President Trump faces the biggest challenge yet to his prospects of being re-elected, with his advisers’ two major assumptions for the campaign — a booming economy and an opponent easily vilified as too far left — quickly evaporating.
After a year in which Mr. Trump has told voters that they must support his re-election or risk watching the economy decline, the stock market is reeling and economists are warning that a recession could be on the horizon because of the worsening spread of the coronavirus.
And instead of elevating Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, as Mr. Trump made clear was his hope, Democrats have suddenly and decisively swung from a flirtation with socialism to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has run a primary campaign centered on a return to political normalcy.
“Biden’s success in the suburbs makes him an acceptable alternative to Trump,” said Scott Reed, the top political adviser for the United States Chamber of Commerce. “His turnout in the suburbs threatens the Republican Senate.”
That presents Mr. Trump with a confounding new political landscape, one that close advisers concede he had seemed unwilling or unable to accept until Wednesday, when he addressed the nation about the pandemic.
“If it was Warren or Bernie and you don’t have coronavirus, I think Trump might sneak by,” said Kevin DeWine, the former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. “But if it’s Biden, ‘My I.R.A. has tanked,’ and we’re going to have complete disruption because of coronavirus, I think it’s a totally different story.”
Ohio, a traditional presidential battleground that has been trending Republican, would be in play again, Mr. DeWine said. Such Midwestern states were central to Mr. Trump’s election in 2016, and are likely to be similarly crucial this year.
Of course, what happens in March may ultimately have little bearing in November. Mr. Trump maintains the bully pulpit of the presidency, and Mr. Biden largely avoided intense scrutiny from rivals in a crowded, up-and-down primary campaign.
And if there’s any constant in the Trump era, it is that what’s in the news at a given moment will change in a matter of hours, days or at most weeks. The virus may be mitigated, the economy could rebound, and Mr. Biden’s decades of life in Washington and propensity for gaffes may render him as weak a candidate as some of his rivals in the primary had long predicted.
Yet if Mr. Trump does lose re-election, the seeds of demise may prove to have been planted in early spring.
One challenge for the president is that the type of management response required of chief executives during crises like a pandemic has never been his strength. Empathy and public displays of emotion do not come easily to him. On Twitter, his favorite medium, he has been consumed by how people are perceiving his handling of the crisis and has focused on criticizing Democrats.
And so far, he has resisted entreaties from advisers to cancel events, or to send a strong signal that he’s willing to put the political season on hold as the full effects of the coronavirus are assessed.
“A leader needs to be transparent, clear, empathetic, serious, and all-in,” said Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida who ran against Mr. Trump in the 2016 Republican primary and received bipartisan praise for how he handled hurricanes during his tenure. “A leader needs to communicate consistently and regularly. A leader needs to show his or her heart, which has to be done outside the governor’s mansion or the White House.”
Mr. Bush added that a leader needs “to shut down partisan politics and campaigning” and “to trust the experts and allow the strategy to be developed with them,” as well as think about how to deal with the recovery.
Mr. Biden, by contrast, has had his entire political life defined by his personal tragedies — including the death of his wife and daughter decades ago, and then his eldest son, Beau, more recently — and his efforts to rise from them and encourage others to do the same.
On Wednesday afternoon, shortly before he was scheduled to speak to reporters, Mr. Trump rebuked congressional Democrats, who have indicated they aren’t waiting for the president’s guidance on an economic package to help the economy. “Someone needs to tell the Democrats in Congress that CoronaVirus doesn’t care what party you are in. We need to protect ALL Americans!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.
In interviews, a half-dozen Republicans close to the president’s campaign said that his re-election effort had become a political battleship, slow and creaky to turn, unlike the nimble race Mr. Trump ran in 2016. Several advisers worked on Tuesday to persuade Mr. Trump not to let the campaign announce a rally tentatively scheduled for the end of the month in Florida; those advisers ultimately won.
Aides have sent mixed signals about how they plan to approach Mr. Biden, with some wanting to portray him as a 2020 version of Hillary Clinton, and others wanting to try to define him as interchangeable with Mr. Sanders because of some of the progressive stances Mr. Biden has adopted.
