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Why Does Trump's Support Remain Unshaken Despite His COVID Response?

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

If there is one thing I have learned in my years writing and speaking about the American political landscape, it is that it never ceases to amaze me. This is particularly true of the current Republican presidential primary race.

It is not surprising that former President Donald Trump is the frontrunner in the polling so far. But one thing that has astonished me is the fact that his response to the COVID pandemic has not hampered his progress one iota – at least not yet.

During the pandemic, Trump made some rather unpopular moves. Trusting Dr. Anthony Fauci and refusing to fire him, even after it became clear that he was an authoritarian hack, did not go over well with most of the Republican base. His criticism of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp when he decided to reopen his state against federal guidance wasn’t a good move either. Lastly, his emphatic support of the vaccines turned many people off. Under normal circumstances, COVID would be an albatross around Trump’s neck.

Yet, he is still wiping the floor with the rest of the Republican primary field.

The Wall Street Journal released the findings of a survey showing that Trump continues to lead his primary opponents by a healthy margin:

Donald Trump has expanded his dominating lead for the Republican presidential nomination, a new Wall Street Journal poll shows, as GOP primary voters overwhelmingly see his four criminal prosecutions as lacking merit and about half say the indictments fuel their support for him.

The new survey finds that what was once a two-man race for the nomination has collapsed into a lopsided contest in which Trump, for now, has no formidable challenger. The former president is the top choice of 59% of GOP primary voters, up 11 percentage points since April, when the Journal tested a slightly different field of potential and declared candidates.

Trump’s lead over his top rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has nearly doubled since April to 46 percentage points. At 13% support, DeSantis is barely ahead of the rest of the field, none of whom has broken out of single-digit support.

Even further, the former president is currently in a tie with President Joe Biden.

This prompted me to ask my followers on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, why they think Trump still enjoys such a high level of support even with his unpopular actions during COVID. The responses were quite illuminating in that they painted a complex picture of the matter involving loyalty, skepticism, and a strong trust in the former president despite his missteps.

Several of the comments reflected a consistent theme: Trump may have made some mistakes, but he should not be the only one to shoulder the blame. Instead, Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are more at fault for the authoritarian approach to the pandemic than the former president. Others also mentioned Vice President Mike Pence as a potential culprit since he is the one who worked with state governors on the response.

Others suggested that these individuals deceived Trump into going along with the support for lockdown orders and other restrictions. I’ve heard this particular line quite often, even when it comes to issues unrelated to COVID. People have suggested that one of his biggest weaknesses is his inability to have the right people around him to give him decent advice.

There was also the argument that Trump actually had a more balanced response to the issue. Some of my followers pointed out that while he did support lockdowns, he did not do so to the extent that Democrats argued for. This, they explained, showed the former president’s ability to work with both sides of the aisle.

Some pointed out that Trump allowed governors to handle the COVID responses in their own states, which means he valued state autonomy. In this way, Trump showed he understood that there was no one-size-fits-all solution to preventing COVID deaths. This seems to hold water for many in the Republican base – even though Trump did not possess the authority to simply lock down the entire country.

However, skepticism of Trump and his base was also a factor. Some indicated that it was Trump’s “cult of personality” instead of a genuine appreciation for his policies that are motivating people to overlook his COVID foibles. They insist that Trump can still function as a disruptor if he manages to get back into the White House, and this seems to matter more than his pandemic response.

There might be some truth to this, but not all of it is related to a “cult of personality.” Some of my Trump-supporting followers acknowledged his issues with COVID but noted that there isn’t currently a better alternative to the former president. They still remember the successes he had when he was president – especially when it comes to foreign policy, the economy, and other matters.

It's an interesting question, to say the least. So far, Trump’s primary opponents have not weaponized his COVID response as aggressively as one might expect. Indeed, the ones most likely to pose a challenge to him have not brought it up all that often.

However, this is likely to change as the primary season continues to chug forward. It would be the height of folly for folks like DeSantis, Ramaswamy, and others to ignore this issue because, despite his overwhelming support, there are likely many primary voters who won’t be so willing to forgive and forget Trump’s COVID response. Still, it remains unclear whether the issue will be enough to stop him from securing the GOP nomination. At this point, anything can happen.

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