The 2020 election will be the COVID-19 election. Voters will almost certainly be asked to condemn or endorse President Trump’s handling of the pandemic — and quite possibly while the virus is in the midst of a fall relapse.
Any year would have been a bad year for a pandemic. But a presidential election year makes it even worse. As elected officials at all levels of government scramble for resources and weigh complex decisions on how to respond, the electoral implications introduce a thorny calculus: How will it all play in November?
Here is the crudest of calculations: If Democrats can successfully associate the substantial harm wreaked by COVID-19 with Trump, they win in November. But if Trump and the Republicans can deflect enough blame elsewhere and Trump gets credit for making things less bad than they could have been, Trump will win.
Democrats have done the obvious so far: Pin all the blame on Trump by highlighting how he initially downplayed the virus and blasting his subsequent stumbles. They’ve also tried to position themselves as the party of good governance. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for instance, announced the formation of a new select committee that will oversee how the Trump administration manages the $2 trillion economic stimulus package, with a focus on waste, fraud and abuse.
It’s also possible that some traditional Democratic constituencies will be simply hit harder by the virus, too, which could make the fallout of the virus more personal and a stronger point to campaign on. For instance, in blue states and cities like New York City, the virus has hit especially hard, including in poorer and less white neighborhoods. And as the harm becomes clearer, we will almost certainly see echoes of Hurricane Katrina, with its disparate racial and class impacts, but on a much larger scale. These inequalities might reverberate with Democrats’ long-standing criticisms that Trump is a racist — and could yield record turnout along with a persuasive fundraising message.
And don’t underestimate the power of negative partisanship. In 2016, many Republicans held their noses and voted for Trump because they wanted to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House. That same logic could apply in 2020. If Democrats hit Trump hard enough, unified disdain for Trump might matter more than anything former Vice President Joe Biden promises, bringing Democratic voters together after another fractious primary. Though negative partisanship has been building up now for several election cycles, it thrives on frustration and anger, and 2020 will likely offer plenty.
For Trump and Republicans, much of their 2020 strategy seems to be focused on putting the blame elsewhere — Democrats, the “mainstream media,” China and even some of America’s governors.
Let’s start with one of Trump’s favorite punching bags: the media. In what may be a preview of a Republican electoral strategy to come, Sen. Marco Rubio recently tweeted that “Some in our media can’t contain their glee & delight in reporting that the U.S. has more #CoronaVirus cases than #China.” This argument probably sounds familiar, as many conservative pundits have pushed it since the beginning of the outbreak in the U.S. It’s still possible that the ultimate death toll undershoots the current worst-case scenarios. If so, Republicans could eventually point to the high predictions as fearmongering. But many experts still think the situation could grow much worse, so it’s also a very risky strategy at this point. (Ironically, if the death toll is lower than predicted, it may be because the higher projections themselves scared politicians and citizens into following social-distancing guidelines.)
As for pinning the blame on Democrats, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have argued that impeachment was a major distraction during a critical time in February. (Never mind that he was reportedly first briefed on the spread of a deadly virus in China in November or that, after his acquittal in the Senate on Feb. 5, Trump spent much of February downplaying the threat of a pandemic.)
Trump and his allies have also found a scapegoat in China, arguing the Chinese government engaged in a massive cover-up that allowed the virus to spread, which blindsided the Trump administration. The U.S. intelligence community has found evidence that China underreported its outbreak, so this could resonate with voters, especially considering both Democrats and Republicans agree that the Chinese government bears some responsibility for the spread of the pandemic. And if Republicans do pursue this strategy, it builds on a persistent theme of Trump-era Republican campaigns: Blame the outsider. After all, in 2018 Republican campaign strategists ran an aggressive anti-immigration campaign because they believed it was an issue that would help them win. So expect a possible replay of this in 2020, with China replacing the “migrant caravan.”
Trump has also pointed his finger at Democratic governors for failing to stockpile their own supplies. The political gambit appears to boil down to this: Trump thinks he could benefit electorally if he pushes governors — particularly Democratic governors — to say what a great job he’s doing.
Consider Trump’s tussle with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who complained her state wasn’t getting the medical supplies she needed from the federal government. Trump responded, “I don’t know if she knows what’s going on, but all she does is sit there and blame the federal government … We don’t like to see complaints.” Michigan, after all, is likely to be a key swing state in 2020. This could certainly backfire, but this is the kind of high-stakes political gamesmanship that a pandemic in a presidential election year engenders.
Then finally, we come to the most dangerous hot potato of all: the administration of the election itself. In order to ensure a safe and fair election, jurisdictions across the country will have to rapidly transition to voting by mail and/or expand early voting.
But Trump and Republicans have already indicated they will be loath to support such measures, as they argue it would hurt Republicans at the ballot box. Democrats, meanwhile, have said that expanding vote-by-mail efforts is the only way to mitigate risks from in-person voting. Political scientists haven’t found any clear partisan advantage to voting by mail (if anything, it seems to encourage participation among more habitual voters). But Wisconsin’s beleaguered primary — which saw partisan fighting over whether to delay the election — could be a harbinger of the difficulties to come.
And if that is the case, November will be a mess in states that don’t get their act together soon — especially in battleground states with divided governments, like Wisconsin.1 (Other likely swing states have divided governments, including Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and New Hampshire.) It’s unclear where this fight is headed, but it is likely to be a high-stakes battle that echoes long-standing partisan grievances over how best to ensure access to voting. And given the logistical difficulties of implementing electoral changes, delays could actually be an effective tactic.
If it’s relatively clear how ugly the tone of the 2020 COVID-19 blame campaign will be, it’s much harder to say how all this will impact the actual outcome of the 2020 election. Trump’s approval rating has remained remarkably flat over the last three years despite the ups and downs of his presidency, largely because of how polarized American politics has become. In other words, very few events move the needle on public opinion anymore. Even the coronavirus crisis has given Trump only a relatively small boost, compared to those of other world leaders and most governors.
Ultimately, the blame games might offset. In our highly polarized era, most voters made up their mind long ago — hence Trump’s consistent approval numbers. But in an escalating arms race of blame, one-sided disarmament would be folly. So brace yourself.
In another world, or at another time in our history, a common threat like a pandemic might have brought Americans together. However, in this hyper-partisan presidential election year with so much blame to go around and so much pre-existing animosity to draw on, that might not be the case.
Instead, the months to come will test not only our health care system and our economy, but also our democracy and our ability to cooperate across party lines to win a novel kind of war against a novel kind of virus. If the road feels bumpy now, the path ahead looks like nothing but an obstacle course. Buckle up.
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