How COVID-19 Changed Everything About the 2020 Election

23 minute read

In the 2020 that might have been, nobody is sick and politics is the center of the universe.

The Democratic Party has just nominated Joe Biden and his running mate at its mid-July convention in Milwaukee, while Republicans are gearing up to renominate Donald Trump in Charlotte, N.C. At his usual rallies, Trump is pointing to the roaring economy to make his case for re-election, while Biden struggles to stir up crowds with his plea for a return to normalcy. Trump’s allies continue to promote conspiracy theories about the Biden family’s entanglements in Ukraine, leading increasingly desperate Democrats to push for a second impeachment in the House. Both parties are campaigning furiously across the country, knocking on millions of doors to turn out voters in November.

But in the 2020 that’s actually happening, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything–from how the campaign is conducted to how we vote to what we value. It has canceled conventions, relegated fundraising and campaigning to the digital realm, and forced many states to rapidly change how people get and submit their ballots, with unpredictable and potentially disastrous results. The acute crises have refocused the nation’s attention, bringing issues like public health and economic and racial inequality to the fore and prompting the public to revisit what characteristics it wants in its leaders.

The Plague Election Time Magazine Cover
Illustration by Tim O'Brien for TIME

For four years, Trump has been the dominant force and inescapable fact not only of national politics but also of American life. Now he finds himself displaced as the central character in his own campaign by a plague that answers to no calendar, ideology or political objective. Just as the virus has changed the way adults report to offices and children go to school, upending whole industries in the process, it has spurred a massive shift in the fundamental act of American democracy: how we select the President who will be charged with ending the pandemic’s reign of destruction, dealing with its aftermath and shaping the nation that rises from its ashes. And as with so many other changes wrought by the coronavirus, the practice of American politics may never be quite the same again.

This was always going to be an unusual contest–the high-stakes re-election campaign of a historically divisive President at a pivotal moment for the nation, a referendum on his norm-shattering style and disruptive vision, a test for his scattered opposition to prove which side of a polarized political spectrum represents the mainstream. As the campaign enters its final three-month stretch, Trump trails badly in national and battleground-state polls as Americans give his dismal handling of the pandemic a failing grade. But the end of Trump’s turbulent term will be written by the virus. It startled us with its rise and spread in January and February, suspended normal life in March and April, and lulled many into complacency before whipsawing us again with its resurgence in June and July. Who knows what kind of October surprise it may have in store?

Campaign volunteers watch as an election official displays a mail-in ballot in Manhattan
Campaign volunteers watch as an election official displays a mail-in ballot in ManhattanWilliam Mebane—The Washington Post/Getty Images

Like most things these days, presidential politics has adapted in ways that can get a little weird. For example, on Facebook one recent Thursday evening, Donald Trump Jr. is rhapsodizing with the aging former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka about childhood physical abuse. “Maybe a few more kids in this country need a little bit more ass whoopin’ than participation medals!” says Trump Jr., who wears an open-necked purple polo shirt and AirPods. Ditka, whose phone is tilted upward toward his bottle-brush mustache, looks confused. “How can you say that?” he replies. “These poor kids.”

The broadcast, an installment of Trump Jr.’s Triggered podcast, epitomizes the content the Trump campaign is feeding hungry supporters online. On another recent evening, it hosted “The Right View,” in which Trump Jr.’s girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, Eric Trump’s wife Lara, and Trump campaign aides Mercedes Schlapp and Katrina Pierson laud the debunked virtues of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID treatment in a segment that will eventually rack up more than half a million views on Facebook. The campaign was already creating such online content, but it’s newly central in a world where rallies risk becoming superspreader events.

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The Biden campaign has also moved online, where its presence, like its candidate, is more sedate and traditional. “Events” are advertised to local supporters and organized around constituency groups or issues, just as they would be in a normal campaign. Biden’s wife Jill appears, via Zoom, at a “virtual campaign stop” with the mayor of West Palm Beach, Fla., to talk about his plans for seniors; former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams hosts an online “racial and economic justice roundtable” with business owners in Detroit; Biden himself joins his former running mate, Barack Obama, for a stagey 15-minute “conversation” about the Trump Administration’s failures.

