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  • Matthew Green

Will the coronavirus affect this year’s presidential election?

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

As the number of Americans infected with the coronavirus has continued to climb – including three new cases in Montgomery County, which is just north of Washington, D.C. – some have speculated that the virus will affect the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Could it?

The health effects of the coronavirus are, in my opinion, much more serious and weighty than its political ramifications. Still, it is an election year, and both Democrats and President Trump have been making some partisan hay out of the virus. It is thus worth at least contemplating how it might influence what happens in November.

An (admittedly brief) search in political science literature did not turn up much about the relationship between viral epidemics and election outcomes. Seth Masket, in an excellent short essay about the Ebola virus and the 2014 midterm elections, cited a few relevant studies. One study, by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, found that American voters have sometimes blamed incumbent parties and presidents for “acts of God,” though 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was not one of them.

Based on others’ research and my own speculations, I came up with three possibilities, ranked roughly from most to least likely (in my view).

1. Changes in voter preferences. How people choose to vote could be shaped both directly and indirectly by the coronavirus. If the virus depresses domestic economic growth, that could reduce voter support for the incumbent president (and there is a well-established relationship between the economy and election results). Achen and Bartels surmise that this was why a peak in shark attacks off the New Jersey coast hurt President Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 vote share in the area. The attacks deterred tourism, which hit the region economically, and Wilson was blamed for it.*

There are already plenty of signs that the coronavirus is slowing the global economy, not to mention fueling a major selloff of stocks. Its economic impact may not last long enough, nor be big enough, to weaken Trump’s odds of reelection. But if the virus (or, more accurately, response to the virus) badly damages the U.S. economy for the rest of the year, it would probably spell trouble for the president.

More directly, voters could decide that the White House has mishandled the epidemic. The political scientist David Mayhew wrote that “valence” issues—matters related to government management—often correspond to major shifts in party control of government. Though usually associated with the government’s management of the economy, valence issues could include health-related matters too.

Trump has tried to position himself as the best person to protect Americans from the epidemic. Nonetheless, there have already been distressing stories about malfunctioning test kits supplied by the government, failure to test people who carry the coronavirus, and even the accidental release of a patient who had tested positive for the virus. If these stories continue, it could erode the president’s reputation among voters.

A great deal depends on whether citizens blame the president for something that is largely out of his hands. Explaining why the 1918 flu did not hurt Democrats at the polls, Achen and Bartels suggest that people “thought of the pandemic as part of the natural world rather than as part of the social world.” Voters may be less forgiving today, however. Unlike a century ago, citizens expect the federal government to take an active role in protecting their health, including the prevention and treatment of viral infections.

2. Reduced voter turnout. If the coronavirus becomes even more widespread and lethal, people may decide it is not worth the risk to leave home and head to the polls. In-person voting could especially decline in areas where the pathogen has proliferated, or among voters (like the elderly) who are at greater danger of severe illness. A more extreme possibility is that people are prevented from voting altogether because of government-mandated quarantines.

Fear of the coronavirus has certainly grown, and people could stay away from polling places out of an abundance of caution. For now, though, I am skeptical that this would disproportionately help or hurt either party in the November elections. Keep in mind that a number of states have mail-in voting or make it easy to vote by mail, reducing the importance of in-person voting. Also, as Jeremy Brown points out, the 1918 flu spread “in the pre-antibiotic era.” Medical science has progressed exponentially since then, making it far less probable that it would seriously sicken enough people to put a dent in turnout or lead to massive quarantines.

3. Changes in election campaigns. Finally, there is a chance that the virus hinders the ability of candidates or parties to mount “normal” campaign operations. Perhaps the Democratic Party is unable to hold its convention, preventing a so-called convention bounce in the polls or the resolution of a contested convention (though after Biden’s solid victories in Super Tuesday, the latter seems increasingly unlikely). Even worse, top campaign staff – or, heaven-forbid, one of the major party’s presidential candidates – becomes ill.

This third possibility seems the most far-fetched to me. Yet it can’t be entirely dismissed. The Democratic Party has begun contingency planning should it have to cancel its convention in Milwaukee. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) has warned that fear of the virus could curtail some party and campaign events in her state. And Vice President Mike Pence was recently at a military academy where one student was potentially infected with the virus.

We are still eight months away from Election Day, and it could be that none of these scenarios take place. But the coronavirus is a sobering reminder that, while presidential candidates and parties do lots of long-term strategizing to win elections, the vagaries of Mother Nature can sometimes throw them a powerful curve ball.

* There is some debate over how much the 1916 shark attacks really influenced voter behavior. For a useful summary by Andrew Gelman, see here.

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