World

Presidential candidates adjust convention plans due to Covid-19. US death toll passes 158,000. Democrat Joe Biden has lead in latest polls. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Pandemic and inequality keys to November poll

Donald Trump in a White House meeting last month.
Credit: Anna Moneymaker – Pool / Getty Images

The pandemic election

On November 3, Americans will almost certainly vote.

No presidential election has ever been postponed, including during the Civil War. In 1918, the country went ahead with midterm elections during the Spanish flu pandemic, but masks were mandatory in affected areas and some voting stations in California were closed because there were not enough healthy polling officials.

Still, Donald Trump suggested in a tweet last week that the election should be delayed, claiming postal voting could lead to “the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history”. Postal voting is set to be widely used at the election, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Several studies have found that voter fraud has been almost non-existent at recent US elections. A study in April by Stanford University researchers examined elections from 1996 to 2018 and found postal voting does not tend to benefit either the Republicans or Democrats.

But the pandemic is forcing both Trump and Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, to adjust their campaigns. Most rallies have been cancelled and both parties have scaled back plans for their national conventions later this month. Biden announced this week he will not attend the Democratic convention, which will be held in Wisconsin as a virtual event. The Republicans initially moved the convention from North Carolina, which refused to allow big crowds, to Florida. But the plan was cancelled due to a severe coronavirus outbreak in Florida, and the Republicans will now hold a smaller convention in North Carolina.

Biden has delayed the announcement of who he will pick as his running mate, a question that looms over the campaign. He has said he will choose a woman, and many in the party are hopeful that she will be Black. The leading contenders include Karen Bass, a five-term congresswoman who is liked by members of both parties but is not well known; Susan Rice, a former national security adviser who has never run for elected office; and Kamala Harris, a senator who famously questioned Biden’s record on racial equality during the Democratic primaries.

Biden’s vice-presidential pick is particularly significant because he would be unlikely to seek a second term. If he wins, he will be 78 years old when inaugurated in January, making him the oldest first-term president – a record that is currently held by 74-year-old Trump, who was 70 on inauguration day in 2017.

Trump and Covid-19

The pandemic is taking a devastating toll on America.

As of Thursday, more than 158,000 Americans had died and there were 4,821,296 confirmed cases. In the three months to June, the economy shrank by 9.5 per cent, the steepest fall on record. More than 30 million people – or one in five workers – are receiving unemployment benefits.

Trump has been pushing for schools and businesses to remain open, and claims, wrongly, that the fatality rate in the US is the lowest in the world. About 3.3 per cent of Americans with confirmed Covid-19 infections have died, compared with 1.2 per cent in Australia and 3.8 per cent worldwide.

“I think we’re doing very well,” Trump told Fox News on Monday.

Biden has increasingly attacked Trump’s handling of the pandemic, particularly the president’s dismissal of scientific advice and insistence that the health risks had been inflated.

On Tuesday, Biden noted that Trump had claimed on July 1 that the virus would “just disappear”, and that another 25,000 Americans had since died.

“Mr. President, step up and do your job before even more American families feel the pain of losing a loved one,” Biden said in a tweet.

The pandemic has also exacerbated America’s deep political divides. Republican leaders have tended to oppose lockdowns and compulsory public health measures; Democrats have largely supported them. The first wave of the pandemic mostly affected Democrat-leaning states. In the current second wave of the virus, the states experiencing the worst surges are Nevada, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and South Carolina. All, except Nevada, voted for Trump in 2016.

The issues

Beyond the coronavirus, the other phenomenon that is reshaping the campaign is the nationwide anti-racism movement sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis.

Polls showed more than 70 per cent of Americans supported the demonstrators and more than 60 per cent disapproved of Trump’s handling of the protests and the country’s racial divisions.

Yet Trump’s emphasis on law and order, and his defence of the Confederate flag and insistence that “more white people” are killed by police, may help to energise his white voter base, which could be crucial in midwestern swing states such as Michigan and Wisconsin.

Conversely, the protests could also benefit Biden by lifting the turnout among Black and Hispanic voters. Turnout of Black voters declined in 2016 for the first time in 20 years, although 89 per cent who voted supported Hillary Clinton.

Biden has pledged to target economic inequality, saying he will try to narrow racial gaps in “jobs, wages and wealth”. He is also promising to restore America’s standing on the global stage. Trump is continuing to campaign on many of the issues that galvanised his base in 2016, such as tougher immigration restrictions and pursuing his “America First” foreign and trade policy.

Trump has the benefit of incumbency – there has not been a one-term president since George H. W. Bush, who lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. But incumbency may not serve Trump as well as it has others, because his campaign and support base are so dependent on his status as an agent of change.

The polls

Biden has a strong and growing lead in opinion polls. Nationwide, he is favoured by 50 per cent of voters, compared with 42 per cent who favour Trump, according to the FiveThirtyEight website’s poll aggregator. Biden leads comfortably in five battleground states won by Trump in 2016 – Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina.

Pollsters predicted Clinton would win in 2016, largely because they failed to anticipate Trump’s narrow victories in key swing states. Polling firms insist their state-based data is more accurate this year, saying they are now adjusting for the over-representation of college-educated voters in polling samples. At this stage, Biden’s lead in the swing states is much bigger than Clinton’s was in 2016.

A recent Washington Post–ABC poll found 54 per cent of voters trusted Biden to handle the pandemic, compared with 34 per cent who favoured Trump. Last week, a Fortune–SurveyMonkey poll found that the pandemic, rather than the economy, is now the top concern of voters.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2020 as "Pandemic, inequality keys to November poll".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.