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Where Will Coronavirus Take the United States? Trends in US Politics

Where Will Coronavirus Take the United States? Trends in US Politics
 Heather Hurlburt
Director of the New Models of Policy Change

Like people in most places, Americans cherish the hope that, in times of danger, their leaders will put their differences aside and protect them. Right now Americans appear to be surprisingly in agreement about what the danger is, and who they can trust: strong majorities now say that novel coronavirus poses a significant danger to both health and economic well-being, and that their state and local authorities, as well as national health leaders, are doing a good job in response. One might think, then, that the virus is accomplishing what years of worry from US religious and cultural figures has not - restoring a sense of national unity and diminishing the focus on enemies, internal and external, that has overwhelmed US politics in recent years.

When it comes to politics - and everything in the US does - one would be mistaken.

Polarization is Becoming More Extreme, Not Less

Initially, belief in the seriousness of the pandemic was itself a partisan and cultural signifier in the United States. McKay Coppins of The Atlanticchronicled country clubs where Democratic members golfed soberly and alone, bumping elbows with old friends, while Republicans ostentatiously hugged and rode together in golf carts. Even through Easter weekend some Christian ministers, largely in the South and West, pushed back on public health officials to stage religious services attended by hundreds. And the state of Florida, which has resisted statewide lockdowns, surprised a nation hungry for sports by declaring that staged professional wrestling was an "essential" activity.

Recent polling, however, showsstrong majorities of Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, viewing infectious disease as a "very serious threat" to the country – with Republican concern coming with 5 points of Democrats after being 40 points lower in early March. And large majorities of both parties say that their state and local health officials, and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, are doing a good job. 

Those findings are in line with the "rally round the flag" effect – publics in the United States and elsewhere tend to support leaders, even unpopular ones, in times of crisis. President George W. Bush, for example, saw his approval soar to 90% in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and stay above its pre-9/11 level for two years.

President Trump did see an initial increase in his popularity, in line with the rises in favorability enjoyed by European governments of various ideologies.

President Trump did see an initial increase in his popularity, in line with the rises in favorability enjoyed by European governments of various ideologies. It’s worth noting that publics seem to trust their leaders more regardless of whether the leaders are receiving high marks for their handling of the crisis. At least in the US, this is in keeping with past experience – social science says that voters have an immense need to believe that their leaders are keeping them safe, and give them the benefit of the doubt.

But Trump, unlike Bush after 9/11 or European leaders today, seems to have burned through that goodwill at a high speed. He is now at or below the support he enjoyed before coronavirus arrived, a President who – unusually for the US – has never exceeded 50% public approval during his time in office.

While Trump’s four-in-ten approval ratings might seem enviable for leaders of parliamentary systems, it spells trouble for a President less than six months from election in a two-party system.

In Politics, Democrats Play Nice, Republicans Play Hardball?

As the virus raged, Democrats wrapped up their campaign to choose a challenger to President Trump with so little fuss that the New York Timesheadlined an article "Hello, what’s this? The Dems aren’t in disarray." After a yearlong campaign that featured more than 20 candidates, angry debate performances and vicious social media attacks, former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee, and Senator Bernie Sanders, his last challenger, declared that they really like each other and set up half-a-dozen committees to harmonize their positions. (Foreign and security policy were not among the topics the committees will consider.)

Biden also reached out to President Trump for a phone call to discuss the response to the virus – a surreal counterpoint to the nasty back-and-forth between Trump and Democratic state governors about medical supplies and policies.

And Biden pulled in – at last – an endorsement from former President Obama, who remains immensely popular among Democrats. With these three steps – and his pledge to nominate a woman as his vice presidential running mate - Biden signaled his ambition to run as an anti-polarizer, a big-tent unifier across ideology, gender, and race. 

President Trump and many Republican officials, however, signaled the intention to do just the opposite, pursuing and even speeding up a course in which the Administration keeps a tight hold on Trump’s most enthusiastic core supporters and dispenses desired outcomes to key business and security groups within the Republican party without ever attaining majority popularity.

