The Independent's journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission. 

Coronavirus is going to have untold effects on the 2020 election — we need to prepare now

As rallies are canceled and several Republican officials go into self-isolation, it's important to prepare for an eventuality when people won't be able to get to the polls

Lindsay Newman
Washington DC
Friday 13 March 2020 19:00 GMT
The last time officials considered postponing a US election was in 2004
The last time officials considered postponing a US election was in 2004 (Getty Images)

President Donald Trump is facing the first true crisis of his presidency. While many have long worried how well-prepared the Trump administration would be to manage a foreign policy emergency, it is not a confrontation with North Korea or Iran that presents the clearest danger to his presidency. Covid-19 is a black swan event in 2020, and depending on the outbreak’s trajectory over the next few months is likely to pose a big headache for Trump’s November re-election bid. And with the Louisiana Democratic presidential primary suspended just hours ago, this may mean a different kind of general election for everyone.

Unlike the trade conflict with China with its tit-for-tat escalations, or the moment just after the US killed Qassim Soleimani, Trump cannot sanction the coronavirus; he cannot tariff it, negotiate with it, or executive action it into oblivion. Sure, he can attempt to spin the narrative around it on a day-to-day basis, as we saw in his most recent Oval Office address, but ultimately the Trump administration will either effectively manage the health dimensions or it will not.

There is a level of transparency in the health metrics (infection, mortality, recovery rates) that will make it unavoidably clear whether it is the former or the latter. And while testing delays in the US compromise the completeness of the health information available, there is visibility around friends, neighbors, family members and Hollywood stars falling ill.

Trump started 2020 ascendant. Riding high from the phase-one US-China trade deal, the passage of the US-Mexico-Canada trade deal, the death of Soleimani, his State of the Union Address boasting his first term policy accomplishments, and his impeachment acquittal in the Senate, Trump’s approval rating surpassed his disapproval rating for the first time in his presidency during early February. Within the Republican party, Trump’s approval in January and February notched up even further, sitting at 94 per cent at its peak in January. Compare these numbers with President Barack Obama who polled in the low to mid-80s (in the Democratic party) for the same period in his presidency, ahead of his successful 2012 re-election bid.

And yet. Just over a month on from his impeachment “exoneration” (recall after the Senate acquittal, Trump tweeted a meme of himself staying in office “4 eva”), Trump must confront the prospect of not being re-elected this fall. And the driver will largely be the economy, stupid.

Heading into his re-election bid it was crucial for Trump that domestic economic indicators (jobs report and unemployment levels, growth rates, the stock market, wages) continued to look strong. The economy has consistently remained a top priority for the US public over the past two decades, and there is a sense that voters are willing to overlook Trump’s personal or personality flaws so long as their pocketbooks feel heavier.

Joe Biden unveils coronavirus plan after Trump response

Already as Covid-19 has spread globally, the US Dow Jones Industrial Average has dropped 20 per cent from its record high in February, ending its longest running bull market. Estimates of the broader economic impact of the coronavirus remain fluid. Despite Trump reassuring the public in his Oval Office address that “this is not a financial crisis”, economists have cut global growth forecasts amidst fears of a 2008-sized recession.

The full financial impact will certainly depend on the trajectory of the outbreak over the next few months as well as the US government’s ability to contain the virus and use its monetary and fiscal tools to manage an epidemic economy. In a scenario where Covid-19 affects all countries but is a one-time pandemic with a low severity, the US economy would be estimated to lose $420 billion in 2020. The World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic earlier this week.

Whatever the magnitude of the economic effect, Americans also face the personal experience of Covid-19 with issues such as sick leave and loss of income, pre-existing conditions, testing and drug costs, access to adequate medical care and premature death of loved ones all likely to affect voter preferences in the fall. This will only amplify the conversation around affordable healthcare in the US, and draw out the presidential candidates’ positions on single-payer options and the future of Obamacare.

Trump had hoped to be passing around “Keep America Great” hats at Trump rallies as he made the case for the promises he has kept to the American people during his first term. Instead, three months into 2020 and with Covid-19’s US footprint spreading, Trump has cancelled rallies in Nevada, Colorado and Wisconsin. Several top Republican officials, including the president’s newly appointed chief of staff Mark Meadows, are in self-isolation due to recent exposure. On the Democratic side, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders have both cancelled campaign events over coronavirus fears and will be debating onstage this weekend to no live audience.

With the virus raising increasing concerns about close contact (in large groups), federal and state authorities must start planning now for how the US will hold elections in the midst of a Covid-19 epidemic. Already we are seeing schools shuttering, the NBA suspending its season and the Louvre museum staff walking out in response to the Covid-19 threat.

While we would like to think that the likelihood of any federal election postponement or cancellation is far off and remote, not enough advanced planning or analysis is being done around how Covid-19 could disrupt the November elections. This includes how to secure turnout levels and individual health safety should the virus still be active (or recur) in November. Trump remains more concerned with how a national emergency declaration might undermine his “Covid-19-as-seasonal flu” narrative than he is with taking timely and appropriate steps to manage the growing pandemic.

Postponing US elections was last seriously considered in 2004, over worries of an impending terrorism threat. Analysis done at the time by the Congressional Research Service focused mostly on who had the power to postpone elections (Congress or states could pass legislation affecting the timing of elections, a power that could be delegated to the executive through statute) rather than safeguards and procedures for conducting a delayed election. In the end, the 2004 elections were not delayed and so provide only limited guidance for November.

With Covid-19 presenting a unique test for the 2020 race, Trump may find comfort in the incumbency advantage in US politics. In-office parties have kept the White House two-thirds of the time when running incumbent candidates. Even still, given the growing economic turmoil arising out of Covid-19, the fates of those recent incumbents who were not reelected — George H W Bush and Jimmy Carter — may provide more fitting precedents.

Dr Lindsay Newman is a Yale and NYU graduate who works as a senior research fellow in the US and Americas program at Chatham House

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in