Despite the pandemic, Trump had hoped to keep up the rallies central to his political mythology. But an attempted return to the stage in Tulsa, Okla., on June 20 turned into a debacle, with a sparse, mostly maskless crowd that barely filled the bottom deck of the indoor arena. Lately he’s settled for online “tele-rallies,” glorified conference calls that Trump supporters in key states are invited to tune in to a couple of times a week. At a recent one targeting voters in Maine and New Hampshire, Trump dutifully shouts out the local Republican candidates, extols lobster fishermen and vows to get tough on Canadian currency manipulation. Almost 13,000 people are listening live, and hundreds of thousands more will eventually “view” the half-hour audio stream. “The future of our nation will be defined by patriots who love our country and want to build it up and make it bigger and better and stronger–or it will be defined by the radical left. And usually radical left Democrats are left-wing extremists who hate our country,” he intones.

In person, this kind of line would draw a roar from Trump’s throngs of admirers, but online, the only feedback is the silent scroll of Facebook comments. Trump’s political adviser Jason Miller says the tele-rallies have been a hit. “The genius of Donald Trump is that he knows how to foster and build one-on-one relationships with his voters,” he says. But it’s clear the virtual gatherings are no substitute for the real thing. Lacking his usual source of mass adulation, the President has taken to touting the crowds that line the streets when he visits various states on official business.

Some local candidates–mainly Republicans–are still holding in-person events despite the risks. But the pandemic has become a vector for partisan attacks. When a GOP Senate candidate in Virginia posted a video of himself attending an indoor political event without a mask, the state Democratic Party seized on the image to call him “dangerously irresponsible.” Many state Democratic parties have chosen to hold all-virtual conventions, but several of their GOP counterparts have tried to blaze ahead. The Republican Party of Texas took its case all the way to the state Supreme Court, which sided with the Houston mayor who had canceled its in-person convention. The hastily assembled virtual confab that ensued featured extensive technical difficulties–at one point, Texas Monthly reported, pranksters invaded an online planning document and added “Peepeepoopoo” to the schedule–and by the end angry delegates ousted the state chairman.

It’s been a similar story at the national level. Democrats decided early on that the planned July convention in Milwaukee would not be feasible; it was pushed back to mid-August and radically scaled down, with delegates staying home and voting remotely and Biden himself staying away. The GOP has had a bumpier road. In June, Trump moved the convention from Charlotte, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., in a fit of pique over the North Carolina Democratic governor’s insistence on safety protocols. As Florida’s COVID-19 caseload surged this summer, party officials made a series of frantic adjustments, culminating in a last-ditch effort to hold the festivities in an outdoor stadium in the August heat. Finally, in late July, Trump announced the Jacksonville program would be scotched; the current plan, which is still being developed, is to hold a small number of party meetings in North Carolina and have the President accept the nomination with a televised speech at a location to be determined.

The lack of traditional conventions is perhaps not such a loss. Events where party insiders in smoke-filled rooms once actually picked presidential nominees and running mates have become, in the modern era, little more than infomercials. But they serve as a major engine of the parties’ fundraising–another operation that’s moved online in the age of coronavirus.

The swanky catered affairs that donors once paid tens of thousands of dollars per plate to attend are now BYOB livestreams. Campaigns have had to get creative as the novelty fades. “When the stay-at-home orders started, campaigns immediately started doing virtual events–a Zoom fundraiser, a field-organizer hangout,” says Brian Krebs, who works at a Democratic digital-campaign firm called Rising Tide Interactive. “But the bar is rising now that a lot of people are Zoomed out. You’ve got to have a special guest or some kind of hook. People aren’t going to show up if it’s just 12 squares talking.” On the other hand, celebrity guests can be easier to land when they can appear at your fundraiser without leaving L.A. The Texas Democratic Senate nominee MJ Hegar recently recorded an event with the cast of Supernatural and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, none of whom were physically present. Hegar campaign volunteers have also gotten creative with their outreach, holding a voter-registration texting session that doubled as a Taylor Swift listening party.

Around this time in an election, campaigns traditionally shift from registering, identifying and persuading voters to pushing them to the polls. The GOP is still doing so, knocking on a million doors a week, the Republican National Committee claims. But on the left, an intense debate has broken out about the ethics of going door-to-door amid a plague. Research suggests that in-person conversations with voters are the most effective way to get them to turn out. But most liberal groups and the Biden campaign aren’t planning on door knocking this year, viewing it as too risky for workers and voters alike. One group that forged ahead, the Progressive Turnout Project, had to suspend its operations in a dozen states after several employees tested positive for COVID-19.

