Can’t mask partisanship: Coronavirus response explains why Trump can still win


How can President Trump hold on to the support of his followers amid a pandemic that has so far killed more than 86,000 Americans and an economic collapse that rivals the Great Depression?

Roughly 1 in 5 people who had jobs in February lost them in March, a new study by Federal Reserve economists found. The last president to preside over job losses like that was Herbert Hoover, who lost reelection in a landslide. Why isn’t Trump already suffering Hoover’s fate?

That’s a question a lot of Democrats ask these days, with a belief among many that Trump has some Svengali-like power over his voters.

That gives the president more credit than he’s due.

The real answer is as plain as the mask on your face — or not on, depending on the partisan tribe to which you belong.

The politics of the mask

Masks have become the most visible symbol of the coronavirus pandemic. Around the world, the use of face coverings has dramatically expanded. Uniquely in the United States, however, they’ve become a touchstone for political identity.

Republicans, increasingly, refuse to wear masks, even where public health officials say they should. Democrats wear them even in cases where there’s no need, as illustrated by Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who wore a bandanna that made him look like a stagecoach robber in an old western at a Senate hearing this week in which no one else sat within three yards of his chair.


This week, three political scientists — Tom Pepinsky of Cornell University, Shana Gadarian of Syracuse University and Sara Goodman of UC Irvine — released an analysis of polling data about which Americans say they wear masks in public. They found a gap of more than 20 points along partisan lines: 75% of Democrats, but 53% of Republicans said they did.

The partisan gap was greatest among city dwellers — people in rural areas are less likely to wear masks regardless of party — and held true in most cases when researchers factored out the effects of income and education. (There was little partisan gap among those who didn’t graduate from high school, they found.)

That’s consistent with other surveys. Early in the pandemic, polls showed little difference in the actual behavior of Democrats and Republicans, even though they had widely different views of the illness and its causes. But as the political battling over the coronavirus has intensified, that has changed.

For both sides, masks have become a symbol: Of trust in scientific and medical expertise on the part of Democrats, and of rejection of experts who tell others what to do on the part of Republicans.

If the question of whether to cover one’s face can be so strongly shaped by politics in the midst of an outbreak of a potentially deadly communicable disease, then don’t be surprised that partisanship even more stubbornly affects people’s decisions on the choice of a president.

Partisanship has almost always played a major role in American politics, but we’re currently in an era of hyperpartisan division in which the gap between the two major parties looms wider than it has in more than a century.


Partisan lines now coincide with many other, overlapping lines of identity, reinforcing the division. The partisan split by race and education, with the Republicans becoming almost exclusively a party for white people, carries particular force.

For evidence of how stubborn partisanship can be, consider the latest results from the highly regarded, nonpartisan Marquette University survey of voters in Wisconsin, a key swing state in presidential politics.

The poll, released Tuesday, found voters in the state had soured in their view of Trump’s response to the virus. By a seven-point margin, 44%-51%, they disapproved of what Trump has done. That’s a 12-point swing against him since March when his response to the virus got 51%-46% approval. Voters who say they only “lean Republican” showed the biggest shift.

Just under one-third of the state’s voters approved of recent protests that have demanded that Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, lift orders restricting business that the state imposed to slow the spread of the illness. Just short of two-thirds of voters sided with Evers. (The state Supreme Court this week ruled that the orders exceeded Evers’ authority).

Despite all that, however, polling numbers on the presidential race in the state have not budged in months. Joe Biden edges Trump by 46% to 43%, the poll found, the same margin the survey found in March and pretty much the same as in December.

The survey joins other high-quality, independent polls that have shown Trump trailing, but by narrow margins, in states he would need to win in order to gain a second term.


Most of the polls share two key findings — one of which should be very troubling to Trump, and the other which points to a potential way forward for him.

Charles Franklin, the political scientist who directs the Marquette poll, aggregated results from the four polls the university has conducted so far this year. Most voters have either a favorable view of Biden or a favorable view of Trump and plan to vote accordingly, the numbers show. But among the relatively small group that dislikes both candidates, Biden currently leads 62%-15%.

Other polls have shown a similar split, and that’s a potentially big problem for Trump. In 2016, he won heavily among voters with a negative view of both him and Hillary Clinton.

Almost the entirety of Trump’s campaign strategy at this point depends on getting more voters to view Biden negatively. How much he can achieve on that remains to be seen. But worsening Biden’s reputation won’t help Trump if it doesn’t lead voters to move into his column.

The other finding, however, indicates part of why Trump remains viable.

Typically, an incumbent president’s standing in hypothetical election matchups very closely tracks the president’s job approval. That stands to reason: If you think a president is doing a good job, you’ll probably lean toward reelecting him.

Trump’s an exception. His standing in polls has often lagged behind his job approval by a few points. In the Wisconsin poll, for example, Trump had 43% of the vote against Biden, but 47% of the state’s voters approve of him.

That small but persistent gap suggests that a slice of the electorate is OK with the job Trump has done overall, but is so turned off by other factors, such as his personal behavior, that they won’t vote for him. For Trump, that could point to a way forward — controlling his behavior in public and emphasizing his work — that could benefit him.


His recent actions, however, provide little evidence that he’s capable of following that path.