Primary results cannot easily be projected onto general elections, but the surge in Democratic turnout so far has not only helped Mr. Biden, it has also illustrated what may be Mr. Trump’s most glaring vulnerability. The former vice president has established a commanding delegate lead in part because of a surge of suburban voters including many from affluent jurisdictions.
In Virginia, North Carolina and Michigan — each a general election battleground — Mr. Biden benefited from a large increase in turnout among moderate voters in the Washington, Charlotte and Detroit suburbs.
In Michigan, for example, over a million and a half voters participated in the Democratic primary Tuesday — up from just over 1.2 million in 2016 there. But it was where the turnout jumped so much that was revealing and, for Mr. Trump, ominous. In affluent Oakland County, Mitt Romney’s boyhood home and an epicenter of the Democrats’ 2018 midterm election gains, turnout went from approximately 180,000 in 2016 to about 260,000 on Tuesday.
Mr. Trump’s team of actual political strategists is small, despite the large staff employed by his campaign, and his campaign manager only recently relocated to Washington, where the headquarters is based. After data leaked early on, information is closely guarded and formal polling is ordered only every few months. On Tuesday, as Mr. Trump sat with advisers in the late morning going over the results of the latest campaign surveys, some of the data was already out of date.
Representative Francis Rooney, a Florida Republican who is not seeking re-election, said the likelihood that Mr. Biden would be the nominee alone “makes this a race.”
Mr. Rooney said Mr. Biden was “moderate, well-reasoned and genuinely likable — none of those things are what Sanders are.”
And echoing a number of leading officials in both parties, Mr. Rooney said that if Mr. Biden wins the nomination, it would illustrate the degree to which 2016 was a referendum on the Democratic nominee rather than on Mr. Trump.
“The question is how many people voted for him because they didn’t want Hillary Clinton,” he said, arguing that Mr. Biden’s center-left politics effectively made him “Hillary without the other negatives.”
Mr. Trump’s advisers argue otherwise — and indeed it was their enthusiasm for digging into the record of Mr. Biden’s son Hunter that led to the president’s impeachment.
But what alarms many Republicans about the political impact of the virus is that it will so overwhelm the news that it will be difficult to highlight their opposition research about Mr. Biden or draw attention to his gaffes.
One prominent party strategist working on a number of congressional races this year said a series of polls taken in the last two weeks showed the president’s approval ratings receding to where they were before the 2018 midterms, giving back the gains he made in the aftermath of his impeachment acquittal.
This strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about Mr. Trump, said he worried the virus and its effects on the economy would make this campaign entirely about the president, much like the 2018 midterms.
And no modern president may perform better with a foil or worse when measured in his own right than Mr. Trump.
Nonetheless, there have been some constants in terms of how Mr. Trump is perceived by voters.
“The president’s job approval has bounced around between 42 percent and 46 percent ever since the spring of 2018, so variation within that range should not be interpreted as anything particularly significant,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “If he should break above 46 percent or below 42 percent in the polling averages, then I’ll start to take that seriously. “
Representative Chip Roy, a Texas Republican facing a potentially competitive re-election, said it was premature to make sweeping assessments about an election so far off. “That’s a lifetime in politics, especially today,” he said.
But he did offer Mr. Trump a dose of tough-love advice and, in doing so, he suggested that the president’s prospects might hinge in part on how he handles the current health crisis.
“Don’t talk about politics, just march forward and do your job,” Mr. Roy said, adding that voters would ask, “‘Did we react properly?’ That’s how the judgment will fall.”
Mr. Rooney was even more pointed, urging Mr. Trump to show leadership and take drastic steps to curb the spread of the virus. “He ought to be doing what other countries are doing,” he said, such as urging people to stay home, closing schools and demanding public events be rescheduled. “It’s a serious health risk here and you’ve got to ask: Where is the United States?”
But former Representative Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican swept out in the 2018 suburban backlash to Mr. Trump, said that Mr. Biden’s ascent had greatly complicated Mr. Trump’s prospects.
“Joe Biden will be very palatable to some of the same moderates who voted against Republicans in the midterms,” said Mr. Yoder, predicting that Republicans would need embittered Sanders supporters to stay home because “we’re not going to see a flip back of suburban independents.”
Mr. DeWine put it more bluntly: “If it’s Biden, you’ll have disaffected Republicans run to the polls to vote for Biden because they’re just looking for normal and sane,” he said.