In Depth

US election 2020: will coronavirus crisis change the result?

From stock market crashes to low voter turnout, Covid-19 could reshape American politics for years to come

The spread of coronavirus has even overshadowed one of the most important elections in US history: the presidential vote in November.

President Donald Trump will square off against an opponent from the Democratic Party – Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders – in a bid to secure another four years in the White House.

But with a number of Democratic primary contests now being pushed back, it’s clear that this will be no ordinary election. As CNN’s Chris Cillizza puts it: “Given all of that recent history and the scope of the challenge now facing the country, it looks like the 2020 vote will be known as the coronavirus election.”

Here’s a look at how the virus might change the course of US politics.

Universal healthcare

The virus has drawn sharply into focus the drawbacks of the current healthcare system in the US.

The country has long resisted implementing the type of healthcare service seen in other developed nations, in which citizens are guaranteed taxpayer-funded healthcare that is either affordable or – as in the UK – free at the point of use. In the US, these systems are referred to as universal healthcare.

However, the US’s decision to retain its for-profit healthcare system has posed significant problems in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. 

“The US is in a particularly precarious situation when it comes to slowing the spread of Covid-19,” Ana Kasparian writes in The Hill. “We’re the only developed nation that does not offer universal healthcare, and we rely on a gluttonous private health care industry that consistently prioritises profits over lives.”

She notes that medical problems contribute to 66% of all bankruptcies in the US. This has been a focal point of the campaign of Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders, whose key policy proposal is a universal healthcare system called Medicare for All – something both Joe Biden, his rival for the Democratic nomination, and Donald Trump are ardently against.

Sanders has taken something of a battering in the more recent primary elections against Biden, but USA Today suggests that coronavirus “gives Sanders a chance” to reshape the election, and highlights a “shocking” disconnect “between Biden and a large chunk of the electorate”.

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Trump’s response

As Chris Cillizza says, it is “getting ever more difficult to see how the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – and how President Donald Trump is viewed as he combats it – won’t be a major pivot point in his chances of winning a second term”.

At the moment, it’s not looking good. Trump’s response – consisting mainly of downplaying the crisis on Twitter before suddenly enacting sweeping travel bans – has prompted a savage backlash from health experts and the media alike. 

“The president’s early response to warnings about coronavirus was to minimise its severity, assuring Americans that it was under control and saying the virus might simply disappear when warm weather arrived,” USA Today adds. “Factual errors in his Oval Office address to the nation Wednesday required administration officials to offer corrections and clarifications afterwards.”

Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer, told The Guardian this week: “Denial, accusation, distraction, lies – these are his four principal responses to any rival.

“Only this time it’s not a person. When you think of that model, it doesn’t work with germs. A tweet doesn’t knock over a potential global pandemic.”

Stock market

One immediate metric of success from which Trump cannot hide is the country’s economy.

Global stock markets have been devastated by the virus, with billions of dollars’ worth of manufacturing, trade and travel halted across the world.

Since the start of the crisis, market volatility has only grown, with the S&P 500 posting its worst single-day loss since the Black Monday crash of 1987 last Thursday, before global stocks tumbled once again on Monday despite the US Federal Reserve’s emergency measures to address the economic slowdown.

And going by Bill Clinton’s candid admission in 1992 that US elections are won and lost on “the economy, stupid”, Trump could be in for a rough November.

So far, he has done little to help the situation. Last week, a presidential address was broadcast from the Oval Office in which he announced sweeping new restrictions on travel from Europe and scattered executive actions to help workers and businesses rocked by what he labelled a “foreign virus”.

The Straits Times reports that he “blamed allies for not adopting tough immigration measures that he said had prevented a wider outbreak in the US” – an approach which prompted Dow futures to plunge more than 1,000 points.

Turnout

On a more practical level, coronavirus appears to be threatening turnout in elections across the world, and the US may be next. For example, there was a record low turnout in French local elections on Sunday, with only 45.5% of potential voters going to the polls, compared with 63.5% in the last local elections in 2014. Iran saw similarly poor turnout in its parliamentary elections in late February.

Business Insider suggests that it is unclear whether fears about the virus will affect US voter turnout, but adds that if it is driven down, it could shape the entire election.

“Senior citizens have historically had the highest percentage of voter turnout. According to US census data, 66% of eligible voters 65 years old or older voted in the 2018 midterm elections – the highest out of any age demographic,” it says.

John Sides, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, told the site: “There is a difference between a factor that might affect turnout of certain individual voters at the margins and something that would affect the outcome of an election.

“Right now, a variety of factors appear to be propelling Biden to the nomination, and it’s unclear that Covid-19 will change that trajectory – even if older, and therefore Biden-leaning, voters are less likely to vote in some places.”

Nevertheless, Time magazine adds that fears over coronavirus “don’t appear to have impacted voter turnout in the 2020 US primaries so far.

“In fact, Democratic voter turnout on Super Tuesday went up, exceeding the levels from 2016 in at least a dozen states,” the magazine says.

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