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Pandemic Democracy: Trump, Biden, and the politics of coronavirus

A guide to how the 2020 Presidential race is being affected by the current pandemic.

The 2020 election already had all the elements you’d expect from a blockbuster political thriller. An impossibly large star-studded cast, a twin election conspiracy that resulted in a primetime impeachment trial, and a loopy yet ever-so-predictable plot that will result in a long-awaited showdown between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. 

And yet, in a shift in genre from thriller to horror, the 2020 election is being disrupted by one of the worst public health crises in modern history – and the 2020 election will never be the same for it. Indeed, coronavirus has hit the US particularly hard – at the time of writing, it has claimed over 3 million jobs and 2 thousand lives. While regional variations persist, the virus has forced most of the country in quarantine – fundamentally altering people’s everyday lives, and, by extension, the presidential campaign. Many questions have been raised regarding how and whether the election can move forward. 

First and foremost, the process of the vote, for both the primary and the general, has been called into question. In the age of social distancing, how does democracy organize its most vital process? 

Secondly, if an election is indeed inevitable, how will coronavirus change how voters see the candidates, and how the candidates campaign? Will the gravest public health crisis in a generation consume the campaign and become the main sparring point between the candidates?

So, amidst all this uncertainty, here is your guide to understanding how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the 2020 election and how American democracy lives on through the most challenging public health crisis of our time. 

How will Coronavirus Affect Voting in the Democratic Primary?

In the age of social distancing, holding elections has become an unprecedented public health challenge, and Governors around the country have negotiated their states’ primaries to strike a balance between democracy and health concerns. Primary elections, unlike the general election contests, are statutorily organized under the authority of the state – meaning state legislatures and governors around the country have the prerogative to change, cancel, or postpone Democratic primaries. There are two ways that Democratic primaries in most states have been adjusted to accommodate coronavirus.

The first is postponement: 14 states, at the time of writing, have postponed their primaries. Most postponements have pushed the election calendar past mid-June, with June 2ndbecoming a popular date. This is despite the DNC’s June 9thlimit for states to hold primaries (the penalty for contravening this rule is a reduction in delegates allocated to the state at the national convention), which, as of yet, has not been pushed back or eliminated. Two issues remain for those states: first, it is uncertain whether the sanitary conditions under which holding an election is safe will exist by then; and secondly, most postponements don’t accommodate a change in rules to expand virtual or remote voting. 

The second way in which states have altered their elections is by making them totally remote, and by making voting entirely by mail. Three states have taken this approach: they will mail ballots to registered voters and extending registering deadlines. Additional states, who have often already postponed their elections, are also considering switching their elections to this format.

In conclusion, most states (all, in fact, but Wisconsin, which, despite a stay-at-home order in the state and general chaos around the question, is somehow still holding a vote on April 7th) have gone to impressive lengths to preserve and maintain their primary elections in safe conditions for their citizens despite the coronavirus, by postponing, or rendering virtual, their primary contests. 

However, in addition to the primaries themselves, the convention has also been affected by the coronavirus. American primary elections are indirect elections: each state holds primaries, and uses the results of these primaries to allocate delegates to each candidate, and these delegates are then charged with voting for them at the party convention, which officially chooses the party nominee. The Democratic Convention plays an essential role in formalizing the nominee but it also plays a symbolic role, showcasing the party’s enthusiasm and support for the nominee before the general election with surrogates and balloons aplenty. It has recently been moved from July 13thto August 17th

How will Coronavirus Change the Campaign of the Democratic Primary?

The Democratic Primary, according to FiveThirtyEight’s election prediction model, is settled at 99% in Joe Biden’s favor. Indeed, Joe Biden’s delegate lead, accumulated through impressive wins over Bernie Sanders over the last few weeks, is near insurmountable. 

Nevertheless, Bernie has stated that, despite “an admittedly narrow path” to the nomination, he intends to stay in the race to push his agenda further into the Democratic mainstream, as he did in his contest with Hillary Clinton in 2016. He has expressed interest in another debate with Joe Biden, a proposition which the former Vice-President has dismissed, stating “I think we have had enough debates. I think we should get on with this”. 

