As February turned to March, the race for the White House dominated daily news coverage, social media feeds, and office and dinner conversations. Pretty typical during an election year. As Super Tuesday came and went, candidates for the Democratic Party nomination continued to bow out of the race to set up an epic showdown between Bernie and Biden.
It was a matchup that seemed sure to captivate America through the spring, as moderate and progressive Democrats went after one another on every issue under the sun, all while President Trump pointed to a strong economy and had his supporters poised for another four years.
Then, quickly yet not unexpectedly, COVID-19 came to the U.S. and has since wreaked an unimaginable havoc on our country and our world. And though it seemed impossible to imagine just a month ago, ubiquitous mainstream news coverage of the upcoming election has taken a back seat to constant coverage of COVID-19.
One exception – beyond the news on April 8 that Bernie Sanders has stepped aside – has been discussion surrounding the politics of the pandemic, and how it has dramatically shifted the race for the White House.
We sat down (virtually) with national political expert David Damore, professor and chair of UNLV’s Department of Political Science, to discuss what the last month has meant for Joe Biden and Donald Trump, and how COVID-19 has changed the concept of campaigning and the issues that could decide the election.
Just when it seemed like nothing could bump the Biden-Bernie fight off the front page, COVID-19 happened. How has the past month changed the tone of the race for the apparent Democratic nominee?
The effects have been threefold. First and most obviously, Joe Biden (and President Trump, as well as Bernie Sanders prior to his withdrawal from the Democratic nomination campaign) has been unable to do any type of in-person, retail campaigning. Campaign rallies and meet-and-greets are such a big part of what people expect from presidential candidates, but this is not possible now.
Second, while that part of the campaign process has never been Biden’s forte, the situation has forced the Biden campaign to try to come up with creative ways to attract media attention via virtual communications. These seem to be designed to project Biden as a solid and experienced leader but otherwise are pretty light on substance. I am not sure that these efforts have been particularly effective, but the big advantage that Biden has is near-universal name recognition and a generally favorable impression with voters.
Third, the coronavirus outbreak has shifted the political landscape in a way that undercuts what was going to be the Trump campaign’s biggest asset, the strength of the economy, and made that a liability, while also highlighting the Trump administration’s response to what is the biggest national health emergency in the country’s history.
Does the shift in national consciousness due to COVID-19 and pending recovery suit Biden's campaign well? Or will he need to shift to adapt to the changing American reality?
I think at least in the short term it helps Biden. As the saliency of the epidemic began to increase, there seemed to be a collective sense among Democratic primary voters that the party needed a nominee with experience and moderation who could win in the swing states in November, and of the remaining candidates, Biden best filled the bill. In the minds of many people, the nomination campaign ended on Super Tuesday and this allowed the Biden campaign to pivot towards Trump without having to spend months competing against Sanders and parrying Sanders’ attacks about Biden’s liberal bona fides.
Because the COVID-19 situation is so fluid and so unprecedented, no one really knows how it will affect the fall campaign or even how the election itself will be administered. But in the end, we are going to have two very well-known candidates and very few undecided voters. This combination means that the campaign is going to be focused less on persuasion and more on mobilization.
What's Bernie Sanders' role now that he's officially withdrawn?
By withdrawing from the race, Bernie Sanders reduced his influence over the Democratic agenda because he will not have the space to try to push Joe Biden and the rest of the party establishment to the left.
Unlike in 2016 when Sanders stayed in until the very end, by leaving the race in April, this not only ended the nomination campaign much sooner than many analysts initially expected, but also gives additional time for his supporters to accept the outcome. One of the knocks against Sanders among many Democrats is that he is not really a Democrat and therefore is not interested in working to build and strengthen the party. He now has the opportunity to do so and strengthen his legacy. His quick endorsement of Biden this week is an important step.
How will the debate between Democrats and Republicans on previously identified core issues like health care, immigration, and climate intensify given current events?
When we get to the fall, I expect the Democrats to re-run the party’s 2018 campaign with an almost exclusive focus on health care and, by extension, economic security. These issues propelled the Democrats into the House majority in 2018 and — in Nevada — were integral to Jacky Rosen’s Senate victory over Dean Heller.
By demonstrating how fragile the country’s health care infrastructure is, coupled with the ongoing efforts of Trump and congressional Republicans to further undercut the Affordable Care Act, the COVID-19 pandemic plays into the Democrats’ narrative that they are the health care party. Add to this the fact that as unemployment claims increase, many people also are losing access to employer-based health care, resulting in more people being uninsured and further straining health care resources.
This also means that other issues such as climate change and immigration will get less attention. We already saw that a bit during the nomination campaign.
How might the federal response to COVID-19 work its way into fall campaigns? Will it turn into the key issue of the election?
Yes, and unless there is a rapid reversal of the current circumstances, this is likely to be bad news for Trump and the Republicans.
It strengthens the contrast between the parties’ health care policies, focuses attention on the competence and effectiveness of the administration’s response, and turns the economy from a strength to a liability.
Historically, we often see how events that, at the time, seem unfathomable -- such as the Great Depression and more recently, 9/11 -- can result in major policy changes. Perhaps the pandemic follows that pattern and ends up leading to a larger role for the federal government in the provision of health care. Of course, that would require a thawing of the polarization that has made it all but impossible to move major bills in Congress regardless of which party is in the majority.
How has the past month helped or hurt President Trump with his base and undecided voters?
As I mentioned earlier, we are going to have two very well-known candidates and very few undecided voters.
It’s easy to see clear partisan differences not only in how people perceive the COVID-19 crisis and what step they are taking to protect themselves and their families, but also how Democratic and Republican elected officials are responding.
President Trump’s base will stick with him, but the GOP’s problem is the party’s deteriorating position in the suburbs. That is where the Democrats secured their House majority in 2018 and the trend of increased Democratic support continued in 2019 state and local elections. That is the conclusion to our forthcoming book for the Brookings Institution, Blue Metros, Red States (co-authored with Robert Lang and Karen Danielson). Trump’s politics are accelerating the swing towards the Democrats in the fast-growing, rapidly urbanizing and diversifying suburbs and it's hard to think that the federal response to the crisis will reverse those trends.
Many believe we'll be into the summer before any in-person activities across the country start to resume. How will that impact Democrats and Republicans?
There is a lot of optimism that things will start to return to normal in summer and that includes campaigning. However, there will not be a vaccine by then and you are likely to still have large pockets of infection and, unfortunately, death.
So while Americans may psychologically want to be done with the virus, the virus may not be done with us. I am of the opinion that the less campaign activity there is, the better it is for Biden.
Trump thrives on the energy of his rallies and those events generate a good deal of national and local media attention that would otherwise be focused elsewhere. Biden, in contrast, is not a great in-person campaigner and given the weaker Democratic turnout in some key swing states in 2016, the Democrats would be better served focusing time and resources on voter registration and turnout. It’s less glamorous work, but it’s what moves the needle.