WASHINGTON – No roaring crowd will welcome former Vice President Joe Biden’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday, and he may have to keep proper social distance from his vice presidential running mate, Kamala Harris.
President Donald Trump, likewise, will not get the arena full of supporters he wanted at the Republican Party convention the following week — complete with colorful balloons cascading from the rafters. He may deliver his acceptance speech from the White House.
Packing thousands of cheering, shouting party faithful indoors during a global respiratory pandemic would not be a good idea, both parties concluded. The speeches, parties and fundraisers are going virtual.
Beginning Monday, the Democrats will hold four nights of televised speeches and party events from remote spots after abandoning Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as its convention city. The following Monday, August 24, several hundred Republican officials and delegates will gather briefly in Charlotte, North Carolina, to formally nominate Trump for a second term before departing.
The disruptions of the biggest spectacles in American politics are just the latest symptoms of a political season upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Big rallies are canceled, as are the smaller fairs, festivals and farmers markets where politicians and party workers normally would be out canvassing.
Traditional door-knocking, fundraising cocktail parties, handshaking and kissing of babies have largely gone by the wayside for now, and some of those practices may ultimately vanish. The 2020 pandemic-era election (hopefully) will be a unique experience. But some lessons are likely to carry over.
For one, the conventions as grand events “may be a thing of the past,” American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Karlyn Bowman said.
“People have argued that conventions are overrated, that they’re not that meaningful. People have argued that in-person rallies are not that meaningful,” senior fellow John Hudak at the Brookings Institution said. “We’re going to see whether that’s true or not this year.”
After every election, experts try to parse out what worked and what didn’t. This year’s massive “natural experiment” is unique, Hudak said. “2020 is going to let us ask and answer a lot of really important questions about what is meaningful in a campaign.”
Here are seven ways COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has changed the 2020 election so far.
1. The top issue
For many voters, COVID-19 has changed what the election is about.
Trump’s reelection campaign began the year with a tailwind. Unemployment was low and the economy was strong.
“He could point to positive economic numbers and peace and prosperity,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“COVID-19 changed all that.”
Unemployment has risen to Great Depression levels, and the economy has contracted sharply. With more than 5.2 million cases and 166,000 deaths from the ailment, most voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Without the economy to run on, critics have said the president has struggled to articulate an argument for reelection.
2. Shrunken conventions
The usual theatrics of the party conventions will be scaled down dramatically, but experts say it may not make much of a difference.
The conventions typically boost each candidate’s poll numbers a bit, but the “convention bump” usually is temporary, Bowman said.
“I don’t think it has much of an impact on the final outcome,” she added.
The impact could be even smaller this year because many voters have already made up their minds, Kondik noted. “All the partisans on both sides are pretty well lined up behind their respective party nominees.”
The impacts may be greater for the parties themselves. The conventions are big fundraising events. Also, party activists will miss out on the bonding and “organic conversations” about goals and strategies that would happen at an in-person event, Hudak added.
3. Canceled campaigning
Like the conventions, big, in-person rallies may do more to fire up partisans than sway undecided voters.
“Campaigns are going to need to figure out some other means of generating that enthusiasm,” Hudak said.
Losing campaign rallies may hurt Trump more than Biden, he added. Trump enjoys and draws energy from them.
“Not having those rallies, I think, not only hurts his ability to generate enthusiasm within his base,” he said, “I think it actually affects him personally.”
The Biden campaign may suffer less from canceled rallies but more from the loss of in-person, hands-on campaigning. Biden is “sometimes accused of being a little too touchy-feely in his interactions with people,” Kondik said. “But he’s known as being kind of a warm person and someone who gets close to people, and he just can’t do that.”
4. Virtual fundraising
Not only has the coronavirus canceled in-person campaigning, it has moved fund-raising online, too. No more pricey dinners with a chance to get close to the candidate. Donors have to settle for online video chats instead.
It doesn’t seem to have hurt.
“I see very little impact whatsoever on fundraising,” Bowman said.
Neither party is hurting for cash. The candidates and their backers have raised more than $1.6 billion so far, according to a tally by National Public Radio.
5. Get-out-the-vote drives
Normally, armies of campaign workers would be fanning out across the country to knock on doors and encourage voters to go to the polls. Those activities have been scaled way back. For example, many labor unions, which usually would provide legions of workers to back Democratic campaigns, have canceled in-person get-out-the-vote activities.
While both parties are leaning heavily on television, mail and digital advertising, the Trump campaign is still out knocking on doors. Republicans generally have shown less concern about the pandemic.
Door-knocking has a small but significant effect on voter turnout, Kondik said, and “sometimes the margins are what decide presidential elections.”
6. Voter registration
Voter registration drives have been largely grounded, too. After starting the year stronger than 2016, registrations dropped sharply in March and April, according to a study of 12 states and the District of Columbia.
The study notes that most people register to vote at their local Department of Motor Vehicles, and the pandemic closed many DMV offices.
Person-to-person registration drives at festivals, supermarkets, busy street corners and other public locations have also been sharply curtailed.
Those efforts “have significant effects not only on how many people vote, but who votes,” Hudak said, adding, “And doing away with that can have some pretty significant effects.”
Both parties feel the effects, he added, so it’s hard to know what the net impact will be.
7. Vote by mail
Many states are embracing mail-in ballots as a safer alternative to in-person voting. Trump has claimed, repeatedly and without evidence, that it will lead to widespread fraud.
As a result, Republican voters are much less supportive of casting ballots by mail.
With unprecedented numbers of absentee ballots expected to be cast this election, “that can have some really challenging effects for not just the president, but down-ballot Republicans, as well,” Hudak said, referring to others on the ballot.
It also could make for a confusing Election Day.
“If a lot of Republicans are voting on Election Day and those votes are tallied first, it may look like Donald Trump is leading in the state, when in fact, he might ultimately end up losing the state,” Kondik said.
Sorting it out could take days or weeks, during which time, Kondik worries, conspiracy theories could proliferate.
“I think it’s important that we all communicate to voters that we may not know (the outcome) on election night the way that we’re used to in the past. And there’s nothing inherently nefarious about that,” he said.