Trump’s Illness Makes It Clear: This Election Was Always About the Virus

And yet, the pandemic persisted, and so did the alarm of voters. A recent poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College found that half of likely voters believed the worst of the virus was still ahead. By a 15-point margin, voters disapproved of the president’s leadership on the disease.

Jim Hobart, a Republican pollster, said that while some voters on the right had turned their attention away from the coronavirus, the bulk of the electorate remained focused on the disease.

“One of the central tensions of the race,” he said, “is that while a majority of the country is focused on the coronavirus, conservative Republican voters are more focused on the economy, as well as what the president refers to as law and order.”

Nick Gourevitch, a Democratic pollster conducting tracking polls about the pandemic and the election, said the virus had never slipped from the top of voters’ minds. In a survey he conducted this week, before the announcement of Mr. Trump’s positive test, Mr. Gourevitch said that voters identified the pandemic as their primary concern about the president’s leadership.

“The pandemic was light-years above everything on there,” he said, adding that over the past six months, “If you always bet on public opinion being on the side of concern over health, you almost never would have been wrong.”

It must be said — as a matter of ritual, as much as anything else — that Mr. Trump’s instincts for political theatrics and racial division, and his determination to hold onto power, make it difficult to discount him entirely even at this late hour, and even as he confronts a personal medical emergency. And there is always the possibility that the image of an ailing president — even an unpopular one — engenders sympathy with some voters.

But with voting underway in numerous states, including crucial presidential battlegrounds like Wisconsin and North Carolina, he is running out of time. And for a candidate who has never managed to settle on a coherent, persuasive message about the pandemic, Mr. Trump’s own medical emergency now stands as a towering obstacle to him finding such an argument in the final stretch.