Coronavirus has thus created an awkward dynamic in the primary: Joe Biden has attempted to use it as a way of contrasting his leadership with President Trump’s, emphasizing his alternative, more proactive plans, and experience dealing with the Ebola crisis in the Obama administration. He has attempted to turn his campaign’s focus to the general election. However, with Sanders refusing to bow out, it has created a weird space where the primary is settled, but still exists in the background of the public health crisis ongoing, sucking any energy out of Joe Biden’s public media presence. 

Moreover, with the Convention being moved back a month (to August 17th), three issues have arisen. First, the delegates that formally vote for the nominee at the convention are determined by state party conventions – and while the convention has been moved back, it’s unclear whether it gives the time, given the public health conditions, for these state conventions to take place. Secondly, it also raises questions about the timeline for Joe Biden to choose his vice-presidential nominee: traditionally, they are announced right before the convention, but with this delay, will Joe Biden want to announce his pick so late, giving his choice for the second highest-ranking job in the executive only 2 months to campaign alongside him? Thirdly, and most importantly, this dramatically shrinks the calendar of the election. This reduces the amount of time Joe Biden has to reduce his fundraising deficit and campaign by 2 months. Worse, with a pending unfinished primary challenge, it could keep focus away from him in the already politically suffocating time of coronavirus.  

In sum, it seems more likely than not that coronavirus remains a pressing public concern until the Democratic convention, which would suck any oxygen left in the primary away. This would mean that, even if Bernie wants to stay in longer, it would be very secondary to the coronavirus response,   and to the general election, which already seems set. Biden’s general election is further complicated by the elongated primary timeline, and the delayed convention. 

How will Coronavirus Affect Voting in the General Election?

The general election is set by acts of Congress – meaning that if it were to be delayed it would require bipartisan consensus, as it would have to be agreed by both the Democratic House and the Republican Senate. However, postponing the election would not extend President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s terms in office – the 20thAmendment to the Constitution provides that their terms “shall end at noon on the 20thday of January”. This would require a constitutional amendment to change, meaning 2/3 of Congress and 2/3 of all States need to approve extending Trump’s first term, which is extremely unlikely. 

So, it seems inevitable the general election is set to take place on November 3rd. The real question regarding the general is not when, but how, the election will take place. As with the Democratic primaries, it seems that a dramatic expansion of voting-by-mail is the most desired outcome. Speaker Pelosi suggested as such when she recently stated: “In terms of the elections, I think that we’ll probably be moving to vote by mail”. Other initiatives that could be taken are the expansion of online voting registration, the introduction of early voting in states that currently don’t allow for it, and the reconfiguration of polling places to accommodate for the risks posed by coronavirus. 

Nevertheless, this prerogative belongs to individual states, who set their own voting laws. Of course, in the past states have not shown themselves to be above the weaponization of voting laws to influence the outcomes elections. Decades of systemic voter suppression aren’t just symptomatic of structural racism in the USA, but exist largely as the product of hyper-partisan Republican legislatures and governors seeking to maintain their political offices by suppressing minority voters, who vote disproportionately for Democrats over Republicans. In this vein, coronavirus could be used to distort voting patterns, repress voter turnout, and target specific communities or states. 

There are two risks that coronavirus could pose to the integrity of the election in 2020. Firstly, the election could be underfunded, leaving states unable, even if they wished to, organize the election with the proper measures to keep voters safe. The 400M$ provided by the first stimulus package passed by Congress just days ago for election security and to expand voter access in the public health crisis is a far cry from the 4B$ the Democrats initially demanded. Secondly, a fearmongering campaign about the risks of voting, targeting specific liberal areas especially, could be used by the President as a weapon to depress voter turnout. 

