20 March 2020

COVID-19 and the US elections

Sergiu Medar

The US elections will be held in November 2020. It means that the electoral campaign and candidates’ elections for the US presidency, be it democratic or republican, has already started. If the Republican Party has one candidate only, Donald Trump, the Democratic Party experiences a tough fight between the former US vice-president, Joseph Biden, and senator Bernie Sanders. The COVID-19 pandemic is already influencing the electoral process, not to mention the obvious advantage for one camp or another. Only if the US finds and launches a vaccine before the elections, this can decisively tip the balance in favour of the effective president.

Image source: ProfiMedia

On November 3rd 2020, the US will choose a new president. Currently, there are three major candidates running for the White House: Donald Trump, from the Republican Party, who is running for his second mandate, and Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who are running for the nominalization as Democratic Party’s candidate for the supreme state position.

They must adapt their messages to the pandemic crisis on the COVID-19 infection. In the US, alike other states in the world, except for China, in the last weeks, the increased number of cases had an asymptotical development. In crisis situations, generally, the political leaders and parties have two chances: to calm down the situation or to solve it on short or medium term and, then, capitalize their success by wining any electoral campaign, or to not have the expected results, missing their goals for the new elections. In the competition with the opposition, the leaders and parties who are running the states have the advantage of having all the governmental system’s levers. Also, these are vulnerable to the effectiveness of the measures taken in combating the pandemic.

During the last year, the Democratic Party’s candidates have criticized the Trump’s Administration renunciation of the liberal principles which defined the US policy so far. Also, they criticized the US isolation policy by giving up the collective actions in different regions of the world, particularly in the security field. Trump did not miss any internal or international public intervention to underline the US ascendant economic development during his administration, accusing, at the same time, the democrats for being “socialists”.

As the COVID-19 infection spread on the US territory affecting a big number of voters, whereat were added a light effect on the economic federal benchmarks, the nature of the electoral campaign changed. The White House competition has different forms, and the one that will be more creative and to find and apply new and effective mobilization or convincing methods of the voters, will win. Therefore, the US presidency candidates are presenting their proposals from their own governance programs through the virtual space.

The transformation of the electoral campaign into an online campaign is an increased vulnerability to voters’ manipulation through disinformation, in order to shunt the real message.

Friday March 13th, Donald Trump declared national state of emergency in the US, through a speech held at the White House. On this occasion, he announced he offered the institutions involved in solving the crisis 50 billion dollars. He asked for the modification, when necessary, of the health legislation, to increase action’s effectiveness against the virus. Although it is not common for him, Trump criticized his own administration for not being ready to face the pandemic. Also, he announced that starting next week he will offer the health facilities 1, 4 million coronavirus tests, whereat he will add, in a month, up to 5 million new tests. Through these measures, Trump created an electoral advantage, taking measures to favour the population.

Joe Biden has taken the defender of US inhabitants interests’ position. To that end, he held a speech where he proposed the elaboration of a detailed plan and a set of goals for testing and hospitalizing the infected people, as well as the acceleration of creating a vaccine for the coronavirus. Biden, as representative of the opposition, has said that the nation lost its trust in the US president, due to the “adversary relation he has with the truth”.

Two hours after Biden’s speech, senator Bernie Sanders, also candidate for the Democratic Party nominalization, warned that the “number of deaths after COVID-19 could cross the US loses’ number from the World War II”. Sanders strongly attacked the current administration, showing that “its incompetence and ignorance threatened many lives of many people of this country”.

The two Democrats have held the speeches mentioned above in front of a small number of reporters, in order to fit in the federal regulations on COVID-19’s spread. In fact, they have cancelled also the famous speeches addressed to audiences during the electoral tours. This tour would have been held before the partial elections for the Democratic Party’s nominalization from some states. In Biden’s program, for example, there were included the electoral events with Chicago and Miami voters, followed by Arizona, Illinois, Florida and Ohio elections.

These were transformed into virtual events. In fact, the two democratic candidates have recommended their own campaign teams to work from home.

President Trump cancelled all the electoral events and the fund raising ones. It is an important disadvantage for the Republican Party candidate, popular thanks to his charisma and capacity to mobilize the population. By sending only online messages, he loses a major advantage.

Democrats think this crisis will help them in attracting a moderated, independent electorate from the big cities’ suburbs. The 2018 elections for the Representatives Chamber were won by democrats, even with their votes. They, according to surveys, seem to disagree with the language of the current president, but given country’s good economic results they were tempted to vote for him. Also, they would vote Biden in the competition with Sanders.

Voters from the countryside, which were normally voting with the Republican candidate, now affected by restrictions imposed by the Trump Administration related to the productions and commercialization of owned products, may vote against him. Also, the rural voters are more difficult to convince through the online space, especially due to the inability of old people to use the virtual world.

Except for cancelling events with big crowds, candidates are losing also other classical methods to attract the electorate, like hand-shaking, hugs, hugging and kissing kids, common work with the campaign staff in operational centers with many members, convincing the voters through door-to-door actions of volunteers and others.

According to Washington analysts, when, traditionally, in crises situations, parties try to get along, one can observe that now this is not the case, as the Democrats and the Republicans are accusing each other a lot lately.

According to US Quinnipiac University surveys, in the March 2-7 week, only 4 out of 10 Republicans think that the COVID-19 pandemic will change their lifestyle, meanwhile among the Democrats the number is double. Nationally, one can state that the Republicans follow closely the US president attitude to minimize crisis’s effects and are accusing the Democrats and the entire media for referring to coronavirus’s effects as to the main electoral campaign topic.

However, in the official Oval Office statement, Trump stated: “I am not worried”, less than a week after he decided to give each American citizen a check worth of 1000 dollars. This gesture would have been interpreted, in other states, as electoral bribe. In the US, people will get this gesture as a support given by the national government to all American citizens.

A series of US analysts are wondering whether Trump will postpone the 2020 elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Some are saying that Trump is tempted to extend the period of his first legislature with two more years. The question is: “Can the US president change the elections date?” Hans von Spakovsky, expert on electoral legislation issues for Heritage Foundation, and NGO known for its support for the Trump administration, states that:  “The president does not have the power to change the federal elections’ data”. This interdiction is included in the Constitution, which mentions the US Congress as the only institution that can establish the “date, place and manner” to held federal elections. According to the federal legislation, these are held “in the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, each four years, alternating the elections of each US president and vice-president”.

At the same time, the US Congress must vote also the change of the president’s election date, which is currently held in the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December, which will be, in 2020, December 14th.

Any changes that require the modification of the US constitution can be made only with the vote of at least two thirds of the members of US Congress’s two chambers. In the current composition of the US Congress, with a large democratic majority in the House of Representatives and a small Republican majority in the Senate, it is virtually impossible for such a vote to pass.

Trump's re-election depends on the effectiveness of measures to be taken in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The successful making and use of a vaccine would probably make the current president to easily enter the second term.

Translated by Andreea Soare