The Role of COVID-19 in the 2020 Election

Kun Liu, Staff Writer

The eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced voters in this election cycle to react in ways that will essentially change the game. 

Dan Honig, assistant professor of international development at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, discussed the impacts on election outcome and voter behaviour with Johns Hopkins Magazine.

Since the coronavirus outbreak , how has the pandemic affected the Democratic presidential primary race?

“In the political context, when we face an uncertain future, we are going to gravitate toward a political option that feels less risky. In other words, when we feel anxiety or fear we gravitate toward the safety of the known which, in this case, is Joe Biden,” Honig said.

Certain states have opened the option of vote-by-mail. Do you encourage other states to follow similar measures? What are the impacts of not making these adjustments? 

“Yes, I think that they probably should. First, vote by mail is a great response in part because some of the fear from voters is fear of catching the disease at the voting booth, which will certainly decrease voter turnout,” Honig said. “This is conjecture, but COVID-related anxiety could dissuade voters differentially—higher risk groups are likely to be less willing to show up at the polls, which would affect the composition of the electorate and the eventual winner of the election.” 

Two remaining presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, are seeking to utilize the pandemic related-anxiety to swing voters towards themselves: Who would benefit from a “flight to safety” between Donald Trump and Joe Biden?

“A well-crafted voter survey could give insight into what voters determine as the “safer” candidate in this matchup. Donald Trump, as president, represents the status quo and, in many circumstances, the incumbent is the “safe” pick. “Don’t change horses in midstream,” as Lincoln put it when running for reelection in the midst of the Civil War. Trump is far from a traditional candidate and president, however. It is possible that voters might see Joe Biden as a more traditional, mainstream candidate, and thus he would benefit from a “flight to safety” effect.” Honig said. 

What are the broader political implications of COVID-19 in the U.S.?

“First, it is possible we’re underestimating the effect of COVID-19 on voting (or, conversely, overestimating it). Consider the effect that COVID-19 might have in the House of Representatives, or in the state legislatures, where just a small shift in voting share can change the outcome of races. I think the anxiety related to COVID-19 has the ability to shape voting in many other elections and politics in ways that aren’t currently well understood.” Honig said.