Covid-19 may swerve the results of the 2020 presidential election, especially if the pandemic is not contained by the fall. The journey of Americans through the pandemic, the handling or mishandling of the crisis, and the blow to the economy will weigh heavily on voters’ minds and may all be decisive factors in their choices, and ultimately in the outcome of the elections.
With most presidential rallies cancelled, very little air time has been set aside for the presidential race, giving Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, not much of a chance to address his followers or to convince those opposing him of his platform. From this perspective, President Donald Trump was the winner. He was provided extensive air time to speak about Covid-19. What he did with it is a different matter altogether.
You see, many Americans were aggrieved at President Trump’s befuddled handling of Covid-19. In the early days, he dismissed the danger and downplayed its threat, insisting that “the risk to Americans remains very low” and “may not get bigger”. Also, he contradicted health experts, believing Covid-19 would be contained, and that its spread in the US was not inevitable.
Trump exacerbated matters further by declaring that the president’s authority is “total” on matters such as Covid-19, flaring up a horrendous debate. He was going against chief health inspectors and governors who challenged his authority to put an end to social distancing and other preventive measures. Many found President Trump’s words disturbing and his attitude eccentric.
And then much of what President Trump said about Covid-19 was bizarre and defied facts, such as when he suggested using bleach and ultraviolet light to treat patients, or when he announced he was taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventative measure. Once positive cases escalated in the US, President Trump deflected blame, turning on China, the media, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in an effort to divert attention from his administration and its mismanagement of the pandemic. Today, with over 1.7 million Americans testing positive and over 100,000 deaths, the US leads the world with Covid-19 cases and consequential mortality.
Though not guilty of initiating disasters, somehow overseers, policymakers, and leaders are often unjustifiably penalised for natural calamities. And at the same time, they are always rewarded or punished further for how they reacted to such disasters. This is why voters’ journeys through Covid-19 and how it affected them personally may shape their choices come election day.
In 2016, President Trump benefited from his base of supporters many of whom are white women and older white men. Interestingly enough, the polls say that seniors, retirees and grandparents’ favouring of Trump is waning after he and other Republicans suggested that more deaths among seniors might be an acceptable price for reopening the economy. Republican Governor Dan Patrick proposed that the elderly take care of themselves during the pandemic, and that “they wouldn’t want to sacrifice their grandchildren’s economic future.”
Another segment of supporters are white suburban women. Their allegiance to Trump seems to be dwindling, too. Coined the Zoom Moms, these women stay at home, chat together on Zoom and other applications, and become more resentful as pandemic fatigue kicks in. These women will play a decisive role in voter choice during the elections, for according to an article in Axios, “Weekend [Zoom] meetings are up a whopping 1,900 per cent. Weeknights 5-9 pm are up 700 per cent,” and this is where women, simply by chatting together, alter one another’s choices on whom to vote for. The article suggests that Zoom moms could be very influential in this year’s campaign, similar to how soccer moms were influential in the 1996 presidential campaign and how security moms were decisive after 9/11.
President Trump’s sales pitch for his re-election campaign relied on how well the economy was doing, but Covid-19’s economic meltdown will threaten this powerful and influential campaign message. In fact, the aftermath of Covid-19 may overshadow all of the positive economic triumphs the first three years of Trump’s presidency may have yielded.
Stock markets are down, oil prices hit rock bottom, major retailers are shuttered, major industries are severely disrupted, unemployment is at a 17 per cent high, and small mom-and-pop stores are closing permanently. Coresight Research analysts anticipate, “More retailers will file for bankruptcy this year, and more companies could end up liquidating entirely.”
This economic downturn can trigger a financial crisis that would upset Trump’s re-election prospects. A republican donor, Dan Eberhart, says, “The economic ramifications of the coronavirus are increasingly likely to weigh heavily on Trump’s re-election chances and quite possibly cost him re-election.”
Some say it is very likely that the pandemic will significantly hamper people’s ability to vote 3 November. Voters must be thinking of how the election will be conducted if Covid-19 persists. They must be worried about standing in line and queuing, and whether it is safe to do so. Many would prefer online voting. Will such matters alter the turnout? And can voting be conducted online? More importantly, who will Americans vote for after a crisis like no other?
The New York Times says that Biden needs to do little to win. “In fact, his being stuck in his house and giving limited interviews from his basement may be the best thing to ever happen to his campaign.” Letting President Trump do all the talking and all the announcing may give Biden the lead.
Polls reveal that, as of today, 49 per cent of American voters when asked for whom they would vote come 3 November said they would vote for Biden, while 43 per cent said they would vote for Trump.
We are still months away from election day, but change is in the making.
The writer is a political analyst.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly