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How the pandemic might have been different if this wasn’t an election year

We know that the pandemic is affecting the election, but how is the election affecting the pandemic?

President Donald Trump kisses the American flag after speaking at Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2020, at the National Harbor, in Oxon Hill, Md., Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020.
Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The presidential election is more than five months away, but it’s already been affected by COVID-19, with debate over the security of voting by mail and political parties mulling what virtual conventions would look like.

But what if the novel coronavirus had emerged two years ago? Or one year from now?

Put another way: We know that the pandemic is affecting the election, but how is the election affecting the pandemic?

“I think the question is an interesting one, both from the perspective of voters and from the perspective of government officials themselves,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and a political science professor at Brigham Young University.

The questions are somewhat intertwined, as is the way both the pandemic and the election are playing out. Critics of President Donald Trump, for example, have complained that his White House briefings sometimes sound like campaign events, which have been suspended because of prohibitions against large gatherings. Trump supporters do not agree, saying they are important, unfiltered sources of information.

But there are ways in which the pandemic and its effects could be both worse and better because of this being an election year. Here’s what Karpowitz and other political and public-health experts say.

‘Considerable pressures’

Any discussion of how an election affects the pandemic is speculative, as there are no similar cases in recent history that could apply. When the country was in the throes of a flu pandemic in 1918, it was the year for midterms, not time to elect the president.

Candidates, however, still had to be creative, said Marian Moser Jones, a social historian and ethicist of public health at the University of Maryland.

In Missouri, for example, Republican Senate candidate Selden Spencer gave some speeches on top of his car, which kept him from breathing on voters, but still violated rules against public gatherings.

Because this is an election year, the president and the nation’s governors may be under increased pressure to relax rules against crowd gatherings. “Public gatherings have been, throughout U.S. history, central to election-year politics,” Jones said.

“Even though we now have television, radio and the internet to get the message out, politicians still know that actually appearing in person, connecting with people in person, is important, so I can’t imagine that this will be a completely objective decision.” The pressure will be especially acute to allow outdoor gatherings in swing states, and the loss of traditional campaign venues like state fairs will be difficult to replace.

Most healthy people under 65 do not get seriously sick if they contract the virus. About 4 in 10 adults have a higher risk of developing serious illness if they become infected due to increased age or underlying health conditions, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. (The number is lowest in Utah, 30%.)

But some healthy young people do get sick and die, and much remains unknown about the virus. And allowing large gatherings, like political conventions or state fairs, could result in new outbreaks, health officials say.

Jones also said it’s possible that the amounts of relief money sent to the states might be different if it were not an election year. She cited research that has analyzed the distribution of money after disasters between 1981 and 2004.

“Especially since the 1988 Stafford Act — which allows the president to declare a disaster and trigger the release of billions of dollars to a state — since then, highly competitive swing states could get twice as much money as uncompetitive states,” Jones said.

And this was true whether the president was a Republican or Democrat, she added.

“I do think there are considerable election-year pressures that are operating here. And that we can say, based on reliable analyses by political scientists of recent history, that if it weren’t’ an election year, those pressures would be less severe.”

Show us the money

John Gasper, associate teaching professor of economics and assistant dean of strategic initiatives at the Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh, has also studied disaster relief and said that distributions could well be different because of this being an election year.

“It’s an open question, because we’re still in the middle of it; we don’t know how it’s going to pan out because there’s so much uncertainty and, to be honest, chaos, but the timing probably does matter,” Gasper said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, makes recommendations to presidents about how much aid should be given, but that is privileged information. “If the president decides to go in a different direction from what FEMA chooses to do, there’s really no oversight. The executive is the executive on this.”

There are other financial incentives that can be distributed to woo voters in swing states as well, such as the economic stimulus payments, which, in the case of paper checks, bore the president’s signature, as did letters to people who received direct deposits. And CNBC reported recently that three-quarters of likely voters in swing states want more cash payments from the government, putting conservative lawmakers up for reelection at odds with their values: Should they vote for payments that make constituents happy, even if it adds billions of dollars to the national debt?

