From the White House to the county courthouse, the coronavirus pandemic has drastically upended the 2020 elections.
Many Democratic leaders now doubt their national party convention will take place as planned in July, while President Trump’s determination to hold the Republican convention could collide with life-or-death realities.
Both Trump and former vice president Joe Biden are wary of holding public events too soon and may not engage in full-fledged campaigning until the summer.
And hundreds of congressional, statewide, and local candidates, who are always overshadowed in presidential years, are turning to the role of good Samaritan — aiding with groceries and hiring people newly out of work in an effort to stay visible without being insensitive to the crisis.
The virus has fundamentally transformed political life in America, affecting how candidates communicate with voters, raise money from donors, and confront their opponents. This is for now the country’s first virtual campaign as the risk of disease physically separates candidates from the people they seek to represent and pushes officeseekers from Biden on down to appeal to homebound voters and contributors through balky Web videos.
Even when more traditional electioneering resumes, the nature of this race will be profoundly different.
The outbreak has thrust the public health threat and economic downturn to the forefront in races up and down the ballot this year.
Incumbents at every level, starting with Trump, will be judged on how they prepared for and steered the country through a crisis that has turned the life of nearly every voter upside down.
“This is the question that is going to dominate the election: How did you perform in the great crisis?” said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who has canceled fund-raisers and instead scheduled tele-town hall events with guests like the provost at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
But until the spread of the virus slows, there is likely to be little interest in the presidential race and even less in state and local races.
Representative Sean Casten, an Illinois Democrat, has culled his campaign’s phone bank list to voters 60 or older. Rather than ask them policy questions or trumpet his accomplishments, Casten’s volunteers ask if they need any “health and safety information” and provide a list of senior-only hours at local supermarkets.
“Nobody wants to talk about my thoughts on carbon pricing,” said Casten, who was a renewable energy executive before he was elected to Congress in 2018.
The long sweep of US history is filled with presidential elections that took place during times of war and upheaval, but there is little modern precedent for a campaign unfolding against a backdrop of such widespread national fear.
The closest comparison may be the New York mayoral race in 2001, when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks loomed over the city’s general election. In presidential politics, the Vietnam War, assassinations and civil rights struggles shaped the 1968 campaign and seemed to reveal a country coming apart.