Twists and turns in upcoming U.S. election never ending

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The COVID-19 story could spawn sympathy for the president. More likely, it will simply reinforce Donald Trump’s disastrous response to a world pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 of his fellow citizens.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on October 5, 2020.

OTTAWA—The twists and turns in the upcoming American election are never ending.

Just when we thought we had seen everything, the president, his spouse and high-ranking staffer, Hope Hicks, have all tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

Not only will this stop the Trump campaign in its tracks, it will return COVID-19 front and centre to the national agenda, which is just where the Democrats would like it to be.

The markets reacted badly to the news of White House contagion, but that may have as much to do with pre-election confusion as confidence in U.S. President Donald Trump’s economic prowess.

If any American tuned into the first official presidential debate last week, they could be forgiven for feeling distressed about the state of the American body politic.

Borrowing from his television experience on The Apprentice, Trump hectored and bullied Joe Biden, but for the most part the wily Biden did not bite.

Trump himself had created such low expectations for “Sleepy Joe” that a measured, passing performance by Biden was viewed as a win across the country.

Couple that with the confusion about whether Trump will even accept the outcome of the election if he loses, and you have a recipe for chaos, something that world markets always reject.

Everyone knows how nasty Trump is but even his usually demure partner Melania was negatively in the news last week. She was quoted in a series of tapes, aired Thursday, claiming that migrant children who were separated from their parents were receiving better care in detention than they got at home.

The tapes were purloined by a former aide to the first lady, promoting release of her self-explanatory book entitled, Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady.

The book written by Stephania Winston Wolkoff joins tomes that have been penned recently by Trump family members and well-known journalists.

All are highly critical of the president, but nothing seems to dent his popularity with the all-important base.

By all accounts, Trump followers are motivated, even messianic. They may well represent the “basket of deplorables” that Hillary Clinton unfortunately characterized in a speech which ultimately cost her the presidency.

In retrospect, she was probably right. People who refuse to wear masks, say the coronavirus is a hoax perpetrated by political elites and Bill Gates, and claim that China created the virus to attack the United States, are the most ardent supporters of the president.

And he returns the favour, ignoring health protocols on mask-wearing to the point where his entourage pointedly removed their masks during last week’s debate.

Trump also went so far as to promote not-so-subtle support for white supremacists during the broadcast. When he was asked to call them out, he claimed they were only working to fight the far left, which was really responsible for the racial division and violence plaguing the United States.

But there is another twist on the road to the Nov. 3 election whose outcome we cannot predict.

Because the president will be under a two-week quarantine, it could free up his team to manage the messaging by targeting electoral districts where a 1,000-vote switch could make the difference.

While he still has access to his Twitter account, the quarantine may provide some breathing space to Republican spin doctors. There aren’t many left, but the party has deep pockets and the Trump family also has plenty of access to cash.

Since he spends so little in taxes (according to The New York Times in 2016 and 2017 his federal tax bill was $750 annually) he should have some money to flood the airwaves.

The newspaper plans to publish his tax returns for 2018 and 2019 later in the campaign, sending more bad news in the direction of the Trump campaign.

Unlike Canada, there is no limit on American advertising spending during a campaign.

And in the United States, a bare majority of the voting population voted in the last general election.

With the social isolation required by the pandemic, and the huge spike in mail-in ballots, electoral college votes can be decided by very small margins.

Trump supporters appear to be the most motivated.

Biden is running ahead, but no one is excited by his ticket, with the possible exception of the nomination of Kamala Harris as vice-president.

The COVID-19 story could spawn sympathy for the president.

More likely, it will simply reinforce Trump’s disastrous response to a world pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 of his fellow citizens.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.