The irony is more Americans are eager for political engagement this year. In a Fox News poll in July, 85% said they were extremely or very motivated to vote, and the percentage of respondents who told Gallup they were more enthusiastic than usual about voting was up 10 points from 2016. Despite the difficulties of pandemic voting, primaries in states such as Texas and Georgia have set turnout records. At the same time, new voter registrations have plummeted because of the closure of government offices like departments of motor vehicles.

In Pinal County, Arizona, a small progressive organization called Rural Arizona Engagement had gotten only a quarter of the way to its voter-registration goal when it had to stop canvassing in March. Attempts to continue the work by phone were mostly unsuccessful. Even though Arizona is currently a coronavirus hot spot, the group hopes to go back into the field to turn out the vote. “We feel like if we can follow [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines and train our staff in a way that protects them and the people we’re talking to, this is a year that requires this work to be done,” says the group’s co–executive director Natali Fierros Bock.

Trump supporters at his rally in Tulsa, Okla., on June 20
Trump supporters at his rally in Tulsa, Okla., on June 20Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

The pandemic, she says, has heightened people’s awareness of why their vote matters. (It’s also increased canvassers’ success rate: with so many people isolated in their homes, more are willing to answer the door and talk with a stranger.) Despite robust public support for wearing masks, the Pinal County board of supervisors decided against a mask mandate for businesses, and the rabble-rousing county sheriff, Mark Lamb, announced he would not enforce the state’s stay-at-home order. (Lamb was forced to cancel a planned appearance with Trump at the White House when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 in June.) “People are starting to connect the dots,” Fierros Bock says, “and consider who is serving in these local offices and how much power they wield.”

The pandemic landed in the midst of America’s primary-election season, forcing state election officials to adapt on the fly. The results offer a glimpse of the massive challenges the general election will pose–and the disasters that could ensue.

One of the first test runs came in Ohio, whose primary was scheduled for March 17, just days after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, the NBA abruptly suspended its season and states across the country began rapidly shutting down. When Republican Governor Mike DeWine sought to delay the primary, some candidates sued, and courts ruled he didn’t have the power to do so. Finally, at 4 a.m. on Election Day, with workers already starting to set up for balloting, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the state’s health director could order the polls closed as an emergency measure. But the GOP-controlled legislature wouldn’t go along with DeWine’s proposal to move the vote to June, so a mail-only election with an April 28 deadline was held instead.

Other states soon had their own experiences with the logistical, constitutional and political complexities of pandemic voting. In Wisconsin’s April 7 primary–held on schedule after a last-minute standoff between its Democratic governor and Republican legislature–hundreds of polling locations were forced to close when poll workers fearful for their safety declined to show up. Hundreds of thousands of voters still turned out, standing in socially distanced lines for hours to cast their ballots. (One scientific study later tied the election to a surge in COVID-19 cases, though other researchers disagreed with that assessment.) Georgia’s June 9 primary melted down amid short staffing and technical problems, leading to endless lines and significant disenfranchisement that Democrats charged was an intentional bid by GOP officials to suppress the vote. In New York, a state that normally votes almost entirely in person, election officials blame an unprecedented flood of absentee ballots for the fact that more than a month after the June 23 election, they still haven’t declared a winner in some contests.

In each case, the coronavirus struck at a system that was already fragile. “It is a mistake to think of the pandemic as something separate from other problems with our election systems,” says Rick Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California, Irvine. “It interacts with the existing pathologies to make things worse.” Hasen’s most recent book, Election Meltdown, was published on Feb. 4, the day after the calamitous Iowa Democratic caucuses, whose delayed results illustrated the problems balky election infrastructure can produce even without a worldwide epidemic.

Many states that have been administering elections in person for decades are now attempting to pivot to mail voting, allowing people to vote absentee without an excuse or by citing COVID-19 as a legitimate medical reason. But not all. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Democratic lawsuit that sought to allow all Texas voters to choose mail ballots. In Georgia, the GOP secretary of state mailed every voter a ballot application for the primary but will not do so for the general election. “I think it’s because there was historic turnout, particularly among Democratic primary voters, and [Republicans] don’t want to encourage that in the general election,” says Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project.

Some states, including California, Nevada and Vermont, will mail ballots to all voters, joining five existing states with universal mail voting. Many others will send all voters an absentee-ballot application, but experts warn they may not be prepared for the flood that is coming. Postage, postmark and notarization or witness requirements vary widely from state to state. States facing pandemic-induced budget crunches aren’t necessarily in a position to pay for protective equipment and millions of stamps, but Congress has allocated only a fraction of the election funding they’ve requested. The U.S. Postal Service, itself teetering on the brink of insolvency, is ill equipped to handle the surge, and Democrats allege the popular agency, recently entrusted to a Trump ally, may be intentionally slowing the mail in urban areas in order to help the President. States’ voting procedures continue to shift as the vote nears, making it difficult for voters to keep track of what’s required.