So, in sum, with the election undoubtedly set to take place on November 3rd, Congress must act swiftly to secure safe, open, and fair elections. A pressure campaign must be waged on states so they render access to voting easier – by expanding voter registration online, vote-by-mail, and no-excuse absentee ballots. More money must be invested into election security to secure the safety and freedom to vote without risk, and more focus in public discourse must revolve on how to create the best conditions to facilitate voting in November despite the impending public health crisis. 

How will Coronavirus Change the Campaign in the General Election?

Finally, the coronavirus will profoundly change the dynamics, substance, and the nature of campaigning in the race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. 

The first, most obvious, effect coronavirus will have on the election is changing the length and focus of the campaign. Traditionally, the general election begins from the point that both presumptive nominees are chosen (traditionally April) until November 3rd. However, coronavirus will dramatically shorten the time both candidates have to campaign. In addition to the dramatically shortened campaign period, the campaign’s focus and means will also necessarily adapt themselves to the public health crisis. 

The way campaigns are run usually involve extensive on-the-ground operations, large rallies, and intense use of earned media. Instead, with the media (rightly) covering the coronavirus instead of the campaign, and organizing and rallies at a halt, campaigns have instead begun to move to a more digital space. 

For President Trump, this certainly plays to his strengths: his campaign has built a digital juggernaut (his 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, served as his digital media director in 2016) that has spent over 3 times as much money as Joe Biden’s campaign on Facebook and Google ads since the 2018 midterms. In addition to digital advertising, the Trump campaign has been swift to continue its digital organizing initiatives, hosting three targeted virtual town halls this week (“Latinos with Trump”, “Women with Trump”, and “Catholics for Trump”) which have each regularly reached over 250k views on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Besides this digital advertising edge, President Trump, as an incumbent President leading the response to a national disaster, has earned countless hours of earned media, with most networks live-broadcasting his press conferences on coronavirus. 

Naturally, these advantages have led to a bump in the President’s approval ratings, as the result of a “rally-around-the-flag” effect. In portraying himself as a wartime President, Donald Trump has managed to hoist his approval ratings to their highest point in his presidency. Nevertheless, this bump has been very modest compared to those received by other government leaders in times of crisis, like George Bush’s after 9/11. The relatively “small” bump can be explained by President Trump’s muddled messaging, late response, and still-divisive rhetoric. These approval ratings are also constantly evolving, and will have more meaning for the election once the crisis comes to an end and Americans are able to fully evaluate President Trump’s performance. 

Joe Biden and the DNC currently face a cash deficit of 200M$ on Trump and the RNC. This deficit is even more difficult to make up virtually in the context of an impending depression some economists have projected to be worse than 2008. Joe Biden has consistently been outraised and outspent online by the Trump campaign – and the virus is set to exacerbate this trend. 

This is especially troubling for the Democrats as Biden has naturally been sidelined during the coronavirus. His lack of office has meant he has no official role in the fight against the virus – as a result, he has been outshone by Democrats across the country on the front lines of the response to the crisis, from Governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, to members of Congress like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Nevertheless, from his home in Delaware, Joe Biden has tried, with mixed results, to stay a visible and credible alternative to the President. This has included taking symbolic measures, like drawing contrasts with Trump by promising to wear a face mask in public, and stoking speculation about his vice-presidential and cabinet picks on fundraising calls. However, the consensus among Democrats is that he needs to ramp up his media presence and play more of a role within the Party in establishing a strategy for the crisis and how to communicate about it. 

Finally, perhaps the most consequential result of the coronavirus crisis will be the way it shapes the election’s main areas of contention and focus. The Trump campaign’s plan was a simple one: run on the strength of the economy. Needless to say, this has been complicated by the impeding global depression. Joe Biden’s moral argument has now transformed into a more offensive one, tying President Trump’s late and faltering response to the crisis to the impending death toll and economic fallout. Whereas the economy and healthcare were expected to play central roles in the election, they will now take an even more pivotal place in the debate between Biden and Trump, and will likely give Joe Biden a more effective line of attack on the President. 

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