2020 U.S. Presidential Election result: No, it wasn’t COVID or the economy, stupid

By Leroy Cleveland - August 27, 2022

It’s the economy, stupid — The popular political phrase was first coined by top-level Democrat consultant  James Carville in 1992.

The cliché is repeated often in American political culture during election time and those who use it insist the state of the economy is the primary influencer of winners and losers in presidential politics.

Following the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, experts are divided about why President Trump lost. Some say it was his handling of the Coronavirus pandemic while others suggest the crashed economy (due in part to the pandemic) was Trump’s downfall.

Either way, experts seem convinced Trump would have cruised to a convincing win hadn’t the pandemic hit.

Would Trump have won if not for COVID-19 and its health-related and economic ramifications?

Strong data suggests he would have had difficulty retaining the White House regardless of the pandemic and subsequent economic tumble. In fact, COVID might have actually helped Trump because his approval ratings increased during the pandemic versus his previous three years in office.

“I think if [President Donald Trump] would have been publicly empathetic [during the pandemic], he would have won by a landslide,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s former campaign manager, told Fox News in early December.

Instead, he said, Trump decided “to go for opening the economy first.”

And on the surface, that theory makes sense. After all, in the days leading up to the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, voters gave President Donald Trump a poor verdict on his handling of the coronavirus outbreak. For instance, a HuffPost/YouGov survey found voters disapproved of Trump’s own handling of the pandemic by 59 to 38 percent.

However, despite a low rating on his handling of the virus, Trump’s approval rating, according to Gallup polling released during early voting and just days prior to the general Election Day (November 3), was among the highest in his entire presidency.

Gallup, a leading pollster that has been tracking presidential polling averages since the 1940s and releases 20 such polls annually, gauged Trump’s pre-election approval rating at 46 percent via a survey released on October 27.

President Trump’s best approval rating scores, Jan 2017 – Nov 2020
Pollster: Gallup

Polling DatesApproval %Disapproval %  
Apr 14-28, 20204945 During pandemic 
Feb 3-16, 20204948  
Jan 16-29, 20204950 
May 1-13, 20204948During pandemic 
Feb 17-28, 20204751` 
Oct 16-27, 20204652During pandemic
Apr 17-30, 20194650  
Sep 14-28, 20204652During pandemic 

Of the nearly 80 presidential tracking polls conducted by Gallup during the Trump presidency, 4 of the president’s top 8 scores were generated during the Coronavirus pandemic and well after the economy started to nosedive.

In fact, his best Approval vs Disapproval rating ratio (49/45) was reached about 4-6 weeks into the pandemic (Apr 14-28, 2020).

Incidentally, to Gallup’s credit, Trump received 46.9 percent of the popular vote which was extremely close to the pollster’s 46 percent presidential approval rating estimate during election time.

But Gallup is just one pollster. What about others?

On November 3, general election day, FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate of respected pollsters showed Trump with a 44.6 percent approval rating. The score was Trump’s highest since April 3, when the President held 45.8 percent. Overall, 52.6 percent of people disapproved of him, slightly more than the 52.3 who disapproved in April.

Pollsters in FiveThirtyEight’s daily poll include but aren’t limited to Quinnipiac University, Harris, Rasmussen, Morning Consult, Gallup, and YouGov.

And according to, both, Gallup’s polling and FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate of top pollsters, Trump’s approval ratings during election time (from mid-October to November 3) and during the thick of the pandemic were peaking and among the highest of his presidency.

And, based on data from FiveThirtyEight’s multiple polling sources, Trump’s approval rating from the start of the pandemic (early March 2020) until election time in November was higher than at any time during the same period in any of his three previous years as president.

Thus, it could be argued Trump’s defiant stance against masks and vaccines might have gained him supporters.

So, what impact did the downturn in the economy, as a direct result of the pandemic, have on Trump’s favorability?

Answer: Little, if any.

Fact: Polling numbers across the board suggest the president’s best year, popularity-wise, was far and away 2020.

It’s not always the economy, stupid – Especially when the public is so polarized.

History told us the economy’s health is the best indicator of presidential favorability. However, Donald Trump was an outlier in two ways because:

a) When presiding over a surging economy, from February 2017 to February 2020, Trump’s approval scores were low, sitting in the high 30s and low 40s most of the time and never reaching 50 percent, and

b) When the economy tanked badly after the onset of the pandemic, the expected dip in Trump’s approval never came.

What does all of this mean?

Decisions and divisiveness
In a country that’s so divided, it’s common for citizens to be more set in their ways and less adaptive to change. Hence, the high majority of voters decided to vote for or against Trump long before the pandemic and didn’t waiver.

Protests / Civil unrest
Despite experiencing an initial drop in his approval ratings, Trump seemingly wasn’t impacted by the protests and civil unrest in the long run. In fact, it might have helped him a bit.

Per Gallup and FiveThirtyEight polling data, we saw an immediate and clear drop in Trump’s numbers in early June, about a week after the protesting started. However, even with all of the civil unrest, shootings, and racial injustice controversy following the death of George Floyd on May 25, Trump’s approval ratings dips were only temporary and would make a full recovery by late September / early October after the protests and rioting had tapered off.

COVID vs the economy: The top influencer in presidential choice
According to an NBC News 2020 Election Exit Poll, only 18 percent of voters said the pandemic mattered most in their choice for president. Thirty-four percent listed the economy most influenced their decision while 21 percent said racial injustice.

Per the same poll, just 52 percent of voters believed controlling the pandemic was more important than reviving the economy.

Of note, Trump supporters overwhelmingly said the economy was their primary influencer in the presidential election. However, instead of voting based on the current conditions, they chose to put more emphasis on the strong pre-pandemic economic conditions under Trump.

And why not? They’d already picked their candidate long before the onset of COVID.

That mindset represented a strong shift from pre-Trump-era elections where more voters evaluated the economy in “election-day terms“ and gave candidates of both parties consideration. And that’s yet another reason Trump wasn’t hurt by the economy. Those who made it their top issue generally supported him.

Increased voter participation
As stated earlier, Trump received a higher percentage of the overall vote in 2020 than in 2016 so, again, it’s unlikely COVID-19 hurt his re-election chances.

As a result of the pandemic, most states made it a lot easier to cast a ballot so voter participation in the 2020 election was as high as it had been in the U.S. in nearly 100 years. Conventional wisdom told experts an increase in voter turnout would benefit Democrats but the surge in voter participation wasn’t nearly as friendly to them as many of us had predicted.

Although urban and suburban America, minorities included, voted in high numbers, increased voting may have benefitted Republicans due to their major gains in turnout – and support – in rural areas. Consequentially, the GOP can thank rural America for keeping President Donald Trump competitive, saving Republicans a few Senate seats, and unexpectedly flipping several Democratic seats in the House.

Takeaway: Trump’s poor handling of the pandemic and the subsequently weakened economy didn’t determine the election result. Even in the absence of the pandemic and widespread economic setbacks, Trump would have seemingly had to have a few things go in his favor in order to win… And any Trump victory would have been thin – and only in the electoral college.

Tags: Culture, polls/stats/facts, research, U.S. Presidential Race 2020