What worries election experts the most is that all these challenges and changes could throw the result into doubt. Barring a blowout, election night is likely to end without a clear winner, and it could take weeks or months to count all the votes. “What we didn’t see in the primary, even where there was confusion or it took weeks to count, was someone calling the election rigged or stolen,” says Aditi Juneja, an attorney who staffs the bipartisan National Task Force on Election Crises. “We want to make sure that happens in the general election. If the outcome is unclear or uncertain, that leaves space for bad actors to make wild claims.”

That, of course, is exactly what Trump has been doing. Continuing the drumbeat he began in 2016, the President has repeatedly cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, wrongly insisting that mail voting is not secure and that the election will be “rigged.” Trump claims there is a difference between vote by mail, which generally refers to ballots mailed to all voters, and absentee voting, when voters typically must request a ballot. But experts say there’s no difference in terms of security. Trump attacked Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state, for going “rogue” when she mailed absentee-ballot applications before the state’s primary–a step many of her GOP counterparts had also taken. “It is not helpful when false or misleading information, mudslinging and partisan rhetoric are injected into the discourse,” Benson tells TIME. “It causes people to have doubts about the sanctity of the process and the validity of their vote. The truth is, we are working every day to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

On July 30, Trump suggested postponing the presidential election, prompting an immediate outcry from Republicans and Democrats alike. “The concerns the President has raised are not valid in the state of Ohio,” Ohio secretary of state Frank LaRose, a Republican, tells TIME. “Both political parties in Ohio have trusted our system for 20 years and work hard to get voters to take advantage of voting by mail.” As for postponing the election, “That is not something we should even be considering,” he says.

Election experts of both parties worry that Trump’s pernicious campaign to undermine confidence in the election’s integrity is a pretext for refusing to accept the result if he loses, throwing the nation into constitutional crisis or worse. When a bipartisan group of academics and former officials called the Transition Integrity Project recently war-gamed a contested election, every iteration of the exercise produced “both street-level violence and political impasse,” the group’s organizer, Georgetown Law professor Rosa Brooks, told the Boston Globe.

When the reality of the pandemic began to set in, Trump’s approval rating initially went up, as often happens for Presidents in times of crisis. The percentage of Americans who approve of Trump–which has stayed within a narrow band throughout his term–reached 46% in late March, the highest level since his Inauguration, according to the polling average maintained by FiveThirtyEight. Then it began to plummet.

Today, barely 40% approve of Trump’s performance, while nearly 55% disapprove. Americans now disapprove of his handling of the pandemic by a 20-point margin. Biden holds significant leads in key battlegrounds like Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan. States such as Texas, Arizona and Georgia, which Democrats haven’t won at the presidential level in decades, may now be up for grabs. Many top Republicans fret that their candidates are in for a wipeout up and down the ballot. “The breadth and depth of Trump’s weakness is hard to overstate,” says Democratic pollster Margie Omero, a member of the Navigator Research team that has surveyed more than 24,000 Americans on a rolling basis since March. “There was a little bit of rally-round-the-flag at the beginning–people wanted him to succeed–and then when it was clear that he wasn’t taking it seriously, you saw that change.”

In truth, Trump was an unusually weak incumbent long before the pandemic hit, the only President never to top 50% approval in Gallup’s regular tracking. His current rating remains higher than his nadir of 35% in August 2017, after the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va. Democrats’ current 8-point advantage on the generic ballot is about the same as their margin in the national vote in 2018. Biden has consistently held an edge over Trump, posting margins similar to or greater than the current state polls since before he even entered the race. A large portion of the American electorate seems to have made up its mind about this President early on, abandoning him–and his party–and never looking back.

Indicators that normally correlate to incumbents’ political fortunes, such as the economy, may not apply this year, says GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini. The situation is simply too anomalous. Many people see the pandemic as a fluke wrought by China, and may be receptive to the argument that the economic pain is not the President’s fault. Trump may also be benefiting from the popular emergency economic relief legislation Democrats helped him enact. “The country can unite behind its leaders in a crisis if they feel like things are at least moving in the right direction,” Ruffini says. “The summer’s case spike seemed to break off that possibility for the President. He’ll still have a chance to show that things have turned a corner before November, but time is running very short.”

