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Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
The American response to Coronavirus continues to intrigue. The pattern has been that Republican state governors, who are allies of Donald Trump, are keen to display their “Make America Great Again” credentials ahead of an election, and a likely reshuffle of the president’s top team, should he win in November.
More broadly, governors and states have led the imposing and subsequent relaxing of restrictions. Some, such as Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic Governor of New York, have thrived under the spotlight. His approval rating has hit a record high of 77 per cent. More than half of US states are set to be partially reopened by the end of this week.
But trust in state governments is broadly trending down, according to research by Ipsos, driven most fervently by residents of states leading the charge to re-open. Over the last two weeks, 50 per cent of residents of Texas, Georgia, and Florida report trusting the state government. This is down from 67 per cent in late March.
Unsurprisingly, trust in Trump’s federal government falls clearly along party lines. Republicans are more likely to trust it (66 per cent), and are less likely to think that returning to their pre-coronavirus lives is a major risk (58 per cent).
Democrats widely distrust the federal government (28 per cent), trust Governors (71 per cent), and believe returning to normal right now is a big risk (84 per cent). Could these figures translate directly into the November election?
The 2020 knock-on effect
The Coronavirus response will inevitably become one of the dividing issues between Trump and Joe Biden in November, not least because 30 million more Americans now rely on government support for their daily existence than before the global pandemic gripped the country.
Not every state is competitive, of course. Some will vote for Trump or Biden regardless of what they do between now and November. As the President famously said in the midst of the 2016 election campaign: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters”. With a 93 per cent approval rating amongst Republicans – a figure that has steadily increased since January with Gallup – he is probably right.
Four states provide an intriguing look at how the 2020 election could be shaped by current events (latest polling by Real Clear Politics).
Latest polling: Trump (41 per cent), Biden 47 per cent (+5.5)
Michigan has in many ways become the centre of the pro-Trump, anti-lockdown resistance. Yesterday, armed protestors entered the state Capitol building demonstrating against the ongoing stay-at-home order issued by Gretchen Whitmer, the state’s Democratic Governor.
Michigan’s House of Representatives has since decided against extending the emergency declaration. Whilst her response to coronavirus has courted controversy, Whitmer’s approval rating easily exceeds that of the President. Just 36 per cent of Michigan respondents polled said they approve of the president’s handling of the crisis, compared to 63% approval for Whitmer.
In 2016, Trump won the state by less than 11,000 votes out of more than 4.5 million votes cast. Both Trump and Biden will focus on their blue-collar credential in a state that remains the beating heart of America’s auto industry.
Latest polling: Trump 44.2 per cent, Biden 48.6 per cent (+4.4)
Proof that Arizona will be on a knife-edge in November is that the President visited Phoenix yesterday. Stepping off Air Force One, Trump was en route to a mask-making factory.
Except for Bill Clinton’s win in 1996, Arizona has voted Republican since 1952. In 2016, Trump beat Clinton there by 3.6 points, but the home state of the late John McCain has continued to undergo major demographic changes, with a growing and energised Latino population.
The most pressing threat to the President’s prospects is the risk of defections amongst female voters in the suburbs of Phoenix. Presently, Doug Ducey, the state’s Republican Governor, has imposed an ongoing state-wide stay-at-home order, and people can only leave their homes for essential trips.
It is due to expire on 15 May, by which time barbers, restaurants and coffee shops will be open for business. Ducey is struggling with a 52 per cent approval rating, well below the 72 per cent average for governors nationwide. The challenge for Biden is clear, but with a narrow polling lead the state is undoubtedly in play come November.
Latest polling: Trump 43.3 per cent, Biden 46.5 per cent (+3.2)
In many ways the ultimate battleground state, Florida has voted with the winner since 1964 in every presidential race other than in 1992.
Trump took Florida by just 1.2 per cent in 2016, and retaining the state will be a critical step on the President’s path to re-election. The strong Latino presence in such cities as Miami are counterbalanced by Florida being home to America’s conservative wealthy retirees.
Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican Governor, has resisted a state-wide curfew, but residents have to stay indoors unless they are undertaking essential activities. At the southern tip of the country, it is not surprising that fishing is deemed to be one of these.
Biden leads in the state that has become the President’s official personal base, where it is home to his ‘Winter White House’ resort. It is by no means insurmountable, and so expect the president to spend much more time there when an easing of restrictions allows for a resumption of campaign rallies.
Latest polling: Trump 41.8 per cent, Biden 48.3 per cent (+6.5)
Donald Trump won the state by 48 per cent to 48 per cent in 2016, and the state looks to hang delicately in the balance this time around.
Pennsylvania has leant Democrat in presidential elections but, in 2016, an appeal to the working class communities in the state’s Rust Belt represented a breaking of the ‘blue wall’, in much the same way that CCHQ demolished Labour’s ‘red wall’ in 2019.
Presidential candidates traditionally carry their home states, and Joe Biden’s advantage for 2020 is that he was born in blue-collar Scranton. The Democratic Governor, Tom Wolf, relaxed coronavirus restrictions at the start of the month, and now outdoor activities are permitted. Biden will need to work hard to maintain his lead in the state, but winning it come November would represent a major step closer to the White House.