As election experts and pollsters of all political stripes struggle to understand and explain the unexpectedly strong showing by President Trump in North Carolina and across the country on Tuesday – a performance that came after having trailed by consistently large margins in numerous polls for several weeks – there’s one factor that deserves much closer attention than it has thus far received: the COVID-19 pandemic.
And, no, that’s not because it’s likely Americans harbor a widely hidden favorable view of the president’s disastrous performance in responding to the worst public health crisis to grip the nation in a century. To the contrary, most Americans understand that Trump’s handling of the crisis has been a wretched failure.
What’s at work here is not the regard that voters hold for Trump and his policies; it’s the low regard in which Trump and his allies hold the American people and, in particular, Trump supporters.
Simply put, what we saw in North Carolina and several other battleground states in the campaign’s final weeks was a blatant willingness on the part Trump and company to sacrifice human life in order to win – a willingness Democrats were simply unwilling to match.
Think about it: Over the last few weeks of the campaign, Republicans, led by Trump, pursued an all-out push for votes that featured large and repeated in-person rallies and an aggressive door-to-door canvass. In both instances, social distancing and other tactics designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus were openly and repeatedly flouted.
The situation was so serious that experts have been able to identify thousands of new cases and hundreds of deaths attributable to Trump events. This is from a story the D.C. political newsletter The Hill:
A new study from Stanford University found that 18 of President Trump’s campaign rallies have led to over 30,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and likely led to over 700 deaths.”
Here in North Carolina, Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and various surrogates were a constant presence during the campaign’s final days, often addressing large public gatherings marked by a blatant lack of social distancing and dangerous absence of personal protective equipment.
Meanwhile, as Meredith College political science professor and pollster David McLennan told me in an interview yesterday that will be broadcast this Sunday on the Policy Watch radio show, News & Views, the risky tactics went beyond convening rallies:
The other thing that I noticed with Republicans this year is their volunteers and their field teams also were out in the community – often not…following the public health officials’ warnings. I mean they were knocking on doors and going to events to encourage their voters to come out and Democrats were not doing the same sort of things.”
And while there can be no doubt that these cynical tactics generated great human pain, suffering and death, there also seems little doubt that they were effective in mobilizing all kinds of late-in-the-game enthusiasm that manifested in big numbers for Trump and other GOP candidates on Election Day itself.
As McLennan told me, one likely explanation for the surprisingly strong Republican performance up and down the North Carolina ballot was a measure of last-minute enthusiasm resulting from “a ground game” that Democrats failed to match.
And, of course, when you think about it, this makes sense. While Democratic diehards and other never-Trumpers flocked to cast ballots during early voting and voting-by-mail, there simply weren’t any high energy events to rouse many less passionate would-be Democratic voters – the kind of people normally targeted by big, last minute rallies and door-to-door canvassing.
From Biden on down, Democratic leaders and volunteers weren’t – quite responsibly – willing to expose themselves or the broader community to such risks.
Add to this the general – if unwarranted – skepticism brought by Trump and his base to the pandemic itself, and the explanation for the large, in-person Election Day turnout by Republican voters we saw becomes that much more obvious.
This explanation is ultimately lent even greater credence by Trump’s longstanding and well-documented contempt for both basic human decency and the people he depends on for votes. As has been reported on multiple occasions down through the years, Trump has regularly mocked his own supporters.
As journalist McKay Coppins reported in The Atlantic in September, Trump has repeatedly admitted to aides that his public praise for and attachment to Christian conservatives who comprise so much of his base is a contemptuous scam:
Former aides told me they’ve heard Trump ridicule conservative religious leaders, dismiss various faith groups with cartoonish stereotypes, and deride certain rites and doctrines held sacred by many of the Americans who constitute his base.”
The bottom line: Donald Trump once infamously stated that he could commit murder in the middle of Manhattan without alienating his loyal supporters. In recent weeks he, along with dozens of Republican politicians who attached themselves to his coattails, effectively made good on the threat.