How the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the US election

Analysis: The coronavirus has upended the way Americans are approaching going to the polls and deepened already wide differences.

The pandemic has changed how Americans are voting in this year's elections [Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo]

In February as the Iowa caucuses were getting under way, to kick off the election year, political observers were musing about Donald Trump’s strengths going into the 2020 campaign. He would ride the power of incumbency and a booming economy to November, some argued, potentially against a Democrat whose views were out of the mainstream.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. And that has become the prism through which this campaign is viewed.

In an already divided United States, COVID-19, and the way Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden are approaching it, have separated Americans further and spawned an election year like no other.

The president’s decision to forgo a nationwide strategy to combat the coronavirus in favour of allowing state governors to form their own plans has allowed him to distance himself somewhat from the response.

Biden has made the virus and Trump’s handling of it a cornerstone of his campaign, reminding voters of the 227,000 and counting Americans who have died.

Trump has repeatedly claimed he has done a “great job” of handling the virus and of focusing on recovery, therapeutics and vaccines in development. But October made it even more difficult for the president to avoid addressing the growing numbers of infections after he contracted COVID-19 and many White House and campaign staffers tested positive – including, just this week, five of Vice President Mike Pence’s top aides.

President Donald Trump works in a conference room while receiving treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after testing positive for the coronavirus disease [Joyce N Boghosia/The White House/Handout via Reuters]

Amid all of this, states and localities responsible for administering elections have worked to shift voting from Election Day itself to facilitating widespread mail-in balloting procedures and encouraging voters to cast their votes early, either by mail or during in-person early voting periods.

Voting changes

As of Thursday, over 80 million Americans have voted by mail or early in person, surpassing the 57 million total early votes cast in 2016.

The shift towards early voting has been going on for years, but the shift to mail-in voting has progressed rapidly since this spring’s primaries, when the pandemic first hit and states allowed – and urged – more voters to cast their ballots remotely.

That process was not without its hiccups in several states, leading to ineligible ballots and delayed vote counts. US Postal Service cuts threaten to affect the timely delivery of this election’s ballots, though to this point, many voters are seemingly getting the message and returning their mail ballots well ahead of time, dropping them off at designated drop boxes or taking advantage of voting in person before Election Day on November 3.

All of this has also led to unfounded conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, something Trump has embraced – initially as an effort to potentially lower turnout, and when that looked like it was backfiring, to preset a narrative that if he loses,  the election is “rigged”.

Amid all of the controversy, many states changed some of their laws to give them more options to count ballots ahead of time. States also tried to relax regulations regarding validating mail-in ballots. Trump and the Republicans have challenged these measures in court with varying success. Given all of the changes and potential hiccups, many state elections officials are expressing optimism about having their vote counts done swiftly.

The exception is Pennsylvania, which, given its complicated rules around mail-in ballots, could take days or weeks to get to a final count. If it’s close in Pennsylvania, this could be significant. It would be even more significant if the country is waiting for Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes to give either Trump or Biden a majority in the Electoral College.

Campaign changes

For a while, the pandemic halted large gatherings, but President Trump resumed holding packed rallies beginning with one in Tulsa, Oklahoma in June. After being sidelined for 10 days in the wake of his  COVID-19 diagnosis, the president resumed barnstorming battleground states in the final days and packing campaign rallies with mostly maskless, non-socially-distanced supporters.

Biden significantly scaled back the number of in-person events – and all have been socially distanced with some even taking place in parking lots where supporters listen to the event in their vehicles, honking their horns instead of applauding.

Democratic US presidential candidate Joe Biden takes the stage at a drive-in campaign stop in Coconut Creek, Florida on October 29, 2020 [Brian Snyder/Reuters]

Biden’s pared-down campaign schedule has been replaced by a television ad blitz, breaking the all-time spending record for a presidential campaign.

Trump’s messaging

Long before the concerns over mail-in ballots – and long before the subsequent surge of voting designed to prevent crowds gathering at polling sites on Election Day – Trump’s initial response to and his eventual handling of the virus has overshadowed everything else during this campaign.

Trump has consistently downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19, promising from the beginning that “it’ll disappear”. Trump, who was weaned on Norman Vincent Peale’s book The Power of Positive Thinking, has applied that sentiment to his public statements throughout, continuing to say “we’ve turned a corner” on the virus, even though that contradicts the data.

Trump throws a face mask from the stage during a campaign rally in Sanford, Florida, on October 12, 2020 [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

A majority of Americans for months have said they disapprove of the president’s handling of the pandemic, a statistic that not only has remained consistent since early 2020 but is consistent throughout the battleground states he needs to win if he wants a second term. The current RealClearPolitics average of national polls shows 40.6 percent approve while 56.6 percent disapprove of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.

The one thing we won’t know until Election Day is how this all affects the final presidential vote, although a Pew Research Center poll revealed the partisanship behind voters’ feelings on the subject.

Eighty-two percent of Biden supporters say that coronavirus will be very important to their vote compared to 24 percent of Trump supporters who say the same. Interestingly, the percentage of Trump supporters who view the virus as very important to their vote has dropped 15 points since August.

Source: Al Jazeera