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Why Blaming China For The Pandemic Probably Won’t Help Trump Win

Last week, Fox News host Chris Wallace asked President Trump about his role in how the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded in the U.S., where case numbers and the death toll are surging even as some other countries seem to be getting things under control. But in response, Trump diverted responsibility, saying, “It came from China. They should’ve never let it escape.”

Blaming China for the pandemic isn’t a new tactic for the president. In fact, it’s become a fairly common refrain as Trump and other Republicans have doubled down on accusing China of causing the coronavirus or exacerbating its spread. And while it’s unlikely that this gambit will solve all of Trump’s problems — approval numbers for his handling of the pandemic continue to tank — there is at least some evidence that Americans may be more receptive than in the past to seeing China as the culprit, as opinions of the nation are now the worst they’ve been than any time in recent history.

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In 2005, Pew Research Center started regularly asking Americans about their views on China, and at that point, Americans had a fairly positive opinion of the country (43 percent said they had a favorable view and 35 percent said they had an unfavorable one). But in March of this year, as a number of states were issuing stay-at-home orders and millions of Americans were losing their jobs, the share of Pew respondents with a favorable view of China had fallen to 26 percent, while the share with a negative opinion sat at 66 percent. Granted, public opinion of China has long been on the decline, but this was still the lowest approval rating of the country since 2005.

And it wasn’t just Pew who found Americans’ opinions of China are deteriorating. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that ended in early June found that the majority of Americans held negative views of China, a 12-point uptick in unfavorable opinions since 2000. And an Economist/YouGov poll from late June found that 65 percent of Americans think China is unfriendly toward — or even an enemy of — the United States.

To understand why China is so unpopular with Americans, I spoke with Susan Shirk, a political science professor focused on U.S.-China policy at the University of California San Diego, and Michael Beckley, a political science professor at Tufts University. They suggested that, even before the pandemic, China’s own actions in recent years — including its increased military presence in the South China Sea and its alleged violations of human rights and civil liberties — have been driving down Americans’ opinion of the country.

Shirk told me she traces the changes in China’s behavior to the 2008 financial crisis, as she argued that was when perceptions really started to change. At the time, the U.S. economy was in shambles, but China’s economy emerged relatively unscathed. Shirk said this contributed to China taking a more active role internationally, which hasn’t always been well-received.

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Beckley argued that Xi Jinping’s presidency has also played a significant role in creating a negative public image of China because of how he has consolidated power while in office.

Shirk told me that first and foremost, she thinks people feel increasingly negatively toward China because of “the way China’s acting.”

At the same time, though, Trump has also exacerbated tensions with China by waging a nearly two-year trade war, imposing a series of tariffs on goods U.S. imports from the country. Then, of course, the pandemic hit. “The coronavirus comes and is kind of like the final nail in the coffin,” said Beckley. And reports that China hid or downplayed severity of the pandemic in its early days are further harming the country’s global reputation. “[Unfavorability of China] has been an ongoing trend, but obviously, the current crisis makes it much, much worse,” said Beckley.

In the U.S., this has meant a rapid deterioration in public opinion toward China, with both Democrats and Republicans souring on the country. In three recent polls, all taken after the pandemic reached the U.S., about three-quarters of Republicans said they had an unfavorable opinion of China, felts negatively toward China or considered China unfriendly or an enemy. Among Democrats, the share who felt the same was anywhere from 44 percent to 62 percent.

It’s not clear, though, whether this increased negativity toward China presents a political opportunity for either Trump or presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Some have argued that a firm anti-China stance could benefit either or both parties, though Beckley and Shirk were pretty skeptical that this would be a top issue for voters.

As you can see in the table below, the polling picture on who Americans trust to handle China is pretty hazy. One poll shows Biden with a 8-point lead over Trump on this question, while two others give him a more modest lead, and one gives Trump a narrow advantage.

