Most likely the issue that will dominate the 2020 election campaign is the economic consequences of the global coronavirus pandemic. At the end of 2019, the United States’ economy was doing quite well, with unemployment falling to the lowest figure since 1990 and GDP GDP growing steadily since 2016. However, with the economic lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, both of these core economic indicators have fallen at an unprecedented speed. GDP fell by almost five percent in the first quarter of 2020, while national unemployment increased more than threefold in April alone, reaching Great Depression levels of more than 20 percent in some states. Traditionally, economic health is seen as a strong indicator as to how an incumbent president has been doing, so undoubtedly the Trump administration’s response to this crisis will have a strong bearing on election outcome. So far, a majority of American’s disapprove of the administration’s response, but this statistic belies the fact that disapproval is split on partisan lines, with Republicans overwhelmingly supporting the president’s efforts.
Aside from economic issues, the protests sparked by the killing of African-American man George Floyd by police promises to bring issues of race to the fore of the 2020 presidential election. Tension over questions of race have been a longstanding feature of the Trump administration, whose rhetoric and policies aroundimmigration have been seen by many to problematically fuel the flames of racial division. Meanwhile, others have embraced his more hardline tone on the issue, increasing the level of political polarization between Republicans and Democrats. For example, support for President Trump’s attempts to build a wall along the Southern border is sharply divided on party lines. To date, Trump has promoted the use of force (including the military) in his response to the protests, eschewing a more conciliatory approach which acknowledges the protestors’ concerns about racialized police violence. This is in sharp contrast to the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, who has publicly remarked that the protests are a result of structural racism and promised to address the issue should he become president. It is likely both responses will only widen the partisan divide among the electorate, further increasing the stakes of the 2020 presidential election in the eyes of many.
Despite the twin crises currently facing the United States, the result of the 2020 presidential election may still depend on which candidate is able to convince the most voters to come out on election day. While Biden has consistently maintained a lead over Trump in the polls, as the 2016 election of Trump demonstrated, a consistent lead in polls does not always indicate who the eventual winner will be. Counting against Biden is the rise in Trump’s approval rating over the first half of 2020, reaching the highest level of his presidency so far. Meanwhile, more U.S. adults hold an unfavorable opinion of Biden than hold a favorable opinion. It may be the case that a desire among many to end the Trump presidency overrides their lack of enthusiasm for Biden, but it also may not – especially given that more Americans identify as politically independent than Republican or Democrat. If Biden is unable to provide policies that appeal to independents – especially around the economic fallout of the coronavirus and structural issues of race and inequality – it is far from certain his lead in the polls will translate to victory.