There is an elephant in the room at this week’s Republican National Convention, so to speak: the coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump may prefer to focus on law and order, standing up to China, and the “socialist” Democrats. But COVID-19 remains by far the most important issue facing the nation in both impact and voter interest. It has reshaped almost everything about daily life in America – including the political conventions themselves.

The president to this point has focused mostly on therapeutics and the possibility that a vaccine will be available soon. That strategy could backfire if the vaccine timeline gets delayed or other problems emerge.

Still, Mr. Trump has some wiggle room to reframe the issue this week, says Republican communications strategist John Feehery. He can criticize the Democratic approach to the virus as heavy-handed, while striking a more optimistic tone and recasting 2020 as an obstacle, not a dead end.

“Obviously, this is not Morning in America. We’re not in as strong a position as Reagan was,” says Mr. Feehery. “But we were before COVID hit, and we can be post-COVID.”

There is an elephant in the room at this week’s Republican National Convention, so to speak: the coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump may prefer to focus on law and order, standing up to China, and the “socialist” Democrats. But COVID-19 remains by far the most important issue facing the nation in both impact and voter interest. It has reshaped almost everything about daily life in America – including the political conventions themselves.

Many of the speakers at last week’s almost entirely virtual Democratic National Convention touched on the pandemic in one way or another. Former Vice President Joe Biden has promised a more forceful federal coronavirus response, including, if necessary, lockdowns.

“As president, the first step I will take: We will get control of the virus that has ruined so many lives,” said Mr. Biden in his nomination acceptance speech.

President Trump to this point has focused on therapeutics and the possibility that a vaccine will be available soon. That strategy could backfire if the vaccine timeline gets delayed or other problems emerge.

Still, Mr. Trump has some wiggle room to reframe the issue this week, says Republican communications strategist John Feehery. He can criticize the Democratic approach to the virus as heavy-handed, while striking a more optimistic tone and recasting 2020 as an obstacle, not a dead end.

“Obviously, this is not Morning in America. We’re not in as strong a position as Reagan was,” says Mr. Feehery, referring to a 1984 campaign commercial. “But we were before COVID hit, and we can be post-COVID.”

Top issue for voters

Given the pandemic’s effect on everything from schools to shopping, and its rising death toll – some 177,000 in the United States – it’s unsurprising that the coronavirus is the dominant concern of the nation’s voters. In some ways it has overshadowed the presidential campaign itself.

Some 35% of Americans say the coronavirus is the most important problem facing the country today, the top response according to Gallup (the second biggest problem is “poor leadership”). At the same time, Gallup finds that the percentage of Americans mentioning economic issues as the nation’s biggest problem is near a 20-year low, despite a virus-driven recession and historic levels of unemployment.

For Mr. Trump, that’s both bad news and good news. His handling of the pandemic continues to be panned by voters. According to a running average of major polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight, 58.4% of Americans disapprove of his coronavirus response, while only 38.4% approve.  

At the same time, the electoral fate of incumbent presidents is most often tied to the economy – or more specifically, to voters’ perception of it. If Americans continue to be less concerned by the nation’s economic outlook, or see it as improving, that could give Mr. Trump a boost.