How will coronavirus impact the 2020 US presidential race?

US POLITICAL AFFAIRS: ‘The election has to happen’

Former vice president Joe Biden (Left) and US President Donald Trump (Right) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Former vice president Joe Biden (Left) and US President Donald Trump (Right)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
WASHINGTON – Exactly a month ago, on March 3, I drove to Northern Virginia to interview voters. The presidential primaries were under way, and a steady stream of voters kept coming in and out of the ballot stations in Alexandria and Arlington despite a rainy morning. Some 1.3 million people turned out to vote – nearly 30%  more than in 2016’s primaries.
Today, that sight of hundreds of people gathering in the same place seems like a distant memory. Are we going to see these lines again in 2020?
Fifteen states have already announced they’d postpone their primaries, six of them to June 2, which has now become a significant date on the political schedule. Three states – Alaska, Wyoming and Hawaii – are expected to vote exclusively by mail.
For the two remaining Democratic candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, it means that the final stretch of their race is about to take place entirely online: With no rallies, no selfies, no door-to-door canvassing, and without in-person conversations with voters.
Evan Halper is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, who covers, among other issues, how the coronavirus could affect the election.
“Both parties are racing to radically change how they approach the election,” he told The Jerusalem Post. "It’s hard to overstate what a massive shift this is.”
“Both Biden and Trump would need to pivot in ways that they haven’t before. They’re moving into the frontier,” Halper said. “Digital pioneers in both parties have been pushing the candidates to go [in this direction], but they had been reluctant to do that so far.”
He said that when trying to decide which party is best equipped for a virtual campaign, it’s a tough call. “The Trump campaign has been working on fine-tuning its digital machine for years. They’re very good at finding and micro-targeting people on Facebook. They can tailor the message that they send to you online,” he told the Post.
“Now, there’s a question whether micro-targeting people on Facebook is going to be worth it, with this virus having just so dramatically upturned the landscape, and [there’s question as to] what people are interested in and where are you going to find them and talk to them,” Halper added.
One place where Democrats have excelled is in organic online organizing, he said. “After they got beat in the 2016 presidential election, a lot of Democratic tech start-ups were created, and they started to focus a lot on what they can do digitally to catch up. Democrats have always been the party of organizing. They have come a long way since 2016 and figuring out online how you can bring people together, activate and mobilize them.”
The question is, who will be quick to adapt to the new reality and keep voters engaged? Sanders’s team, considered more digital-oriented, was first to come up with the idea of an online concert some two weeks ago, featuring Neil Young, who played his hit “Heart of Gold.” Biden, on the other hand, has struggled with the new format, especially when it comes to working live with a teleprompter.
“He’s an old-school retail politician, and his campaign did not have much of a digital operation at all,” Halper said, noting the rocky road Biden has faced in his transition to an online campaign. “They were way behind like what Bernie Sanders was doing. And whether he can make the transition will be interesting to see.
“Biden doesn’t necessarily need to be that good at it this week or next week,” he continued. “He needs to get good at it soon. They do need to figure this out for when people pay more attention to the campaign, a few weeks from now; he needs to be doing much better than he was when [he started].”
ANOTHER CHALLENGE the two Democratic candidates are facing is to stay relevant at times when they can’t meet supporters. An online town hall is a nice gimmick, but it won’t keep people engaged forever. And while President Donald Trump is managing the coronavirus task force from the Oval Office, Biden and Sanders are finding themselves on the sidelines, with little to no effect on the conversation.
Halper told the Post that despite the coronavirus, and the assumption that people will not think about politics right now, “you’re seeing the willingness of voters to engage.”
“Because everyone’s feeling that the stakes of this election have gotten higher, now that we’re in this public health crisis. All the people I’ve been talking to are reporting much higher engagement levels when they do get ahold of people,” he said. “When they have volunteers call, people are picking up the phone. They can’t knock on doors, but people are responding to email or text. People are showing up, coming to virtual meetings, in levels that are much higher than they were before. It’s a new frontier, and what it’s going to look like a month from now, I don’t think anyone can even say.”
Another idea that is gaining momentum is relational and community organizing. “That means finding people in your friends or family who you’re already talking to online, and finding openings to have political conversations with them virtually and getting activists to do that,” said Halper.
The two parties’ conventions are just three and four months away. It is hard to see the [Democratic National Convention] taking place as planned on July 13 in Milwaukee, with some 30,000 people, and the same applies to the Republican National Convention in Charlotte in late August.
The Democratic front-runner, Joe Biden, said on Tuesday that “it’s hard to envision” a scenario in which the convention gathers as usual in some 100 days. He added that from the Civil War to World War II, the US was able to hold both parties’ conventions and primaries, but acknowledged that “the fact is it may have to be different.”
“The Summer Olympics has been canceled,” Halper said, “so I’d say the odds are pretty good that a convention, where tens of thousands of people need to congregate in an arena, is not going to happen.
“But the parties are waiting until the last possible minute to call them off,” he continued. “They’re trying to figure out what they can do to make this work virtually. Both of them get a big bump from these conventions. It’s a big media moment. The candidate receives national attention. It is also a lot of free media, so they’re not excited about calling them off. But I’m not betting on the convention happening.”
BUT WHAT if, God forbid, the pandemic will still be here in November? Is there any chance to postpone the general elections?
The short answer is no. Legal experts, as well as a 2004 Congressional Research Service Report, make the case that such an unprecedented move would require the approval of the Democratic-led Congress, basically meaning that without bipartisan support, there is no chance to postpone the elections.
“The Executive Branch does not appear to currently have the authority to establish or postpone the dates of elections at either the federal or state level in the event of an emergency situation,” the report reads. “It would appear that Congress could enact a statute delegating the authority to postpone an election to the Executive Branch.”
So what is the alternative? The option that is most widely discussed is moving to a vote-by-mail system. According to the US Election Assistance Commission, in 2016 more than 41% of all ballots were cast before Election Day. “Of the total turnout, approximately 17% of votes were cast using in-person early voting, and nearly 24% were cast using by-mail absentee voting.”
Some 35 states are currently allowing either universal vote-by-mail or “no excuse” vote-by-mail. The other states require a reason to vote absentee. However, a transition to universal vote-by-mail in all 50 states on such short notice is complicated, and would require states to act immediately to ensure a seamless voting process. It’s unclear, for example, how well equipped they are to handle the influx of ballots that is expected.
Another initiative that House Democrats tried to push as a part of the stimulus package is to require “at least 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections.”
Trump pushed back against the Democrats’ attempt to pass this legislation and other provisions that would have the federal government give $4 billion to states to help facilitate absentee ballots and allow same-day registration and online registration.
“The things they had in there were crazy,” he said in an interview with Fox News. “They had things, levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to, you would never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
“The November election can’t be pushed back,” Halper said. “You’d have to change the Constitution to move the election more than a couple of weeks. The election has to happen. And the fact that we see all these primary elections in chaos is triggering a lot of movements and discussion about how to expand voting by mail.”