That’s an ethical morass that would be less difficult if it weren’t an election year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and many Democrats support a new stimulus package that would authorize another $3 trillion in government spending. They want to give money to state and local governments, tribal nations and territories and the U.S. Postal Service. But it drew outrage from Republicans who said is a multitrillion-dollar funding of the Democratic agenda disguised as COVID-19 relief.

“This is a $3 trillion dollar wish list of progressive priorities, one that has absolutely no chance of passing in the Senate,” Utah Sen. Mike Lee said on Fox News.

Although Gasper’s work has primarily been on natural disasters, such as hurricanes, the pandemic qualifies as a disaster, he said. And like all crises, the pandemic presents elected officials with a unique opportunity to shine — or disappoint.

“Are elected officials responding competently to this test or challenge of leadership that has been presented to them? That’s how I’ve looked at natural disasters in the past, where there’s this unexpected, random shock to the system, but they are very much an opportunity for leaders to show leadership and their decision-making abilities in the face of this crisis. The pandemic clearly is a test in the same way.”

An election looming, however, injects urgency into the response of officials who are seeking reelection, whether in the White House, or at the state level. This year, gubernatorial elections will be held in 11 states, including Utah.

“It’s a good question ... if it’s not influencing me directly, maybe I could run unemployment a little higher,” Gasper said. “We just don’t know because we’ve never seen an event like this before.”

Rally ’round the flag?

Conspiracy theorists on the internet have circulated that there’s a corresponding pandemic for every election year, leading Snopes.com to debunk this theory.

The idea may stem from the thinking that presidents can benefit from crises, a phenomenon known as a “rally ’round the flag” effect. But while Trump’s numbers have held steady with his base, he hasn’t seen a spike in approval like President George W. Bush did in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

“After 9/11, President Bush, who had given no indication of strong leadership up until that point, stood up and truly became presidential and said, ‘We’re not at war with Islam’ and people flocked to him, as they tend to do,” said Max J. Skidmore, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the author of “Presidents, Pandemics and Politics.”

Two weeks after 9/11, nearly 90% of Democrats and independents approved of Bush’s performance. But a year later, Democratic approval had fallen to under 50%, according to an analysis in The Washington Post.

Skidmore said he believes Trump had a small and temporary “rally ’round the flag’ boost, but that his pro-business, anti-government philosophy works against him in a pandemic or natural disaster in which people are looking for government to help. “You have to understand government, have confidence in him and be able to make it work,” he said.

Similarly, Karpowitz, at BYU, said that the president’s style, both in campaigning and governing, has precluded any sort of unifying of the country that might have occurred in a nonelection year.

“I can’t remember a president in my lifetime who has governed with his narrow base so much at the forefront of everything he’s done,” Karpowitz said.

“He’s committed to a certain style of governing that’s both substantive and symbolic; it hasn’t been a set of appeals that have been designed to bring different groups together, rather it’s been designed to highlight the differences. When you campaign like that for president, and then you govern like that for three years, then the reservoirs of good will just are not present to draw upon.”

That said, Karpowitz said he’s not sure that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee in 2016, would have been any more effective in unifying the country had she been faced with a pandemic in an election year.

“Presidential election years remind people of their partisan commitments. That’s one thing a campaign does pretty effectively, and the pandemic is coming in the midst of the moment every four years in which those partisan commitments are at their peak, and that’s only going to increase between now and November.”

Karpowitz added that he doesn’t believe Trump or any president would want a pandemic and accompanying recession during their administration, especially since there is little they can do to control it.

“We give presidents too much credit when the economy is going well, and probably too much blame when it’s going poorly,” he said.

“But there’s no question that that those bigger forces are at play, and the campaigning decisions by both the president and Joe Biden are going to be swamped by the larger set of public health and economic circumstances.”