Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jun 22, 2020

Two Reasons Why COVID-19 May Help Donald Trump Get Re-elected

by Brett Pelham
Hand silhouette hold covid 19 virus. Logo of USA presidental Election 2020 in background.

In case you just awakened from a lengthy coma, the COVD-19 pandemic is still with us.  That’s right.  This microscopic virus—about 1/8 the width of a typical bacteria—has defied Donald Trump’s rosy predictions. As of the time of this writing, the death toll in the United States had just reached 100,000. But epidemiological science tells us that the number of Americans dying of this disease is likely to be far greater than the official COVID-19 death tolls. See Rhea Moutafis’s account for details.

If you are a progressive voter, you might think that the growing coronavirus disaster in America might be Trump’s political undoing in November.  Critics of Trump suggest that COVID-19 has put the President’s arrogance, ignorance, and indifference on full display for weeks.  As Lee Fang reports, most world leaders responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by doing everything in their power to stop the spread of the virus in its tracks.  Many world leaders also stockpiled life-saving medical equipment—in case measures like social distancing fell short.  Trump’s first response to COVID-19 was to deny that the pandemic would affect Americans at all.  As late as mid-March, Trump also allowed American companies to send life-saving medical equipment overseas—at inflated prices. Trump’s critical tweets about medical workers—which accuse them of stealing life-saving equipment—can’t help his case either.

Shouldn’t these mistakes with COVID-19 ensure Trump’s electoral demise?  Maybe.  But there’s also a good chance COVID-19 will actually help Trump get re-elected. This is true for at least two reasons.      

COVID-19 is Hitting Blue States Harder than Red Ones

A recent article in the New York Times is in close agreement with my own analyses of densely populated versus sparsely populated U.S. states. COVID-19 has been spreading faster, and killing more people, in blue states such as California, Massachusetts, and New York than in red states such as Alaska, North Dakota, or even Texas. 

I’m not saying COVID-19 will have killed off all the Democrats by November of 2020.  I’m saying that in a few swing states, the frustration with what red voters see as overly cautious meddling by big government (aka the Democrats) may deepen the already severe partisan divide—rather than uniting us all.  Consider the fact that in late May of 2020, about 82% of Republicans—but only about 12% of Democrats—said they approved of the way Trump has handled the COVID-19 pandemic.  By the way, it should go without saying that Trump is very unlikely to win the popular vote in 2020. After all, he lost the popular vote by almost three million votes in 2016.  But he still has a decent shot of winning the much more unpredictable, and more red-leaning, electoral college vote. 

Terror Management Theory

In addition to the ways in which COVID-19 may be dividing voters in red and blue states, there is another reason the ever-increasing death toll from COVID-19 may help Trump’s chances of being re-elected.  Research on terror management theory shows that when you remind people of their own deaths, they respond to this existential threat by adopting and reaffirming conservative worldviews. This has been shown in dozens of ways—both in experiments with college students and in the real world.  Consider Mark Landau’s work. In 2004, Landau and his colleagues showed that reminding college students of their own deaths increased their support for sitting president George W. Bush in the upcoming election.  The same death awareness procedure decreased people’s support for John Kerry, Bush’s Democratic opponent. Threats of impending death also increase people’s religious beliefs and their distaste for those who criticize America.  These effects, too, are likely to benefit Trump in November.              

In late May, 2020, the political soothsayers I trust most—the statisticians at 538—gave Biden a growing edge over Trump in the popular vote.  But the electoral college is a different story, and a lot can happen in five months, especially five months of a pandemic.  Furthermore, anyone who recalls the 2016 presidential election knows that predicting presidential elections when Trump is in the race is a risky business.  But two closely related predictions seem safer than most. First, Trump’s blunders will not necessarily cost him the race. Second, Biden probably has less room than Trump does for potential blunders. Thus, if Biden is to unseat Trump in November, he will have to rely on his centrist, purple appeal in the small number of swing states that will determine the election.  Biden will also have to tread much more carefully than Trump has in his statements about how best to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.  

For Further Reading

Landau, M.J., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., Miller, C.H., Ogilvie, D.M., & Cook, A. (2004). Deliver us from evil: the effects of mortality salience and reminders of 9/11 on support for President George W. Bush. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. 30: 1136–50.

The Coronavirus is Deadliest Where Democrats Live. Retrieved from the New York Times at:

Brett Pelham is a social psychologist who studies the self, religiosity, gender, judgment and decision-making, and health psychology. He is also a co-editor at Character and Context.   


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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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