Josh Kraushaar reviewed how the Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping U.S. politics and the electoral map with Charles F. McElwee, assistant editor of City Journal. Kraushaar is politics editor of National Journal. A leading political analyst in Washington, he has a track record of identifying election trends before they become conventional wisdom. He writes a twice-weekly column and hosts Against the Grain, a podcast featuring behind-the-scenes players on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail. He’s a frequent contributor to Fox News and a political analyst for Fox News Radio.
How is the Covid-19 pandemic reshaping U.S. politics?
The pandemic has made politics an afterthought. The Democratic presidential primary has frozen in place, with numerous states delaying their primaries until June. There aren’t any campaign rallies or in-person campaign stops, with candidates moving everything online. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is struggling to get attention. He’s overshadowed by governors, like Andrew Cuomo, who are dealing with the crisis. Bernie Sanders maintains his campaign, but no one is paying attention. The primary seems like a distant memory.
In the long term, the crisis will likely fuel a debate over what should take priority: public health or the economy. We’re already seeing that argument emerge, even as the crisis worsens each day. But it will become a bigger issue in the summer, when the pandemic’s economic damage grows; the blame game, too, will inevitably worsen. Overall, I’d anticipate a wave of voter anger punishing the party in power come November. Though Trump is seeing a small bounce in his job-approval rating, presidents running for reelection during a recession historically have a poor track record.
What are some of the most notable changes to how candidates campaign?
Everything has changed. Trump’s rallies have morphed into daily coronavirus press briefings. After spending the past year campaigning across the country, Biden is stuck in his basement in Delaware. And congressional candidates are off the campaign trail, relying on virtual communication to reach voters. One thing, however, that’s unchanged is mean-spirited partisanship—even in this crisis. Trump’s campaign raises questions about Biden’s cognitive health, while two well-funded super PACs backing Biden attack the president as dangerously unprepared for Covid-19. Party committees are already scoring points against vulnerable members of Congress over unpopular provisions in the trillion-dollar coronavirus bill.
How could the crisis affect U.S. Senate and House races?
The Republicans’ Senate majority is definitely at risk. Before Covid-19 upended our lives, I wrote that Democrats had a reasonable chance to retake the upper chamber—and the odds have only increased since then. Voters typically take out their anger on the party in power. If unemployment remains high and the public-health crisis isn’t behind us in November, then Republicans will face fierce headwinds nationwide. Sitting senators have aligned themselves closely with Trump, so any of his troubles will trickle down the ballot. If GOP senators like Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, Martha McSally, and Thom Tillis were struggling before the crisis, it’s hard to see how their political fortunes will turn around by Election Day.
What are notable states or regions to watch in this election year?
The two states to pay closest attention to are Wisconsin and Arizona—the former a traditionally Democratic state filled with white working-class voters trending toward Trump, the latter a traditionally Republican Sun Belt state with an increasingly diverse population moving toward Democrats.
Trump must hold either Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin—Democratic states that he won in 2016. He will most likely hold Wisconsin due to its overwhelmingly white electorate and smaller suburban population.
For Democrats to win, they’ll need to prove that they can keep making gains in the nation’s fast-growing suburbs and exurbs, particularly in GOP-leaning Sun Belt states. Arizona, in particular, features many of the demographic trends benefiting the party long-term: a booming suburban population centered around Maricopa County (Phoenix and its suburbs); a fast-growing Hispanic constituency; and a cohort of moderate-minded Republicans turned off by Trump’s conduct in office.
What is an overlooked political trend in the U.S.?
One coronavirus-related trend worth watching: a growing number of states are giving voters the option to cast ballots by mail. Democrats in Congress have been pushing federal legislation designed to increase mail-in voting, an argument that’s going to receive more attention if the pandemic continues. If mail-in voting plays an expanded role in November, expect a very long process counting ballots on Election Day and beyond. After all, it took over a week to declare a presidential primary winner in California and Washington, two states where mail-in balloting is commonplace.
Over the long haul, this crisis will likely end a period of political unseriousness, when voters elevated celebrity candidates without much of a background in government (Obama, Trump) over those with requisite executive experience. The days of a small-city mayor like Pete Buttigieg rising to the top of the presidential pack—fueled by viral media appearances—are over. A newly sober American public will reward governors who successfully lead their states through the worst of this crisis.
It’s easy to create an alternative reality for partisan supporters to embrace when politics is treated as reality-show entertainment. But with lives at stake and life savings at risk, it’s much harder to maintain that mirage.
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