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22 May 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 12:45pm

How Covid-19 has changed America’s 2020 campaigns

This election year, everything is unprecedented and nothing is inevitable.

By Emily Tamkin

This year was bound to be an election year unlike any that had come before in the United States. President Donald Trump is running for re-election, which promised rallies and chants and tweets of outright lies. There were enough people running for the Democratic nomination to fill a baseball team. Progressives across the country geared up to run as a challengers in the primary against the Democratic incumbents in Congress they felt weren’t doing enough. It was going to be an unprecedented election.

And then came the coronavirus pandemic. The elections this year will indeed be different. But they won’t be different in the ways that we had thought.

The most obvious things the pandemic has changed are the stakes and the substance. It isn’t that the stakes seemed low before, exactly — Trump is obviously a polarising president, and for both domestic politics and foreign policy his re-election would have lasting consequences — but the pandemic has made the hypothetical of how this president would react in a crisis all too real. We don’t need to worry and wonder; we know.

The substance has shifted, too — or, if not shifted, intensified. Healthcare was going to be a major discussion point of the 2020 presidential election. Trump spent a good chunk of his first term trying to end the Obama-era Affordable Care Act and the Democratic candidates dedicated time in seemingly every primary debate to argue over whether healthcare should be provided only by the government or in part by private insurers and tied to employment.

But the conversation has taken on a new urgency with nearly 40 million Americans out of work since this pandemic started. Climate change is one of the most important issues to young voters; one doesn’t need to strain to see a parallel between the president’s early denial that the coronavirus was indeed an issue and his administration’s unwillingness to take action now to try to combat climate change.

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Similarly, misinformation, which played such a prominent part in 2016’s presidential election, was always going to be an issue. But the pandemic has given material for new conspiracy theories — and given the president new cause to create scandals about his political enemies. It’s difficult to run on a platform of Make America Great Again, Again with 90,000 dead and 40 million out of work. And so there is now a new, ill-defined Obamagate scandal, which the press must cover if only to dismiss, and which will now consume no small part of the public’s attention and imagination.

Trump has also had to find a way to deal with the loss of what he surely thought was inevitably going to be part of his campaign: the rallies. So important to Trump are rallies that his younger son, Eric, pushed the idea that the threat of the coronavirus pandemic has been played up by Democrats to stop Trump from holding rallies. That the Democrats are wondering whether they’ll be able hold their convention — even having pushed it back to August — at all, or whether they’ll have a digital event, projecting an image of presumptive nominee Joe Biden over the Grand Canyon (yes, really).

But though the Trump-Biden matchup and the ways it will have to change because of the pandemic has received the most attention, it is not the only campaign impacted by the pandemic. In fact, down ballot races, where knocking on doors can have a greater effect, and where each candidate has fewer resources than those running for president, will arguably feel the impact even more.

This includes, as The New York Times reported last month, those progressive candidates trying to run in primaries against more moderate incumbents. The pandemic has blocked their ability to go from door to door and, in some cases, has hit their small dollar donations hard.

One such progressive, Suraj Patel, who is running against longtime New York City Democratic congresswoman Carolyn Maloney for the second time, says he sees it more positively. Patel, who lives with his brothers — an ER doctor and a policy director — got infected himself. They used the opportunity of being stuck in quarantine for 14 days, he says, “to really sit there and talk about and research and write the first universal testing plan early in March”.

Patel says he and his team have shifted to holding digital town halls, providing check-in calls to the community, and working with the city to provide meals. And he was, in a twist, optimistic about what the pandemic means for progressive candidates in primaries. (Patel also made headlines late last month for arguing that Maloney should have to resign from the committee overseeing stimulus money over past comments she had made seemingly linking vaccinations to autism.)

It “should scare an incumbent”, he says. “This type of disruption affects everybody. Which team do you think is going to be better able to adapt to the disruption?” 

But the reality remains that for progressives — or for any candidate — to win, people need to be able to get out to vote safely. Perhaps a fight over national mail-in voting was always inevitable, but it has, like so much else, been hastened and intensified by the pandemic.

The president, who himself has voted by mail, is now pushing the unsubstantiated claim that mail-in voting gives way to widespread voter fraud, going so far as to threaten to withhold funds to states expanding vote by mail access, and proving that there are some things that even a global pandemic can’t change.

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