The Trump Administration has pushed ahead with controversial regulatory moves, from lowering national fuel efficiency standards for automobiles to easing rules which restrict emission of toxic pollutants. No one is surprised at these deregulatory moves, which had been conservative goals for some years and telegraphed by the Administration. But on top of them came more unusual changes – suspending routine food safety inspections, for example. Government departments issued interpretations of the most recent economic stimulus package passed with a bipartisan vote in Congress that allowed banks to intercept citizens’ relief check and apply them to old debts, and opened small business loan programs to billion-dollar hedge funds.

Trump’s transactional, reward-my-friends and punish-my-enemies approach is familiar to the international partners who have dealt with him over NATO contributions, trade and other issues. As much of a surprise as it has been to see this treatment meted out to US treaty allies over the last three years, it was an even greater shock to see it done to US governors who came to Trump seeking medical supplies and protective equipment for their states. Democratic governors in New York, Michigan, Colorado and Kansas have complained of not getting medical equipment they requested – or actually having supplies they had purchased pre-empted by federal buyers instead. Trump told a news conference that he had directed Vice President Pence, charged with leading the national coronavirus response, not to return calls from governors who were not properly respectful. Some Republican governors, by contrast, have bragged about getting everything they need; others, both Republican and Democrat, have concluded that publicly praising Trump, or Pence, are better routes to getting what they need.

Trump’s anti-WHO campaign can be understood in this context, as a way of turning the shortcomings of the US response to his advantage. The substance is irrelevant – what the WHO does, how it might do it better, and whether undue Chinese influence is a problem. Although large majorities of Americans tell pollsters they support international cooperation against the virus, UN organizations are a reliable whipping boy for Trump’s core supporters. When he blames the organization for deaths in the US, journalists pride themselves on being fairminded by reciting the its shortcomings. When American internationalists protest, they reinforce Trump’s critique that they are selling out US interests to foreigners, giving him more proof points with his base. 

In a sign that everything comes back to presidential politics, every Democrat Trump tangles with sees their political profile raised. New York governor Andrew Cuomo – famously abrasive and the son of another famed New York governor who never quite made it to the White House – enjoyed a brief bout of enthusiasm for a presidential candidacy he says he doesn’t want. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, lambasted by Trump on Twitter as "Failing Michigan governor" and on national television as "that woman from Michigan" is now considered a front-runner for Biden’s vice-presidential slot. 

Trump’s anti-WHO campaign can be understood in this context, as a way of turning the shortcomings of the US response to his advantage.

Improbably, within the week that saw both the United States surpass Italy as the country with the largest reported number of coronavirus fatalities and New York City become the location with the highest-known per capita fatality rate from the disease, one U.S. state went ahead and held in-person elections. The midwestern state of Wisconsin helped tip the balance for Trump in 2016; it has since elected a Democratic governor but retained its Republican-majority legislature. That body sparred with the governor over whether to hold the election and how long to permit voters to mail in absentee ballots. The ballot fight went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where the court’s five Republican-appointed justices voted to curtail mail-in voting. At the same time, voting authorities shrunk the number of physical polling places in Milwaukee, a majority non-white city of half a million, to five from the normal 180.

In case anyone missed the point of this, Trump tweeted:

"Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans."

Can Coronavirus Make US Elections Better?

Advocates of electoral reform in the United States had hoped the coronavirus’ arrival in the midst of a hotly-contested election season would add momentum to their efforts to make the mechanics of voting easier and the process more attractive for the majority of American adults who routinely do not vote. In recent years they have scored some notable state-level successes. More than one-third of US states now register citizens to vote automatically, and almost half allow citizens to register or re-register on Election Day. Twenty states now restore voting rights to formerly-incarcerated individuals once they have finished their sentences. Mail-in elections have grown in popularity, particularly across the American West, and many states have made it easier to vote early or remotely. Ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to tier more than two choices and provides some antidote to the rigidities of the US two-party system, has been adopted by a number of municipalities (including San Francisco and New York City) and the state of Maine. More states have moved to have non-partisan commissions draw the lines of legislative districts to end the practice of partisan "gerrymandering," which has been estimated to affect the outcomes of more than one-tenth of the seats in the US Congress.

