Plot twists and poll numbers
A rancorous debate, a presidential COVID-19 diagnosis, and a high-stakes Supreme Court nomination set an unpredictable stage for the 2020 election
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When Jaime Harrison arrived for a televised debate with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Oct. 3, the Democratic challenger brought his own personal protective equipment: Harrison set up a tall, multipaneled, plexiglass divider around his lectern.
“Tonight I’m taking this seriously,” he said.
It had been a seriously distressing week: Four days earlier, President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden faced off in their first presidential debate, and the evening proved a source of misery for moderator and viewers alike.
The opponents exchanged derision and disdain over 90 minutes filled with interruptions and insults. Both candidates spoke over each other, but moderator Chris Wallace later said the president interrupted him and Biden some 145 times.
The evening offered more personality than policy, but Biden did demur on a major question.
With some Democrats proposing to expand the Supreme Court if Republicans press forward with Trump’s nominee to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Wallace asked Biden: Would you support court-packing? And would you support ending the Senate filibuster to allow a simple majority to pass major legislation?
In the past, Biden had said he was against both ideas, but he told Wallace, “Whatever position I take on that, that will become the issue.”
Still, Biden seemed to get the bounce after the debate. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll reported Biden’s lead over Trump had jumped to 14 points. But that was a national poll, not a state-by-state assessment: In key swing states that could decide the election, Biden’s lead appeared to remain 7 points or less.
The poll also preceded another big jolt: Two days after the debate, Trump and the first lady tested positive for COVID-19. The announcement came less than a week after Trump hosted a White House Rose Garden event to nominate Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
That event may have served as a spreader for the virus: At least 11 guests attending the gathering later tested positive for the coronavirus, including two Republican senators who serve on the committee set to conduct a hearing on Barrett’s confirmation.
Meanwhile, the president’s campaign plans screeched to a halt: In a dramatic moment, Trump walked across the White House lawn to a helicopter waiting to transport him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment of COVID-19.
It was the first time in nearly 40 years a president checked into a hospital with a potentially life-threatening condition. (The last time was after President Ronald Reagan’s shooting in 1981.)
The morning after Trump’s arrival, White House physician Sean Conley offered a rosy appraisal of the president’s condition. But chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters off the record that the president’s condition had been “very concerning” the day before. The mixed messaging drew criticism.
Trump headed back to the White House two days later and told Americans not to let fear of COVID-19 “dominate your life.” For many, though, anxiety remains high: While the president’s improving condition was encouraging, most Americans wouldn’t have access to the high-level care and treatment Trump received. Conley described the president returning to a medical unit at the White House “staffed 24/7 with top-notch physicians, nurses, PAs, and logisticians.”
Predictions over what the previous two weeks might mean for the presidential election were furious but flat. With doctors unable to predict the virus’s course, and no one able to predict what plot twist might come next, trying to figure out the ending is probably more futile than fruitful.
After Reagan survived an assassination attempt in 1981, he didn’t know what the future held either. But on the evening that he returned to the White House from the hospital, he wrote at least one resolution in his diary: “Whatever happens now, I owe my life to God and will try to serve him every way I can.”
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