Experts say COVID-19 might upend 2020 election


AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Sunday, April 19, 2020, in Washington.

Amid increasing uncertainties as coronavirus ravages the United States, the 2020 presidential election has been transformed as candidates’ responses to the crisis – or lack thereof – have been under intense scrutiny from the public and media alike. 

Not only has there been a shift in priority for politicians, but virtually all classic election components have been obliterated as the crisis has cancelled all in-person events and complicated fundraising efforts.

Sixteen states and one territory have either postponed their presidential primaries or opted for voting by mail with extended deadlines.

Kristen Pengelly, a communications professor at DePaul University, said the primaries have taken a backseat for the majority of the public.  

I think the general population has not been paying much attention to the primaries, except for the brave voters in Wisconsin who were forced to the polls,” Pengelly said. “There is just so much on the minds of the U.S. population as we struggle to adapt to our new way of life. I think Democratic candidates understand that.”

Wisconsin officials faced criticism following their decision to not postpone the primary, but voter turnout remained steady with 34 percent of the state’s electorate participating.

Illinois’ March 17 primary followed a similar pattern, with 28.36 percent of registered voters turning out. Despite taking the necessary precautions, an election worker staffing one of the Chicago polling locations died from the virus earlier this month – and several asymptomatic workers and voters also later tested positive.

Craig Sautter, a professor at DePaul’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, said while all “visible” campaigning has ceased or moved to the “back pages,” former Vice President Joe Biden has relied on interviews to keep the momentum of his campaign.

“Biden is reaching out to Democrats via short interviews and talks filmed in his basement studio,” Sautter said. “Someone remarked that they looked like they are from ‘Wayne’s World.’ Plus, Biden has appeared on a number of TV talk shows to keep him in front of the public. Sometimes this has helped him, when he looks feeble, it has hurt him.”

Pengelly said changes to campaigning efforts ultimately put the Democratic candidates at a disadvantage.

“President Trump has the advantage of being able to hold daily press briefings to provide updates on the pandemic,” Pengelly said. “The majority of media is centered on the pandemic, which is crucial to disseminate information. However, it’s detrimental to the Democratic candidates, who have to figure out how to remain in the public eye.”

Prior to suspending his campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders shifted the focus of his campaign to relief efforts. On the other hand, Biden has kept a rather low profile – other than criticizing Trump’s response to the crisis for leverage in advertisements.

Sautter said Biden’s responses to the crisis have been “unmemorable.”

“There is a growing movement in the Democrat party to draft New York Governor Cuomo, who has proved capable,” Sautter said. “That could only happen if Biden doesn’t have enough first ballot votes to win. If he doesn’t have enough, he likely will not get the nomination. Although he probably does have the first ballot votes if all the primaries go through.”

The White House’s handling of the outbreak has received mixed reactions. Although many criticize the initial lack of action, Trump’s approval ratings reached 49 percent – the highest in his presidency – with 60 percent of polling Americans approving of his response to the crisis, according to a March 24 report from Gallup.

Sautter said the public’s views on Trump’s response are heavily based on “political biases” before the crisis unfolded.

“Those who hate Trump can’t stand that he is on TV once a day,” Sautter said. “Those who love Trump very much enjoy his off-hand comments during his press conferences. But for many people, this is one of the few times they get to see the president in action, unfiltered by media spin.” 

Sautter said Trump’s response to the crisis reflects his administration’s belief in federalism.

“The Trump administration also promotes and relies upon the ingenuity and initiative of private industry and business, as opposed to a federal mandate to do certain things,” Sautter said. “Democrats want a top-down response, mandating industry to do certain tasks, making the national government responsible for finding all the masks and respirators and so forth.”

Despite party differences, Sautter said the parties found common ground in the stimulus relief – which unanimously passed in the Senate and saw quick action from the House of Representatives and Trump. 

“The parties came together on a national monetary crisis package of $2.2 trillion,” Sautter said. “They will differ on subsequent economic aid.”

Following the trend of other large public gatherings, the Democratic National Committee postponed the national convention from mid-July to mid-August – a week before Republicans are set to gather to re-nominate Trump. Whether or not these conventions will be in-person or virtual remains up in the air.

“I hope all decision makers rely heavily on the advice of the scientific community as they think it through,” Pengelly said. “Since conventions attract delegates from all over the country, as well as national and international media, there’s a lot to consider. One thing the DNC and RNC have in common is that there is no way they would want to proceed with conventions like the public is used to if they can’t fill it. 

Sautter said while the true extent of the pandemic’s impact on the nation is still unfolding, it has “shattered the American sense of invulnerability.”

We have spent trillions and trillions of dollars on defense, and we find ourselves almost defenseless,” Sautter said. “That psychological damage will be long lasting. The economic impact is yet to be calculated, except you can count on the multi-trillion-dollar borrowing will cause economic hardship in the future.”