Voters in November will decide who should lead them into what could be some of the darkest months of the coronavirus pandemic.
The virus has disrupted virtually every aspect of normal life. It upended the economy, changed the way people work and travel, challenged health care workers and facilities and forced drastic changes on education and day care systems. In the U.S., it has infected over 8.3 million and killed more than 220,000, and those numbers are likely to be an undercount.
Considering the time lost by those who have died, one analysis estimated that the death toll means more than 2.5 million years of potential life has been claimed by the virus in the U.S.
The U.S. reports the most infections and deaths of any country, and one of those 8.3 million infected was President Donald Trump, who required supplemental oxygen twice and was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He declared his battle with the virus as a “blessing from God” after receiving experimental treatments for his illness.
Some experts have warned that the U.S. has entered the third peak of its coronavirus outbreak. As the country heads deeper into fall and winter, and cold weather pushes more people indoors, researchers believe the virus will spread more easily. The challenge could also be compounded by the flu season.
Cartoons on the 2020 Election
It has been suggested that life won’t return to a “new normal” until there is an effective vaccine. Possible candidates are being developed faster than ever before, with several showing promise in early trial results.
The coronavirus is even upending the electoral process – from massive lines for early voting to increases in mail-in ballot requests – though it isn’t clear what effect it will have on overall voter turnout.
“The real impact that it may have on the election is how it’s going to change voting patterns, and I don’t think anyone knows exactly how that’s going to play out,” says John Farmer, the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
Where the 2020 Presidential Candidates Stand on the Coronavirus:
President Donald Trump on the Coronavirus
Early in the outbreak, the Trump administration created the White House Coronavirus Task Force to coordinate and oversee its “efforts to monitor, prevent, contain, and mitigate the spread” of the virus. Regular task force briefings that included scientists eventually faded out and were replaced by solo events for Trump to tailor his own message on the pandemic.
And his message has been one of minimization and diversion.
“I think at this point Trump is running on the idea that he did a great job dealing with coronavirus and that there are very few concerns now and that it’s really nothing for people to worry about,” says Monika McDermott, a professor of political science at Fordham University. “Of course, him having gotten it himself and having recovered so quickly helps him to make that message.”
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Getting infected “allowed him to credibly make the message that it’s not something people really need to worry about,” she says.
Trump has blamed China, where the virus was first detected, for the deaths that have happened in the U.S. He has called out governors and mayors who implemented mitigation measures he disliked. He halted U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, saying it “failed to adequately obtain, vet and share information in a timely and transparent fashion.”
“I think he calculated at an early stage that if this was seen to be his responsibility, it was going to be a bad issue for him,” Farmer says.
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The president has pledged that the economy will bounce back to its former levels, and Congress and his administration in the first few months of the pandemic approved a series of laws to put $3.4 trillion in stimulus aid into the economy. But he has also thrown negotiations with Congress over the possibility of additional economic stimulus funding into disarray.
Trump, who has not released a detailed coronavirus plan for his potential second term, has largely exaggerated timelines for when the virus would ease and for the arrival of a vaccine, saying in April that the virus would lessen by summer and that only “embers” of the coronavirus might remain to be put out in the fall and winter. He has also claimed a vaccine would be available “before a very special date,” likely a reference to Election Day. When it became clear that wouldn’t happen, Trump shifted to praising emerging therapeutics, calling them a “cure” and promising to provide them for free to COVID-19 patients. Now Trump promises a vaccine would be available to every American by April.
The Trump administration created Operation Warp Speed, which Trump in May called “a massive scientific, industrial and logistical endeavor unlike anything our country has seen since the Manhattan Project.”
Operation Warp Speed has spent billions of dollars to incentivize vaccine development and production with the goal of creating 300 million doses by January 2021. No vaccines have been granted an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration so far.
Trump’s timelines and recommendations have often been at odds with scientists in his own administration, and Trump hasn’t hesitated to call them out. He recently called leading infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci a “disaster,” criticizing the doctor’s shifting advice on the public’s use of face coverings.
Farmer defends the shift, saying: “that’s the way science works. When you learn things, you change.” And Trump’s challenge of the research behind wearing masks isn’t a new tactic for him, either.
“I think President Trump’s base probably shares his mistrust of science,” Farmer says. “It didn’t start with this. I think it’s something that has been out there for a while, with climate science and with other forms of science.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden on the Coronavirus
Biden’s coronavirus plan would include improving testing capacity and accessibility, creating a COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force, establishing national standards for reopening schools and businesses, and reinstating funding to WHO.
The former vice president’s plan would establish at least 10 mobile testing sites and drive-through facilities in each state to “speed testing and protect health care workers,” according to his website. Biden has taken shots at Trump over testing, which was slow to expand during the start of the pandemic but has been significantly increased.
Biden’s plan promises “emergency paid leave for all those affected by the outbreak and gives all necessary help to workers, families, and small businesses that are hit hard by this crisis.”
Like Trump, Biden has said a vaccine, should one be approved, needs to be free to the public.
Photos: Daily Life, Disrupted
Biden’s messaging has tried to paint Trump as an uncaring leader with no plan. He has criticized the president over his comments to journalist Bob Woodward that the death toll “is what it is.”
But during Biden’s town hall with ABC News in October, he did not do a good job of distinguishing his plan from Trump’s, McDermott says. Biden said “you can’t mandate a mask” and steered clear of advocating for lockdowns.
“He didn’t really draw a bright line there to distinguish himself from Trump in my mind,” McDermott says.
One topic Biden has attempted to differentiate himself from Trump is trusting science, but that might not sway voters, according to McDermott.
“I think when Biden says, ‘Yes I’ll go with the science,’ he’s absolutely catering to his base,” she says. “But when Trump says, ‘Science is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be,’ he’s catering to his base. I think that it’s just sort of a wash when it comes to this.”
Why the Coronavirus Matters to the 2020 Election
While the pandemic has further polarized the nation and is likely on the mind of voters, it might not override the other partisan issues in the country.
“I’m not sure the coronavirus provides voters with that much distinction to be able to make a decision from,” McDermott says.
One of the reasons could be Trump’s deflection strategy.
“He’s the Teflon president. Really nothing seems to stick to him,” she says.
Still, it’s something voters are worried about. Public concern over the pandemic remained high in early October, with 53% of U.S. adults said they were “very concerned” about the coronavirus, according to a Morning Consult poll.
A September poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the concerns over the coronavirus took a back seat to the economy among registered voters. Roughly one-third of respondents said the economy will be the most important issue in deciding their vote for president, followed by the coronavirus at 20%.
But, of course, the two issues go hand in hand, and voters are now split on whether they trust Trump or Biden more when it comes to handling the economy, according to a recent poll of likely voters conducted by The New York Times and Siena College.