But the last decade has also seen major moves to make voting harder. Despite minuscule allegations of fraud, and significant evidence that the rules suppress turnout among minorities, the poor and elderly, more than half of states have instituted photo ID requirements for voting since 2006. States removed 34 million names from voter rolls in just four years, made voting harder for college students, and threatened voter registration drives with criminal charges. Civil rights activist Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, calls the trend "comparable to the early 1900s, when southern states adopted new constitutions that restricted voting for African Americans."

It is against that backdrop that the Wisconsin vote occurred; that other states have continued to purge voter rolls; that 16 states have postponed primary elections scheduled for the spring. More than half are looking into the prospect of holding the November general election entirely by mail, as five states already do. The governor of Virginia declared Election Day 2020 a state holiday, joining only four other states where Americans have the day off to vote.

Voting reform activists hoped that the virus would take some of the partisan sting out of their efforts, but their hopes appear to have been misplaced. When the state of Georgia – where half a million people were taken off voter rolls before the 2018 election – sent out absentee ballot applications in response to coronavirus, the Speaker of the state’s house of representatives was dismayed: "This will certainly drive up turnout," said Rep. David Ralston, and "will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia."

And So To November

The campaign will look like nothing in recent American history. Already no rallies or debates have been held for a month, and none are scheduled for at least another.

What happened in that Wisconsin primary, you may be wondering? Turnout was unexpectedly high, and 70 percent of voters did manage to participate by mail. Mask-wearing voters waited hours to participate. The most-watched race, for an elected judge on the state supreme court, went to a Democratic challenger by a surprising eleven-point margin. That result was followed by a flurry of excitement as polling from Arizona, a state which for years has been edging toward Democrats but never quite arriving, showed expected Democratic challenger Biden beating Trump handily there. Both states went for Trump in 2016, and their flip would likely be enough for Biden to win the Electoral College vote.

But November remains six months away. The campaign will look like nothing in recent American history. Already no rallies or debates have been held for a month, and none are scheduled for at least another. Both parties’ conventions, the pageant-loaded events that take up four nights of television coverage apiece and launch the general election campaign in late summer, are in doubt.This leaves Biden, the presumed Democratic challenger, struggling for public attention. 

Trump never lacks for attention. He has instituted a practice of appearing before the media daily, with health experts, business leaders or both. Though these are billed as coronavirus briefings, they are a blend of campaigning, misstatements and bombast without precedent in US history. In Seattle, hard-hit early by the virus, a public radio station announced it would no longer carry the briefings live:

"A pattern of false information and exaggeration increasingly had many at KUOW questioning whether these briefings were in the best service of our mission—to create and serve a more informed public. Of even greater concern was the potential impact of false information on the health and safety of our community."

Some of the President’s allies, in Congress and elsewhere, have urged him to change his tone. But other Trump supporters have doubled down, calling for the dismissal of the senior scientist who stands by Trump’s side and injects facts at every opportunity, a process he has called "draining." Global audiences may remember Dr. Fauci, who served another American president, George W. Bush, during a time of misinformation around another pandemic - AIDS. That time, his steady hand helped move an administration from opposing a global crisis response to leading it. 

That dynamic underscores the strange partisan moment in which the United States stands. Fauci, a civil servant who first rose to prominence in a Republican Administration, is currently the most-trusted official in the country. Trump is among the least-trusted. Yet he and his advisers bet that he can use the vagaries of the US electoral system, and the rock-hard partisanship of his core supporters, to keep the Republican Party by his side and pull off an Electoral College win this November.

Meanwhile, seventy million Americans will receive stimulus checks in the coming days. In a move without precedent, the checks will have President Trump’s name printed on them – although the program was originated by Congress. Americans who dismissed the chances of his victory four years ago have learned, if nothing else, that it would be folly to do so again. 




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