Researcher Explains Potential Impact of Coronavirus Pandemic on Upcoming Presidential Election

By Tom McLaughlin

As the novel coronavirus pandemic alters life as we know it in the United States, naturally the upcoming U.S. presidential election is not immune.

Harris says that the critical question surrounding Trump’s handling of the pandemic will be dependent on where Independents and Democrat or Republican “leaners” fall.

A major point of emphasis for voters deciding the next president, says Rutgers University–Camden researcher Rich Harris, will be public perception of how President Donald Trump handles the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, says the professor of political science, he suspects that people’s perceptions will generally be polarized along partisan lines. Republicans, he notes, still seem to be holding firm at 95 percent approval, while Democrats are almost the inverse. The critical question, he says, is where Independents and Democrat or Republican “leaners” fall.

“My feeling is that, given the severity of the crisis and the regular White House briefings with Trump himself, as well as experts, such as Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, those not squarely in one camp or the other will give the president the benefit of the doubt,” says Harris. “However, their patience may be limited and, if the situation does not seem to be improving in a month or so with some prospect of economic turnaround in view, their willingness to go along may begin to dissipate.”

The Rutgers–Camden researcher notes that support for Trump is also highly dependent on many factors outside his direct control. They include: effective, bipartisan action in Congress; continued cooperation from the private sector; delivery of effective federal support to states and localities; and effective work from the Federal Reserve, FEMA, and key cabinet departments.

The Rutgers–Camden researcher notes that support for Trump is also highly dependent on many factors outside his direct control.

“So far, this seems to be happening, but fairly or unfairly, folks will tend to focus on the president, all the more so because this is an election year,” says Harris.

So, will voters question whether Biden or Sanders would have had a more effective response?

Likewise, says Harris, these perceptions will be polarized based on views of Trump. Those who might think Biden or Sanders would be more effective are likely to think that anyone but Trump would be better because he is so untrustworthy and ill-prepared. Conversely, he says, Trump supporters will likely perceive Sanders and Biden as willing to exploit the crisis to pursue agendas on nationalized health care and more generous federal programs.

“We saw an indicator of this in the negotiations over the initial House COVID-19 bill that passed,” says Harris. “Democrats, including the presidential candidates, wanted to include paid family leave with no sunset provision and Republicans held up the legislation until this program was limited to responding to the COVID-19 crisis.”

The Rutgers–Camden researcher suggests that, if the infection curve flattens or declines by May or June and the economy appears to be stabilizing, Trump will benefit and the criticisms directed at him now will, in retrospect, look small and opportunistic. If, however, the situation does not turn around or worsens, Trump will pay the price, especially “given his reputation for playing fast and loose with facts.”

“We can already see reports highlighting that all the market gains under his administration have evaporated and we are going to see pretty damaging job numbers rolling out in the next few months,” he says. “That will undercut one of his main arguments for the election: business and jobs are booming.”

If the situation does not appear to be getting back on track, says Harris, it might energize centrists to demand a change, but it could just as easily dampen their turnout, leaving strong partisans in a more influential position.

Harris adds that it is too difficult to tell how the pandemic will affect turnout at the polls. If the situation does not appear to be getting back on track, he says, it might energize centrists to demand a change, but it could just as easily dampen their turnout, leaving strong partisans in a more influential position.

Another factor, he notes, is that the impact of the pandemic is not spread uniformly across the states. Rather, it is having a greater impact in coastal states such as New York, New Jersey, California, and Washington, which are more likely to vote Democrat regardless. The question, he says, is what effect the pandemic will have on other pivotal states, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Texas.

“A larger question might be, if turnout is low owing to the pandemic, what will the effect be on the perceived legitimacy of the result? We can see from the last three years how corrosive questions about electoral legitimacy can be,” he says.

One final factor to consider, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, is the behavior of the media, especially online and social outlets.

“To the extent that the media promotes speculative worst-case scenarios that don’t pan out – as with Russia collusion – it will reinforce the views of Trump voters and help him with leaners,” says Harris. “If it looks like the media is being unfair, it will help him. If they are perceived as playing it straight and things appear to be moving in the right direction, Trump also benefits. If they play it straight and the COVID-19 crisis does not improve or worsens, that will be bad news for his re-election.”

 

Posted in: Research Highlights

Comments are closed.