The United States political system is marked every four years by a momentous spectacle: a presidential election. On the first Tuesday after Nov. 1, Americans cast ballots for who they believe should hold one of the most powerful offices in the world. But an election is much more than just a single day of voting; rather, it is months and months of campaigning. An election is a battle of ideas and policy and, as 2020 has shown, can oftentimes be incredibly divisive.
In addition to the typical tensions surrounding an election season, this year has also been marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, making the current presidential election unusually unlike any other. Associate Professor of Political Science Matt Hindman has been covering the election closely, not just in the courses he is teaching but also with various media outlets. In this Q&A, he helps explain just what is so unusual about this election season, how the candidates are adapting and how voters are responding.
What are the key issues voters are concerned about this year?
Number one is coronavirus. I think that is something that is just obvious; it’s inescapable. We’re conducting this interview remotely because of the coronavirus. So that’s something that is on voters’ minds.
Some other key issues: racial unrest in cities or law and order, depending on how you want to characterize that issue. Above all, a referendum on the Trump presidency. It’s a change of pace from how politics is usually conducted.
Putting COVID-19 aside, when you compare previous federal election campaigns to 2020, what elements stand out this year as being particularly intriguing or novel?
The first thing is Democrats really want to beat Trump badly and they chose a candidate with electability in mind. The Democratic candidate is not someone who is particularly inspiring or imaginative, like we’ve seen in the past. He seemed to be a safe choice and that is a reflection of who is currently president. I don’t want to say that is new, but in recent elections voters have gone with the shiny, new candidate: Bush, Obama, Clinton, etc. Someone with a fresh face in politics or whose candidacy breaks precedent. This time, they went with someone who has been around forever because they think it will help the cause of beating Trump.
The second thing is obviously COVID-19-related. We’ve had a campaign in which the candidates have not traveled much. The knock against Biden is that he’s conducting his campaign from his basement, but some would say that is the responsible thing to do. Look at the Tulsa rally where Hermann Cain contracted the coronavirus and died. Or the Amy Coney Barrett super-spreader event. Campaigns have really had to adapt to this new era and it has been interesting to see how they’ve done that. We have tried to combine some element of politics-as-usual, such as with the debates, with this new age of social distancing and doing things online. I think there are elements of it that will carry over to future campaigns.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected this election and the Trump and Biden campaigns?
One way that COVID-19 has really hurt Trump is it has taken away his claim to have a wonderful economy. That’s the one issue in which Americans tend to view him favorably. That may still be true since Americans may not altogether blame him for the virus, but it has chipped away at one of his main selling points. Before COVID, Biden was only a few points ahead of Trump; now, he’s further in the lead.
We’re talking about a small numbers of persuadable voters here, but it has taken the wind out of Trump’s main selling point. His slogan “Keep America Great” has gone away because more Americans don’t think we are doing so great.
Another factor is that people have not been happy with the president’s lack of care or attention to the science behind it. One of the things that probably hurt his polling most was when he himself got COVID-19. It followed a contentious debate that probably hurt him, too, but it also made him seem like he was behaving irresponsibly in a manner inconsistent with what the CDC was telling him to do. It exposed the gap between his reliance not on expertise and the experts, but instead on his own confidence.
I’ll lastly say Trump had an opportunity for this to help his election. What often happens in a national emergency is there is a “rally around the flag” effect. People back the president if he or she is handling it in a way that verges on responsible or seems to push us in the right direction. From the beginning, he tried to say that COIVD-19 was going to go away and bragged about what a great scientific mind he has. Nobody but his most fervent supporters bought that he was doing a good job and most of them are driven by their dislike of the other side.
What are you seeing as each candidate’s major strengths and weaknesses?
Biden’s strength is his projection of a return to normality. He was Obama’s vice president and Obama is still very popular among Democrats and Independents. Biden finished his two terms in office relatively popular and that is a strength for him. He has maybe two weakness. There are not a lot of people who are crazy enthusiastic about a Biden presidency. A lot of his support is driven by dislike of Trump. He’s also old; he’ll be the oldest president we have ever had.
With Trump, he has the benefit of incumbency. Presidents that run for reelection usually win and that is a benefit to him. His biggest weakness is his personal favorability is low. People don’t like him. Regardless of his policy, he is just not a popular guy.
There has been a big effort to turn out the vote. Are you noticing any effects of that? Are people turning out for one candidate in particular or both? Are certain groups turning out in greater numbers?
There’s more enthusiasm this year across the board. The one negative is the pandemic has enabled the parties to register fewer voters than was the case in years past. That said, among voters who are registered to vote, we will see a high turnout, which is always a good thing.
I do think, though, we are likely to see more challenged ballots this year just because Americans are voting in different ways and parties, being the self-interested actors they always are, are going to probably challenge the validity of some of those ballots.
Especially with voting by mail, there are a lot of hoops to jump through. And if any of it is done out of order, there is something for somebody to nitpick about.
If I do have one concern it is that despite the enthusiasm and people voting, many of those votes might not count, so that is the flip side. Since Democrats are more likely to vote by mail, there is some concern that Democratic votes might not be counted.
What are you seeing with regard to mail-in and absentee voting? Do those pose any special implications for either candidate?
There’s a big partisan split about how Americans are reporting they are going to vote. Among both early voters and mail-in voters, Democrats have a large lead. Among people who are reporting they are going to vote on election day, Republicans have a large lead. There are probably lots of reasons for it. Trump has spent months trying to delegitimize mail-in voting, saying it’s ripe for fraud, etc. It’s also just the case that in the Democratic Party constituency there are a lot of people in urban areas and we have seen a lot of long lines in urban areas on Election Day. A lot of people who are looking to avoid those lines, specifically Democratic Americans hoping to make sure their votes are counted, are showing up early to vote. Add some enthusiasm into the mix and that leads to some pretty high turnout. It also leads to some partisan divisions.
We’re not sure what to expect on Election Day. States that tally their early votes first are going to show huge Democratic leads. States where early ballots are not counted right away will have big Republican leads. Election Day is going to be pretty interesting because of these divides in how Americans are voting.
Do you think the election results will be contested?
I think if Biden wins a sufficient number of states, there is only so much contestation that can happen. If it’s a close enough election, by close I mean within one or two percent in tipping-point states, then, yes, it will be contested and candidates will spend a lot of money on lawyers. This is what happened in Florida in 2000 and I think that the opportunity for contesting ballots is going to be much more widespread than that.
If polls are close to accurate this year we probably won’t have the opportunity because Pennsylvania will go Biden by four or five points and Florida would probably go for Biden by a couple of points. If that’s the case, that’s probably too much to contest. But if it is a significantly closer race than the polls suggest, then who knows what happens next?
In the U.S, voting is a constitutional right. Find your local polling place, stay informed and cast your vote on or before Election Day on Nov. 3.