The Covid Election
The pandemic has upended the 2020 U.S. election at nearly every turn, making it one of the most chaotic, irregular and unsettling political contests in recent memory.
When the presidential race began heating up at the beginning of 2020, it would have been difficult to predict the year would be so heavily defined by the coronavirus. But by the first major event of the season — the Iowa caucuses in February — the virus may have already been quietly spreading.
Initially, it seemed as though the virus was mainly striking Democratic strongholds on the East and West Coasts. But a second surge of infections during the summer pounded Republican-leaning areas across the Sun Belt. The authorities in those states imposed restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus, igniting a backlash from opponents who argued that the rules imposed on personal liberty. A national debate erupted over virus regulations, business and school closures, and mask-wearing that divided Americans largely along political lines.
As fall approached and the presidential debates arrived, a third surge of cases — the fiercest yet — was already gaining steam. The wave led to two outbreaks in the White House and sickened the president, along with hundreds of thousands of Americans in nearly every corner of the country, and dramatically complicated efforts to vote ahead of Election Day.
Our colleague Alex Burns, who covers politics for The Times, told us it’s rare to see one topic so thoroughly consume an election.
“The pandemic is unique in how all-encompassing it has been,” Alex told us. “It has not only been the main issue in the election, but it has been the defining experience of the election, day to day. It has affected campaigning at every level. It is affecting the voting. It’s the consuming issue in everyone’s lives.”
Perhaps the only comparison, Alex said, would be a wartime election, as in 2004 when John Kerry ran against George Bush. Then, the contest was about terrorism, national security and the invasion of Iraq.
“Basically, if you lost the debate on the war, you were probably not going to win the election, and that’s kind of where we find ourselves now,” Alex said. “If you lose the debate on the pandemic, it doesn’t mean you have zero chance, but it makes things much, much harder. ”
Campaigning in a plague
Even as waves of infection lashed the country in 2020, American politics found a way.
Conventions took place virtually. Fund-raisers were held via video calls. Candidates debated, sometimes through plexiglass barriers. And canvassers stumped for candidates in masks and gloves from a (social) distance.
“This year has been so different from anything I’ve ever covered in terms of presidential politics and the mechanics of them,” said Lisa Lerer, a reporter who writes about politics for The Times and is the host of the On Politics newsletter. “All of the normal conventions of presidential campaigns have basically been upended.”
We spoke with Lisa about what the political contests looked like on the ground, and what the pandemic may mean for the future of politics.
How has the pandemic fundamentally changed the mechanics of the race?
So this year we’re testing the whole proposition of in-person organizing. We spend a lot of time talking about organizing, and tactics, and the ground game — and this year we’re going to find out how much those things matter. The reality is that the Republicans have been doing a ground game, they have been out there going door-to-door, and, with a few exceptions, the Democrats have not been doing that. I think if Joe Biden loses, certainly his light travel schedule and decision to largely shy away from in-person organizing will be something that people point to.
What has been your experience as a political reporter covering this election?
It has basically been all but unrecognizable to how we normally cover elections. One example is that voters have not been eager to talk to me. My go-to spot for talking to voters is Costco parking lots because it takes people a long time to load up their cars with all their avocados or whatever, so you have time to talk to them. But this year I was kicked out of two parking lots, and that’s never happened to me before. I think it’s a combination of this heightened concern from voters about talking to people in the middle of the pandemic, and this concern about how polarized and tense everything is right now. It’s made people a little more skittish this year than normal.
Which of the pandemic-related changes to the election has you most concerned?
I think seeing how rickety some of our voting systems are when they’re put to the test is deeply concerning. The fact that people are waiting on outrageously long lines should be concerning for anyone who cares about democracy.
How will this election shape electoral contests in the future?
I think people want to keep mail-in voting and early voting. I also think there has been some innovation because of technology. Like maybe we’ll see more Zoom fund-raisers, particularly for lower dollar events, because we’ve seen that you can scoop up a lot of money that way. And conventions are so expensive and require such a massive use of time and resources that I wonder if we’ll see some modifications now that we know we don’t have to have them in person.
Based on the conversations you’ve had, how has the pandemic changed the tenor of the election?
I think that the isolation from the pandemic has contributed to a lot of the rage on both sides. I definitely have felt that people are more reluctant to give me their name because they’re worried that if their name shows up in the paper, someone is going to go after them for their political views. I think the polarization, the intensity, the anger is definitely heightened because people have been stuck at home and they’re not talking to each other.
Scenes from the polls
In cars, by mail, in person and from hospital beds, Americans are voting in new ways and with new urgency in the pandemic. An astonishing 96 million ballots have been submitted as of this afternoon. The early turnout has set the country on course to surpass 150 million votes for the first time in history.
Germany entered a new partial lockdown amid skyrocketing coronavirus cases across Europe. Chancellor Angela Merkel called it a test not seen in her country since the end of World War II.
England is expected to go back into lockdown again on Thursday in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Only essential shops will remain open.
In Nepal, as infections spread, the economy has taken a blow from a lack of tourists seeking to climb Mount Everest as well as a plunge in remittances.
What else we’re following
A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that pregnant women face increased risks from Covid-19.
An eighth grader died of Covid-19 complications in Missouri.
Prince William had Covid-19 in April but kept it a secret.
As the virus rages in the U.S., some Republican governors are convinced it’s too late to stop it.
At a rally, President Trump suggested he may fire Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the U.S.’s top infectious disease expert, but it would be very hard to do so. Dr. Fauci had said the country “could not possibly be positioned more poorly” as it heads into the winter.
To better understand the outbreak at the White House, The New York Times worked with geneticists to determine the genetic sequence of viruses that infected two Times journalists believed to have been exposed as part of their work covering 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The police in New York City broke up two Halloween parties that drew nearly 1,000 people.
What you’re doing
When the lockdown began last March, our church, like many others, started a “telephone tree” so we could check on each other. Through my conversations, I developed some deep friendships with people I hardly knew. One of my new friends is George. He is 92 and a veteran of WWII. I heard about his incredible stories of rescuing downed pilots in the South Pacific. George’s greatest desire was to vote in person. When I discovered our county had “curbside voting” my husband and I took George to vote. Not only was he thrilled with the opportunity, but my husband and I felt that we had somehow contributed in a small way to the continuation of democracy.
— Anne Turrie, Las Cruces, N.M.
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