Unfortunately, it sounds like we’re just at the beginning of what could be a multi-week or multi-month coronavirus crisis, so handicapping the pandemic’s impact on the elections is premature. But there are at least a handful of questions that will lead us to understanding the fallout, once the situation and answers come into focus.
1. Election Day
After Louisiana and Georgia moved their presidential primaries to later dates, it’s natural to question how easy it would be to move the general election from Nov. 3. The answer: not very.
The New York Times did a great job of summarizing the key points. The general election has been set by federal law since 1845. That means to change the date, it would take “legislation enacted by Congress, signed by the president and subject to challenge in the courts.”
“And even if all of that happened, there would not be much flexibility in choosing an alternate election date: The Constitution mandates that the new Congress must be sworn in on Jan. 3, and that the new president’s term must begin on Jan. 20,” according to the Times. “Those dates cannot be changed just by the passage of normal legislation.”
That’s a lot more hurdles to jump than a governor making a decision, with approval from the secretary of state, to move a primary date. In addition, the current political environment, including a polarizing president and a divided Congress, would make it virtually impossible to agree on a major structural change. One party would likely see a delay as a benefit, the other a liability, making bipartisan action unlikely.
2. Trump’s standing
President Donald Trump’s job approval rating has been virtually unchanged for more than a year now, according to RealClearPolitics' national average. As of Sunday, Trump’s job rating was 45% approve and 53% disapprove. On Feb. 18, 2019, it was 44% approve and 53% disapprove.
Up to this point, Republicans appear to believe that the coronavirus is a foreign virus being used by Trump’s opponents to defeat him for reelection, casting doubt that many GOP voters will stray from the president’s tent. That could change as more people get sick and die. Of course, the administration’s action (or lack of action) in response to coronavirus only confirms Democrats’ worst thoughts.
The president’s biggest liability is likely with moderate or independent voters who were previously willing to overlook his tweets and style because of his handling of the economy. Even if those voters don’t blame Trump for the outbreak or are upset with his response, poor economic conditions will likely hurt his standing with swing voters, making it very difficult for the president to win reelection.
3. Vulnerable members
Forty Republicans voted against the initial, bipartisan coronavirus relief bill, but just three of those incumbents are currently in what are considered to be competitive reelection races, as rated by Inside Elections. Those vulnerable Republicans are Dan Bishop of North Carolina, Steve King of Iowa and Chip Roy of Texas. No Democrats opposed the bill. That suggests limited political exposure for Republicans in the House.
But ultimately, the recent legislation will be viewed through a different lens this fall, when the situation will likely be very different, for better or worse. It’s possible that opposing the legislation could be politically fatal, even pulling in members previously viewed as politically solid because they opposed it. It’s also possible that the situation is less dire, the legislation is viewed as an overreaction (even if it was effective) and there are no political consequences.
When it comes to elections, who comes out to vote is just as important as how people vote, and coronavirus has the potential to significantly impact the size and makeup of the electorate. Whether it’s physical ability, access, or fear of the process (including waiting in line), coronavirus could impair and impede voters. The subsequent question, from a handicapping perspective, is whether infections are spread proportionally across rural, urban and suburban areas, equally between Republican and Democratic voters. We already know that older voters might be disproportionately affected because of being more likely to become critically ill.
A related question is how will coronavirus impact how we vote? How will voters adjust to voting by mail, waiting in line, or finding a new polling place after their precinct is moved away from a senior living facility? All of those factors could impact the size and shape of the electorate.
Statistically speaking, the odds that some candidates fall ill over the course of the campaign is high. We know one presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump, has been exposed to an individual who tested positive for coronavirus. The White House announced over the weekend he was tested and the test came up negative. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a GOP challenger in Florida’s 26th District, was exposed to the same individual at the president’s Mar A Lago resort, self-quarantined, but tested negative for the virus. Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, who is running for the Senate, self-quarantined.
It’s inevitable that more candidates will be exposed and, at a minimum, be forced from the campaign trail to self-quarantine, if not become infected themselves. Obviously that puts their health into question, but it also limits basic candidate functions such as campaigning and fundraising at events and participating in debates. Depending on the timing of a diagnosis, that could have a significant impact on an individual election.
From canceling rallies and fundraising events to relocating a presidential debate, the coronavirus outbreak has already had an impact on campaigning in the short term, and seems likely to affect traditions in the medium term as well, if not longer. Door-knocking, petition-gathering, organizing volunteers, and even campaign strategy meetings are also likely at risk of temporary extinction.
This situation will likely reward candidates with a financial advantage who can dictate the conversation in paid television and digital advertising. Lesser-funded candidates who need in-person events to attract earned media attention will be at a disadvantage.
At the current rate of alarm and aversion to large gatherings, it feels like there is significant risk to the national party conventions being altered, scaled back, or canceled altogether. Democrats are set to gather in Milwaukee July 13-16 while Republicans are scheduled to meet in Charlotte, N.C., Aug. 24-27.
Long before the coronavirus, there were questions about the utility of a four-day event with multiple logistical challenges. If both parties can figure out how to officially nominate their candidates without all the pomp, circumstance, hassle, and crowds, we may look back at the 2016 conventions as the last of a long tradition. And end of the conventions might be the best thing that comes from the coronavirus.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.