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6 ways the pandemic transformed politics in a year

Democrats are in power, major industries have been upended, and big government is back ... for now

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President Joe Biden takes off his face mask before speaking during an event to mark International Women’s Day on Monday, March 8, 2021, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

Politics looked very different before the pandemic began, about a year ago. Back in early 2020, then-candidate Joe Biden was struggling in early primary states, then-President Donald Trump faced his first impeachment, and the hottest political meme was a photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., once again asking for your support.

A lot has happened since then.

Here are six ways politics in America has changed since the pandemic began:

1. Democrats are in power

The biggest political change in the past year is Democrats taking the White House and Senate, and public confidence in their ability to handle the pandemic played a big role.

“Had it not been for the pandemic, it’s very likely Donald Trump would have been reelected,” said pollster Scott Rasmussen. “In fact, had the president not tested positive a few weeks before the election, there’s a chance he might have won as well.”

The coronavirus outbreak was one of voters’ top concerns, according to a Pew poll released in August 2020, ahead of issues like foreign policy, guns and immigration. When it came to handling the crisis, Biden had the advantage.

2. Big government is back ... for now

So far, the federal government has made available about $3.5 trillion to combat the virus and accompanying economic crisis. That doesn’t include the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that Biden is expected to sign this week.

You can get a sense of just how massive that response is when you compare pandemic spending to the New Deal in the 1930s that helped pull the country out of the Great Depression, which cost more than $750 billion in today’s dollars, according to calculations using data from the Journal of Economic History.

Though the American Rescue Plan passed on a party-line vote, it’s widely popular: 70% of U.S. adults support it, according to a Pew poll released Tuesday. But don’t expect support for spending like this to last, Rasmussen said.

“Most voters seem to have an attitude, ‘Yeah we’re in a crisis right now, we need to spend whatever it takes, but once we get past this we need to cut back on spending and reduce the debt,’” he said.

3. Attitudes on race changed dramatically

The national reckoning over racism last year will be forever tied to the pandemic, with mass masked protests across the country and anti-racism graphics across social media, while everyone was cooped up at home. The killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis and the national reaction that followed had a dramatic effect on public opinion.

Data from the online survey research firm Civiqs, for example, found support for Black Lives Matter increased nearly as much in two weeks following Floyd’s death than it had in two years. A June 2020 Gallup poll found more Americans named racism as the most important problem facing the U.S. than any time since 1968.

While attitudes have changed since last summer — the percentage of American adults today who say Floyd’s death was murder has fallen from 60% to 36%, per a USA Today-Ipsos poll — the events around 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests have had a lasting impact. The poll found 37% said their thoughts about racial injustice have changed in the past year.

4. Governors aren’t as popular as they used to be

Governors were seen as some of the initial political heroes of the pandemic. Without Trump and the federal government taking a decisive early lead in the crisis, governors became some of the most visible elected officials in their states. The honeymoon is over, though.

Some of the governors celebrated early on for their pandemic response have seen their approval ratings tumble, like Democrats Gavin Newsom, of California, who now faces a recall effort, and Andrew Cuomo, of New York, who faces calls to resign from members of his own party.

It’s not just Newsom and Cuomo, though. A Gallup poll released Tuesday found that the percentage of Americans who believe their state’s governor communicated a clear plan of action in response to the virus has fallen from 56% in June 2020 to 42%.

5. Major industries have been upended

Self-isolation has changed a lot of things that aren’t explicitly political but that could have long-term political consequences, said Rasmussen, including education and health care.

“I think the more that you have these changes in education, the more political leaders are going to start talking about how can we help moms who are taking a bigger role, how can we help parents who are taking a bigger role in education,” he said. “When you talk about telemedicine, everything about insurance, compensation and doctors changes.”

Even the shift to working from home could “change the discussion of labor laws and related issues,” he said.

6. Voting rights became a partisan issue

The pandemic led to widespread expansion of absentee and mail-in voting, with 37 states making changes to their voting procedures, according to Ballotpedia. These nontraditional voting methods have been on the rise in recent years, and Pew found that in 2020, absentee and mail-in ballots made up 46% of the vote.

But there has been backlash. Trump opposed nontraditional voting during the campaign, claiming without evidence that it would lead to voter fraud. And today, voting rights has become a partisan issue.

Last week, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a voting rights bill, on a party-line vote, while Republicans in state legislatures are pushing voter restriction legislation. As of last month, there were 253 bills that would restrict voting access in 43 states, according to the Brennan Center.