump could lose in November. This is because I believe there is enough ground for people to make irrational decisions in the midst of coronavirus crisis. Let’s first remember arguments suggesting why Trump could lose the November elections.
Several analysts have suggested that coronavirus and the poor response by the Trump administration will cost Donald Trump the presidential elections due in November 2020. These analyses in general argue that Trump will fail to be elected for a second term because (1) his response to the crisis was dismal and caused thousands of American lives and (2) the economic crisis triggered by the virus will inevitably have political implications for the incumbent president (It is the economy stupid!).
For instance, a recent New York Times piece suggested that Americans are rapidly losing faith in President Trump’s poor handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which may cause him his next term. After all, we are talking about a president who seriously considers consumption of disinfectants as a remedy for the coronavirus. Another analysis by Oxford Analysis also predicted a historic defeat for Trump, as ‘the economy has gone from President Donald Trump's greatest political asset to perhaps his biggest weakness’ since the lockdown has begun.
There is also hard evidence indicating that Trump can lose the November elections. Public opinion polls strongly favor the Democratic candidate. The average of all polls between 17 May and 24 May 2020 shows that Biden leads over Trump by a 48% to 41% margin. These are all great news for Democrats, whose chances of seeing the inept Joe Biden elected in November, was quite slim if it was not for the coronavirus crisis. I still suggest caution for this early round of optimism prevailing among Democrats. Donald Trump stands a very good chance of disappointing bookies once more because of a very simple reason, which is people’s quest for ontological security.
Ontological security, which is widely in use in psychology, sociology and international relations, basically refers to people’s desire to follow established routines because routines provide us with a sense of continuity and certainty. We feel safe in the presence of these routines. The coronavirus delivered a great blow to our routines and hence our perceptions of ontological security. Following the advice of virologists and other health experts, a global lockdown was imposed upon the general public. Schools, barbershops, restaurants and coffee shops were shut down. Even a small visit to the grocery shop has become activity bearing great uncertainties for us. In other words, we lost our daily routines. We became ontologically insecure citizens.
Why should this situation provide leverage for Trump, a leader who belittle the effect of the pandemic and who rarely care about expert advice? I think it is exactly for these reasons that Trump stands a good chance of winning the November elections. While technocracy warns people about the dangers of re-establishing our routines, Trump has been pushing for ‘normalization’ of American lives by re-opening. He tweets support messages for protesters against social distancing and other pandemic related measures. He calls upon governors to allow restaurants, pubs, and schools to open. His motivation is probably economic since his election campaign is based the economic growth under his presidency. Nevertheless, there are also significant social psychological implications of his push for reopening.
In very simple terms, in a world where people are ontologically insecure and feel nostalgia and sorrow for their routines, Trump may be seen as the only political leader trying to give them back their routines and hence their sense of normality. The American public may perceive him as the only leader that can provide them with ontological security. This is an advantage of Trump over Biden one should not underestimate. This is why one should take purely rational analyses of the implications of the coronavirus on the November 2020 elections with a pinch of salt. This is also the reason why I think Trump can upset the pundits again.
Dr. Osman Sahin is a Research Fellow at Glasgow School for Business and Society. His work is funded by the Horizon 2020 project DEMOS (Democratic Efficacy and the Varieties of Populism in Europe). Image credit: White House/Flickr.