Law and Politics People and Community

Experts address the effects of COVID-19 on the presidential campaign

Political scientists at the University of Miami discuss how the novel coronavirus may impact the 2020 election.
Marcia McCoy drops her ballot into a box outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio. The first major test of an almost completely vote-by-mail election during a pandemic is unfolding Tuesday in Ohio, offering lessons to other states about how to conduct one of the most basic acts of democracy amid a health crisis. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Marcia McCoy drops her ballot into a box outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland, Ohio, Tuesday, April 28, 2020. Photo: Associated Press

This presidential election campaign is unlike any other in recent memory. COVID-19 has greatly disrupted the campaign. Rallies have been cancelled, and some primaries also have been suspended or postponed.

The fate of political conventions is up in the air. If conventions take place, what will they look like? Recently, Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law who serves as his senior adviser, suggested that the presidential election may have to be postponed. Kushner later clarified his remarks because federal law prohibits a delay.

All this uncertainty poses several challenges for the candidates as well as for state and local governments as they face the effects of the pandemic.  

Experts in political science at the University of Miami offer their perspective on how the coronavirus has affected the presidential campaign and what the public can expect to see in the coming months.   

How has this pandemic affected the presidential campaign?

The biggest issues on everyone’s mind are the pandemic and the economy. How these two phenomena pan out will greatly affect the vote in November. If the economy can improve and voters give Trump credit for it, he might be able to hang on. But, if record high unemployment remains shortly before the election, Trump will likely lose. Also, how Trump handles the pandemic, in relation to how voters think Joe Biden would handle it, will affect the outcome as well. This is all keeping in mind that most people’s votes are already fixed in that partisanship determines how people vote long before the candidates are even announced.

—Joseph Uscinski, associate professor, political science   

It has significantly increased the odds that Donald Trump will lose the 2020 election. He was already starting from behind—he lost the 2016 popular vote and his job approval ratings have hovered around 41 percent throughout his term. His reelection strategy was centered on taking credit for the economic prosperity that began during the Obama presidency and continued through early 2020 while minimizing attention to his policy choices and personal behavior. 

The pandemic has shattered this strategy. Historical models of presidential elections show that economic prosperity—or the lack thereof—is one of the best predictors of the outcome. The economy has taken a sharp downturn with unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression, so Trump’s weak position has gotten worse. More subtly, the pandemic has focused attention on the way the Trump administration actually works: general disregard for expertise, a failure to fill leadership positions, and a priority on short-term political gain above all other considerations. As a result, early polling show Biden pulling ahead of Trump nationally and in battleground states, including Florida.

President Trump’s actions and words over the past two months seem to be a response to his diminished electoral prospects. He has sought to shift blame for the pandemic and the poor U.S. response to China, to immigrants, and to state governors.

He monopolized daily briefings with administration experts until he suggested people drink bleach as a COVID-19 cure, then shifted to trying to convince states to relax restrictions as quickly as possible while suppressing expert guidelines on state restrictions developed by the Center for Disease Control, in the hopes an economic recovery by November will boost his prospects.

—Gregory Koger, professor, political science

Has the current situation helped one candidate more than the other? Why?

Biden is doing well in the polls right now, and Trump’s missteps are glaring in the press. However, Biden has been able to hide for the past few months. When he eventually has to face voters and tough questions, opinion of him may dip.

—Joseph Uscinski, associate professor, political science  

The crisis has constrained the Biden campaign, but it has actually helped Biden by putting the focus of the election squarely on President Trump and his administration’s response to the pandemic. Trump’s campaign would prefer to make the campaign a “choice election,” including ample negative advertising against Biden. 

—Gregory Koger, professor, political science

The polls show that Biden has a solid lead in the national polls over Trump. Moreover, the most recent reliable polling data here in Florida (a Fox News poll of registered voters in mid-April) also show Biden leading. At the same time, a strong majority of Americans are concerned about COVID-19 and disapprove of the President's response to the crisis. However, Americans are very polarized in their views on Trump's handling of the pandemic, whereby Republicans are very supportive, and Democrats and Independents are not.

—Casey Klofstad, associate professor, political science 

Some primaries have been postponed. What kind of effect does this have on the overall campaign?

This has little direct effect on the election in that the two nominations are largely decided already. 

—Joseph Uscinski, associate professor, political science

Very little effect on the primary campaign, because by the time states were delaying primaries it was clear that Biden was going to triumph over Sanders. The states that did have primaries gained experience in how to run elections during a pandemic.

—Gregory Koger, professor, political science 

A lot can happen from now until November. Is it possible that each state could be ready to allow all voters do absentee voting if needed because of the virus?

This will depend on each state’s government and laws and on the conditions as we get closer. It isn’t clear how mail-in ballots would affect the election, but it would not likely increase fraud, which is rare.

—Joseph Uscinski, associate professor, political science  

It is possible for every state to conduct voting by mail in the November elections. However, this would be a huge logistical challenge. So, states should begin preparing now by acquiring mail-in ballots, training elections workers, and changing state laws to make voting by mail easy and affordable for all.

If voting by mail becomes the primary method of voting in the general election, one implication is that we probably will not know the winner on election night. Mail ballots may arrive after election day, and they may take time to count. Voters, candidates, and media should mentally prepare themselves for a week of waiting for enough information to know who won. 

—Gregory Koger, professor, political science

Will mail-in ballots or absentee balloting end up being “the story” for the 2020 presidential election?

No, I think the pandemic is the story that dominates everything this and next year. Everything else is at the virus’s whim.

—Joseph Uscinski, associate professor, political science 

Electoral administration will be a big part of the story of the 2020 presidential election. This "subplot" will unfold at the state and local level because this is where most electoral law is made and implemented. States have, or are considering, expanding vote by mail to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on free and fair elections. In response, President Trump is engaging in conspiratorial rhetoric, signaling to his supporters that these policy changes will lead to fraud and subsequent unfair advantage for the Democratic Party. Contrary to this narrative, research shows that vote by mail does not advantage either party. 

—Casey Klofstad, associate professor, political science