Since 1976, US presidential campaigns have started earlier and earlier every election cycle.
President Trump filed for reelection before he was even sworn in. New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang announced his presidential campaign in November 2017, some three years before the 2020 general election. Senator Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, was set to begin exploring a 2024 bid for the Republican nomination with a trip to New Hampshire next month.
But the coronavirus created a twist. Yang, Bernie Sanders, and the entire presidential race from just earlier this year was a different chapter in American life. The Cotton trip is postponed. And the 2020 general election might be the shortest in living memory.
At the moment, the presidential race is essentially on pause. When Super Tuesday happened, it basically crowned Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee. But instead of the general election beginning the next day, the nation moved immediately to being consumed by the coronavirus response.
No one has any idea when a campaign in the traditional sense of the word will start back up — or if it will. Yes, there will be an election. Yes, Biden is in the process of selecting a running mate.
But, as Biden noted on Sunday, while the Democratic National Convention was just pushed back a month to August, the former vice president expects no one will gather at a convention hall. It will be virtual somehow.
It’s the most tangible example yet of just how short the general election campaign could be. With that convention, and whatever the Republicans decide to do with their own convention a week later, it will suddenly be September. Typically the first televised debate would occur that month. In all, the general election campaign could be just 12 short weeks.
Here are three major ways coronavirus may impact the rhythm of 2020 presidential campaign.
1. Trump is not defining Biden, yet Biden cannot get any attention
Now is the period when presidential campaigns would traditionally build up and when they would try to define themselves and their opponents. In 2000, Al Gore tried to distance himself from Bill Clinton. In 2004, John Kerry was “swift boated” — the slanderous television ads that attempted to undercut his military service. In 2008, Barack Obama embarked on a European tour helping to show he was fit for the job. In 2012, Obama’s campaign went nearly bankrupt in running so many negative ads against Mitt Romney. In 2016, Super PACs rallied to Hillary Clinton’s aid, while Republicans were sorting out their feelings about Trump.
None of this is happening in the 2020 campaign. No doubt, there are themes that Biden would like to make part of the campaign discussion. For example, he has long claimed he decided to run for president because of the way that Trump talked about the 2017 white supremacy rally in Charlottesville. He may wish to talk about some of the chaotic elements in Trump’s foreign policy. But no one wants to hear that right now.
On the other hand, this might be a more critical lost moment for Trump. It is standard practice that incumbents pounce when their likely general election opponent is beginning to pivot away from a primary contest and to November. Trump isn’t really doing that from the White House podium.
To be clear, there are television ads trying to define Trump and Biden on the air right now from Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA and pro-Trump Super PAC America First, but they are lost in the discussion. Viewers have bigger things on their minds.
2. Super PACs, and the ultra-rich people who fund them, could play a bigger role
Speaking of Super PACs, expect to hear from them a lot in this truncated election year. True, Trump has already raised a record amount for his reelection campaign. And, true, Democrats appear to be rallying financially behind Biden.
But the traditional ways that candidates and political parties raise money is just not happening anymore. Instead, there are virtual fundraisers, which may not be as lucrative.
The biggest factor in fundraising, however, could be the larger economic collapse that is under way. The bedrock of modern political fundraising is to have a wide base of low-dollar contributors. Today, many of these regular people have lost a job, had pay reduced, gotten sick, and are looking to spend $15 on paper towels, not on the future of the Supreme Court.
This is where wealthy donors could play an outsized role in this campaign, more than ever before. A few people can give an unlimited amount of money to an organization, which can spend a record amount on ads for just a few weeks. Here’s looking at you, Mike Bloomberg and Sheldon Adelson.
3. Swing states probably won’t get the attention they usually do
By now, most Americans who pay even a little attention to politics understand that there is something called an Electoral College that technically elects presidents. Further, they may know that this Electoral College means that the presidential campaign only really takes place in a handful of swing states.
Since 40 or so of the 50 states in the country reliably vote for one party’s candidate or the other, it is in the remaining states were campaign staff are hired to knock on doors, where the bulk of television ad money is spent, and where candidates hold basically all campaign events.
But with coronavirus, swing-state voters may only want to answer the door if it is a grocery delivery. Television advertising could remain the same in swing states, but the message might be less tailored amid a global epidemic. And campaign rallies? Nope. Not happening anytime soon.
By the fall, the campaign may return to something similar to pre-coronavirus times. But like so much in this bizarre moment in American life, the true campaign could be shorter than most voters have ever experienced.
James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.