No strong consensus on who’d handle China better

Share of voters who think Biden or Trump would be better at handling U.S. relations with China

Pollster Polling Dates Biden Trump
Morning Consult/Politico June 26-29 43% 37
Harvard CAPS/Harris June 17-18 54 46
NBC/WSJ May 28-June 2 40 43
Fox News May 17-20 43 37

Source: Polls

Additionally, given that the U.S. is dealing with a major health crisis, an economic downturn and protests across the country, Beckley and Shirk both told me they were somewhat dubious of the idea that either Republicans or Democrats would be able to rally voters around China. Shirk said that unlike some other topics in the news, U.S. relations with China just aren’t as personal to voters. And Beckley said that given each candidate’s track record with China, he didn’t think either Trump or Biden would be able to use the issue much to their advantage.

“Even though the Trump administration can claim a lot of credit for altering U.S.-China policy and taking a harder-line turn, Trump has said a lot of nice things about Xi Jinping and has been willing to look the other way on China’s human rights violations,” said Beckley. And Republicans will likely paint Biden as belonging to an administration that had a “naive” approach toward China, Beckley said, “basically coddling a rising power.”

But China might play an outsized role in the election if Trump successfully uses it as a scapegoat for the pandemic, allowing him to shift some of the blame for his response onto China. Brian Reisinger, a Republican strategist who advised Sen. Ron Johnson’s and former Governor Scott Walker’s reelection campaigns, says that “there is a lot of room to blame China” because of its actions in the early days of the pandemic, but also because it plays on an existing hostility in important electoral states like Wisconsin, where almost 12 percent of the state’s jobs are in agriculture. “Farmers in rural Wisconsin have felt for years like they’re getting ripped off, whether its milk prices or any other type of commodity. And one of the biggest offenders in the global marketplace is China,” Reisinger said.

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If Trump is able to shift the blame, it could help his campaign stanch the bleeding. And it might work. A Navigator poll from late April, for instance, tested multiple narratives about who’s to blame for the pandemic, asking voters which of two statements they agreed with more even if they didn’t fully agree with either. When forced to choose between a statement that placed all the blame on Trump and one that put all the blame on China, respondents were essentially evenly divided, 49 to 51, which is well within the poll’s confidence interval. A statement that blamed both Trump and China got slightly more support, at 54 percent. This suggests that at least some voters are open to an argument that gives China a significant share of the blame for the pandemic.

For Democrats, that means the party’s messaging on China will need to focus on what they see as Trump’s flawed argument on the coronavirus — arguing that he, not China, is to blame — and setting the record straight on Trump’s previous dealings with the country, said Mike Spahn, managing director of Democratic consulting firm Precision Strategies. “I think what you’ve already seen and will continue to see is the Biden campaign poking holes,” Spahn said. For example, Biden released an ad in April that criticized the president for accepting Xi’s word that the coronavirus was under control and failing to get more American experts into China.

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Of course, a lot has changed since April. Now, more than 145,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. and a majority of Americans disapprove of how Trump is handling the coronavirus. And who Americans believe is at fault has been shifting too. Morning Consult has been asking registered voters who is most to blame for the spread of the coronavirus, and in late March, a plurality of voters, 36 percent, blamed the Chinese government, compared to just 23 percent who blamed Trump. However, by late June, 35 percent of voters said they blamed Trump. Granted, 31 percent still blamed the Chinese government (and 20 percent said they didn’t know or had no opinion) but the fact that Trump led on this metric instead of China certainly doesn’t bode well for him.

In the coming months, Republicans will likely double down on efforts to convince the public that China is to blame for the devastation caused by the coronavirus — Trump is routinely doing so in his coronavirus press briefings and other public appearances — but it’s not clear that this will be a winning argument. But as long as some voters seem open to the idea, we can probably expect to keep seeing it come up as a diversionary tactic.

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Likhitha Butchireddygari was a politics intern at FiveThirtyEight.