Trump, pictured in Tulsa, has cast doubt on the legitimacy of voting by mail
Trump, pictured in Tulsa, has cast doubt on the legitimacy of voting by mailEvan Vucci—AP

COVID-19 has changed the tenor of the election in unmistakable ways. Optimism has nosedived: the share of people who believe the U.S. is on the right track has declined 20 points since March. The pandemic has brought new urgency to issues like access to health care, inequality and the social safety net, while driving Trump’s preferred topics of immigration and trade out of the picture. “The voters are fundamentally the same, but the context of the 2020 election has changed,” says UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck, author of Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.

Trump’s character flaws suddenly loom larger for voters. “For a long time, it was annoying but it didn’t necessarily change anything in their lives–‘I wish he’d stop tweeting, but the economy’s good,'” says Lanae Erickson, senior vice president at the center-left think tank Third Way, which commissioned polls and focus groups of thousands of voters in suburban swing districts. “What this has done is to put the perception they already had about Trump together with real, horrific impacts on them and their family and their country.”

Asked an open-ended question about Trump’s vision for the country, about half the respondents in Third Way’s surveys volunteered “self-serving” or “divisive.” Respondents also rejected his calls for “law and order” in response to street protests. Asked who is hurt by Trump’s vision, 30% of undecided suburban voters said “all of us.” “It used to be people would say LGBT people, or women, or people of color,” Erickson says. “Now, 4% say immigrants, 6% say minorities–but 30% say all of us.”

Some focus-group participants were asked what they were looking for in the election. The responses were heavy on leadership qualities: people yearned for someone who was strong, compassionate and listened to experts. People agreed that Trump was strong (and questioned Biden’s strength) but rated the President abysmally on the other two.

Just as Trump’s worst qualities were magnified, Biden’s strengths suddenly seem matched to the moment. When he announced his candidacy a year ago, he said he was compelled to run by Trump’s equivocal response to Charlottesville. Some Democrats criticized his mantra of a “battle for the soul of the nation” as too puffy or vague at a time when his rivals were pumping out ambitious left-wing policy proposals. But a character-based campaign, tinged with nostalgia, now looks not just prescient but essential, whether or not you believe Biden has what it takes to deliver on it.

Trump’s campaign insists he is positioned for victory despite the headwinds. Public polls are undercounting Republicans, says Miller, the Trump political adviser, and the President’s supporters are more enthusiastic about voting by a 2-to-1 ratio. “Are people going to stand in line for two hours to vote for someone they’re not enthusiastic about?” he asks. But analysts in both parties are skeptical. “Overwhelmingly, voters believe the pandemic and the resulting economic meltdown are the most important issues facing the country,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “Efforts to change the subject might work with people who are already in favor of the President, but there’s no evidence they’re working with the people who need to be brought into his coalition if he’s going to win.”

If the pandemic has revealed the fault lines in American society, it has exposed something else too: some things are still too important to get caught up in politics. Trump’s attempts to make public health a partisan matter have mostly failed. Large majorities of Americans support their states’ pandemic restrictions, believe it’s more important to rein in the virus than to get the economy up and running, think more needs to be done and–by resounding margins–support mask wearing.

The national mood has undergone a wholesale shift in this most tumultuous of election years. In Third Way’s studies, voters talked about feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety and fear. Pollsters’ response rates have skyrocketed because so many lonely, homebound people are answering the phone just to have someone to talk to. America is a divided nation, but also one that craves communion and solidarity. When a Black man was brutally murdered on video by police in Minneapolis, people took to the streets in unprecedented numbers. Three-quarters of Americans said they backed the recent racial-justice protests, and support for the Black Lives Matter movement surged, stunning political observers. It’s hard to imagine this happening without Trump. But it’s hard to imagine it without COVID-19 too.

When one day Americans look back on this plague, the campaign it coincided with will be an inextricable part of the story. The U.S. has held elections under difficult circumstances before: wars, depressions, natural disasters. Each time, in the face of difficulty, we voted on schedule; each time, democracy gave us the opportunity to choose how we would steer out of the crisis.

–With reporting by MARIAH ESPADA and ABBY VESOULIS

Correction, August 6

The original version of this story misstated the location of the celebrity guests at a MJ Hegar virtual event. While they were not physically present, some of them were in Texas.


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