Going on a rant against Obama

Trump has long seemed to be pursing a vendetta against President Obama, a “strange, endless grudge match,” as Doyle McManus referred to it in his column this week. The match entered a new round this week as Trump repeatedly focused on what he called “Obamagate.”

Exactly what Obamagate refers to remains pretty opaque, and it’s a fair bet that most voters have trouble following what the president is talking about. But Trump’s most ardent backers are willing to stick with the increasingly baroque nature of the conspiracies he alleges — indeed, the labyrinthine nature of the plot provides part of the attraction for true devotees.

What’s clear is that Trump remains obsessed with the case against his former national security advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, and wants to link Obama and Biden to alleged wrongdoing in Flynn’s case, as Chris Megerian wrote.

Flynn pleaded guilty, twice, in two separate court appearances, to lying to the FBI. But last week Atty. Gen. William Barr took the extraordinary step of moving to drop the Justice Department’s case against him.

The Flynn case is now in “completely uncharted waters,” legal experts told Megerian.


U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who has presided over the case and who has often demonstrated a strong independence streak, plans extended proceedings before he’ll decide whether to accept the Justice Department’s move. Because Flynn has already pleaded guilty, Sullivan could move to sentence him over the department’s objections.

This week, Sullivan appointed a former federal judge, who is also a former mob-busting prosecutor, to argue against the government’s move.

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Biden’s digital deficit

After their upset loss in 2016, Democrats remain perpetually anxious about 2020. One source of anxiety for now: The Trump campaign continues to run rings around Biden’s operation online, Evan Halper reported.

Biden has been slow to adopt digital organizing strategies, many of which were pioneered by groups and candidates on the left, but which Trump’s operation exploited in 2016 and has continued to push. Biden is now trying to catch up, and has made some significant steps, Halper wrote.

“It’s clear Biden’s digital ship is turning. The question now is whether or not it’s too late,” Stefan Smith, who was the online engagement director for Pete Buttigieg‘s campaign, told him.

Meanwhile, Biden has been taking potential running mates out on public tryouts, Seema Mehta and Melanie Mason report.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, former candidate for governor Stacy Abrams of Georgia, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klouchar have all taken part in recent weeks.

Currently, Harris and Klobuchar seem to be getting the most buzz as potential running mates. But don’t expect an answer soon. The signals from the Biden camp point to an announcement no earlier than before July.

Republicans win one in Congress

Republicans picked up a seat in the House, winning a special election in California to fill the vacancy created when former Rep. Katie Hill resigned. It was their first pickup in the state since 1998, and GOP officials made the most of it, portraying the victory as a harbinger of further wins to come as they try to take back the House majority.

That’s almost certainly overstating how much of a lesson can be pulled from one low-turnout special election. Indeed, Mike Garcia‘s victory over Christy Smith in the state’s 25th congressional district, which covers the northernmost part of Los Angeles County could be short-lived, Mark Barabak and Arit John report.


Garcia will have to face Smith again in November for a full two-year term, and Democrats hope the presidential election’s higher turnout could turn the results around.

Even as they gained some ground in the House, however, Republicans faced a potentially big setback in the Senate. The FBI served a warrant on Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) in the investigation of his sale of as much as $1.7 million in stock in February after he got private briefings about the coronavirus.

The warrant, news of which was broken by Del Wilber, marked a serious escalation of the case against Burr, as Wilber, Jennifer Haberkorn and Sarah Wire explained. The next day, Burr stepped aside as chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

A scandal surrounding Burr could be a big problem for Republicans. Their other incumbent senator from North Carolina, Thom Tillis, already faces a difficult race against Cal Cunningham, a former state senator and Army veteran. And as Janet Hook reported last week, Republicans increasingly fear losing their Senate majority.

On Capitol Hill on Friday, the House is expected for the first time to approve proxy voting, allowing most members to cast ballots without being in Washington. Assuming the plan passes — it’s opposed by Republicans but endorsed by the Democratic leadership, so it likely will gain approval — House members probably won’t return to the Capitol in full for a long time.

Locking up immigrant kids

The coronavirus has become the latest excuse for keeping migrant kids locked up in detention centers, Molly O’Toole and Cindy Carcamo reported.


The Trump administration has greatly slowed down the process of releasing children from detention, even when American families are available to sponsor them, and simultaneously has ramped up deportations. Administration lawyers have argued in court that the children are safer from the virus in custody, even as cases of illness spread in some migrant detention centers.

Ousted scientist issues warning

Rick Bright, who was ousted from his job running a federal research agency focused on coronavirus vaccines, warned a House committee that Trump has no plan and an unrealistic timetable for a vaccine, David Cloud reported. The country is running out of time to get vaccine planning right, Bright said.

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo made a quick trip to Israel to hold talks about Iran, the Palestinians and China, reported Tracy Wilkinson, who was along for the whirlwind trip.

Finally, the Supreme Court heard arguments this week in a case that tests whether states can require members of the electoral college to vote for the candidate who won their state in the election.

A few electors in 2016 argued that the Constitution intended electors to exercise independent judgment and tried to foment an effort to choose someone other than Trump or Clinton. Many states have laws forbidding that sort of independence by electors, and, David Savage reported, the justices seemed wary of the idea of allowing electors discretion over whom to vote for.

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