Trump coronavirus shakes campaigns

President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and hospitalization adds to an already unprecedented presidential campaign being waged during a pandemic.

Local political experts said it is too early to know what the full impact of the president’s diagnosis will be because that will depend on whether or not his symptoms worsen.

“This is highly unusual territory,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. “We have not had a serious crisis of presidential health since Ronald Reagan’s assassination attempt in 1981. It still remains to be seen if this is serious or not, but the potential for severity is present.”

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The re-election campaign for President Trump had been focused on traditional, large-scale rallies. Those are now cancelled. But even that impact is difficult to gauge because polling has shown the majority of voters have made up their minds.

“Recent polling shows less than 5% of voters are undecided. Moreover, of people who have stated a preference for Trump or Biden, only 5% said that they were open to changing their mind,” said Lee Hannah Jr., associate professor of political science at Wright State University.

Early voting has already started in some states and begins Tuesday in Ohio.

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“Of course, a crisis of this level might change the level of empathy and compassion that people have for the president and his family. On the other hand, you might see that some people are frustrated that the president and many in his party have defied safety protocols and helped to put our government into this terrible position,” Hannah said.

Trump announced Friday morning that he and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after it was announced that top aide Hope Hicks had become infected. That news came just days after Trump, a Republican, was in Cleveland debating Democratic presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden announced on Friday that he and his wife, Jill Biden, had tested negative for COVID-19.

The White House said Vice President Mike Pence and his Second Lady Karen Pence also tested negative for the virus.

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Trump was hospitalized on Friday with what the White House said were mild symptoms — primarily fatigue.

Local political scientists said the diagnosis could limit his ability to hold the large rallies again. Campaign rallies for Pence and other supporters could seek to fill the void in the final month of the campaign.

“The main consequence is that the president may not be allowed to, or feel up to traveling and campaigning, for several weeks,” Hannah said. “This is a time when presidents tend to be solely focused on campaigning. While they can continue to run advertisements, we know that both candidates get free media when they make appearances in local areas.”

Trump and Biden have held almost the same number of events since Sept. 1, said Chris Devine, an University of Dayton assistant professor of political science who is doing research on a book he’s writing about campaigning.

“But in terms of scale and media coverage they are not equivalent. Trump is hitting major media markets and he’s making a bigger splash when he goes there,” Devine said.

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In the absence of Trump’s rallies Biden’s more modest events may become more visible. Biden’s campaign has used virtual events or meetings with much smaller groups as his campaign follows social distancing and face mask protocols recommended by public health professionals, said Dan Birdsong, senior political science lecturer at the University of Dayton.

Many polls have had Biden leading Trump nationally and in battleground states. Biden has campaigned on what he says is Trump’s failure to adequately respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the continued health threat it poses to the nation. Trump is seeking a second term with a message that his policies have helped revive the U.S. economy.

Where Trump’s campaign is vulnerable is if on-the-fence voters see his diagnosis as a symbol of his policies on COVID-19, said Smith. But the local experts do not see the diagnosis eroding Trump’s support with his core supporters.

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“I don’t think his base will be effected by this. His base is already oriented to a position that COVID is something we have to live with,” said Marc Clauson, professor of history and law at Cedarville University. “The base tends to be overwhelmingly very open about their views that although masks are helpful they don’t really see the great necessity of them, compared to the rest of the population.”

He expects the few remaining undecided voters will be more swayed by what was said at Tuesday’s debate and in the remaining weeks of the campaign.

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Devine anticipates Trump’s campaign will frame his illness as something that makes him a better leader on the pandemic "because now he personally understands what is like to go through it and watch his wife go through it.”

“I don’t anticipate any concession where they say ‘we should have taken more precautions,’” Devine said. “Campaigns are resilient, especially this one.”

Far bigger questions will arise if Trump becomes seriously ill to the point of being unable to perform his duties as president or if he dies, the experts said.

“Section 3 of the 25th Amendment allows the president to transfer power voluntarily to the vice president," Hannah said. “Section 3 has been used only three times: once by President Ronald Reagan, twice by George W. Bush. Each time involved the president receiving general anesthesia for surgery for a few hours. It was not invoked when Reagan was shot and almost killed in 1981; it certainly should have been, but the president and his aides never seriously considered it.”

There are provisions for the president to reclaim his power once he is no longer incapacitated and for what happens if the president remains unable to perform his duties.

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If a presidential nominee dies before an election but after voting has started Hannah said the person’s political party organization, in this case the Republican National Committee, would name someone to replace him on the ballot. But that could raise difficult questions involving how electors pledged to support the person on the ballot would vote under state laws and a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on “faithless electors."

Smith is not convinced that the GOP would be able to replace their candidate at this point and predicted litigation.

“I don’t think there is enough time to reprint ballots for election day, and there is certainly no way to recall ballots already mailed or to void ballots already cast,” Smith said. "In short, I think we are locked in right now no matter what happens. Republicans may attempt to change that, but I don’t think that would be successful.”

The 20th Amendment addresses what happens if the person who wins the presidential election dies before he or she is inaugurated. It calls for the candidate’s vice president to succeed to the presidency, Devine said.

He said there have been no deaths close to the presidential election since the 20th Amendment was adopted in 1933 and none since the 25th Amendment clarified issues of succession when it was ratified in 1967.

“So basically this is untested,” Devine said. “The answers are not necessarily clear in the Constitution.”

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