During most election years in the United States, polling day marks the beginning of the end of what is usually a long and contentious political season. A vast majority of American voters line up at their local polling stations to cast their ballot for the next president, before returning home and settling down in front of their television screens in anticipation of the ‘big reveal’. Generally, the winner is announced the same day or by the next morning in the case of a particularly close race.
But 2020 is not like most years. The coronavirus pandemic has upended nearly every aspect of this election cycle — from how presidential campaigns are conducted to how the country ultimately votes. The pandemic spawned an election year like never before — rallies were held virtually, conventions were called off, debates were rescheduled, a record number of ballots were sent by post, and smack in the middle of it all, President Donald Trump himself, tested positive for the deadly infection.
A look at how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted US Election 2020
Campaign changes: In the weeks leading up to the presidential election, both President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden have ramped up their efforts to reach out to voters across the country. However, with the coronavirus pandemic tightening its grip on the United States and the country’s caseload and death toll steadily rising, the nominees have been forced to get creative with their campaign strategies.
The tried-and-tested on-ground approach — where armies of volunteers go door-to-door hard selling their presidential candidate by extolling their many virtues — took a backseat, particularly in the first few months of the pandemic. But both nominees opted for strikingly different approaches to campaigning.
While Biden’s campaign adopted a cautious approach and endorsed Covid-19 mitigation strategies like constantly social distancing and wearing a mask; Trump has pointedly opposed several of these restrictions, claiming they are politically motivated.
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Despite a surge in Covid cases, Trump has hosted several in-person rallies in states across the country. Recently, he has held a number of events at packed airport hangars, where thousands of his supporters congregated without maintaining social distancing or wearing face masks.
In fact, a recent study by the economics department at Stanford University has linked tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases and hundreds of deaths to his huge election campaign rallies. The researchers looked at Covid-19 infection rates in 18 places where Trump has held events between June 20 and September 30 and then compared it to post-rally infection rates.
The rallies “ultimately resulted in more than 30,000 incremental confirmed cases of COVID-19” and “likely led to more than 700 deaths”, the study states. The deaths were not necessarily people who had attended the event, but rather linked to cases that stemmed from the Trump rallies, the study clarified.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s nominee Joe Biden has kept in-person interaction to a minimum. His campaign organised a number of virtual rallies, and socially distanced events with smaller groups of supporters.
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Virtual and scaled down national conventions: Both the Republican Party and the Democrats hosted rather non-standard national conventions to officially nominate their presidential and vice presidential candidates. The Democratic Party held the countries’ first all-virtual convention, while the Republicans chose a mixture of both live and taped events.
In the first-of-its-kind Democratic National Convention (DNC) held this August, virtual guests — including a lineup of heavyweight politicians, rising stars and everyday Americans — were beamed in from across the country, and prerecorded speeches were streamed for the millions of voters who were watching the event live. Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris accepted their nominations and delivered arguably the most consequential speeches of their political careers from a mostly-empty hotel ballroom in Wilmington, Delaware.
Meanwhile, the Republican party’s four-day national convention was a part virtual, part in-person affair. The guest list for the convention was pruned to a great extent, to ensure adequate social distancing measures are maintained. While a small number of Republican leaders were present for Day One of the convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, most of the events took place virtually. The event concluded with Trump formally accepting his nomination for the second time from the White House South Lawn.
The presidential debates: This year’s presidential debates were memorable for more reasons than one. The chaotic and incomprehensible first debate between Trump and Biden is hard to forget. But the optics of the debate were also markedly different this time around — the candidates did not shake hands when they took to the stage, the audience was sparse compared to previous debates, and there was no media “spin” room, where campaigns would otherwise send their supporters to make the case for their candidates after the debate.
President Trump’s Covid diagnosis threw yet another spanner in the works. Given Trump’s illness and the uncertainty about his health, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) had tried to shift the debate to a remote format, but the president flatly refused to participate. The second debate was ultimately cancelled.
The Vice Presidential Debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, too, were conducted with strict Covid regulations. Pence and Harris stood 12 feet and 3 inches apart for the duration of the debate, behind clear plexiglass dividers.
The virus was also the key focus of both the presidential debates and the vice presidential debate. Biden has repeatedly criticised Trump for his handling of the pandemic, which has killed over 230,000 people in the country already. Trump, on the other hand, insists that he has done a “great job” and that the US is “rounding the corner” on the pandemic.
How voting has changed: With just days to go before the US’ election day, more than 90 million Americans have already either voted by mail or early in-person. A majority of states across the country are reporting record early voting turnout, this year. In fact, pre-election voting has surpassed two-thirds of all ballots cast during the last election in 2016. According to a CNN survey, these votes represent about 43% of registered voters nationwide. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
However, the shift to early voting is by no means a new phenomenon, and has been going on for years. The pandemic merely sped up the transition. Mail-in voting has also significantly increased since the spring, when the pandemic first made its presence felt in the country.
But the US postal service is also at the centre of a bitter battle between Democrats and Republicans, with the former calling for Americans to be given more access to mail-in voting, and the latter opposing this on the ground that it would increase chances of fraud.
The mail-in voting process is also taxing for election workers, who will have to manually remove the ballots from their envelopes and verify whether they are valid before they can be fed into the tabulating machines. Many have warned that the counting process may not be completed by election day, thus delaying the results.
Covid-19 in the White House: US President Donald Trump’s Covid diagnosis caused a great deal of uncertainty in what was already an unpredictable election cycle. To make matters worse, the first lady Melania Trump and several of his closest aides also contracted the deadly infection. At least 13 top White House officials were infected, a majority of whom are believed to have caught the illness during the now infamous Rose Garden event, where Trump announced Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his pick for the Supreme Court.
Before testing positive for Covid-19, Trump’s schedule was jam-packed with events and rallies across the US, which were attended by thousands of his supporters. His campaign was widely criticised for continuing to host in-person events and rallies despite the threat posed by the novel coronavirus.
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