It’s becoming something of a cliché in this crazy year of 2020, but in mid-September Joe Biden came to a minor-league ballpark in Moosic, Pa. — a few home-run balls from where the Democratic presidential hopeful was born — and staged a campaign event unlike anything America has ever seen before.
In a normal year, the former vice president might have packed the seats at PNC Field, but instead he was out in the parking lot for a nationally televised CNN town hall, watched in person by 35 carloads of pre-selected voters. The attendees leaned on the hoods of their cars, confined to chalked-out rectangles that would keep them 6 feet apart, as they watched Biden hammer home a message that matched the social distancing, that President Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus has been “close to criminal.”
A short time later, TV viewers saw Trump climb down Air Force One and address a packed rally of thousands at Mosinee, Wisconsin. Almost none of the enthusiastic attendees — packed tighter than a can of sardines — wore masks, even though Wisconsin had set a record for new COVID-19 infections that very day. The president told the crowd that he’d seen Biden’s drive-in town hall from the plane: “They’ve got cars," he said. "It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Now, Donald Trump might be a serial liar — well over 20,000, according to the Washington Post — who, as I write this, is posing the greatest threat to American democracy since the Civil War, but I can’t stop worrying that the 45th president is onto something with his political analysis. In a year of earthquake-caliber shocks, one of 2020′s biggest surprises has been the way that Democrats and Republicans have reacted so differently to a killer virus that doesn’t care about your party ID.
Republicans, it turns out, are from Mars. They are prone, in far too many cases, to see common-sense public-health mandates or guidance — such as always wearing masks in public and keeping 6-foot social distance — as an assault on their personal freedom.
Democrats are from Venus — embracing safety guidelines not only with the wise goal of not getting sick, but also with an almost tribal zeal that distancing proves their party’s commitment to both science and empathy for others.
But with arguably the most consequential presidential election since 1860 little more than five weeks away, the stark difference in the way that partisans of America’s two major parties are living in the shadow of the coronavirus is having a large effect on the way that Team Trump and Team Biden campaign. And — even more concerning for democracy — it will likely impact how and even whether votes are counted, in a race where the incumbent president is now opening making threats to somehow throw out or ignore mail-in ballots.
In the media battle for attention and momentum, Trump is holding large, traditional flag-waving rallies that seem to get more attention than the socially distanced forums held by Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris. Additionally, the Trump campaign has carried out a door-knocking campaign of contacting voters, something the Biden team has largely shunned in favor of newfangled digital techniques. Is the GOP running a recklessly dangerous campaign, from a strictly health viewpoint, that could make some of its own voters sick or even die — yet that gives them a better chance of winning the November election?
Marc Hetherington, a University of North Carolina political scientist who’s been studying the interplay between the virus and politics since the early days of the pandemic, told me it does feel at times like the Democrats “are campaigning with one hand tied behind their backs.” On the Trump rallies, Hetherington said “two emotions are really helpful when it comes to energizing voters — one is enthusiasm and the other is anger. What these rallies that Trump is holding are able to do is increase both.”
Hetherington believes that its been largely Trump himself — and the fiercely tribal nature of today’s politics — that’s driven the surprisingly wide gap in how Democrats and Republicans have reacted to COVID-19. In surveys that the political scientist took in April, “there was almost no polarization” on issues such as government shut-down orders, but gaps over masks and business closures began to emerge in June — and the split is growing even wider in the third survey that he’s currently conducting. He thinks Trump’s mostly anti-mask messaging and attacks on state lockdown orders have made the difference.
“In a highly partisan election, we really want to follow our leader,” Hetherington said, “even if the politicians want to take us off a cliff.” In nationwide polls, the numbers are stark. In late June, an Axios-Ipsos poll found mask-wearing rose over the spring to 65 percent among Democrats but just 35 percent of Republicans. But where the partisan split on the coronavirus might matter the most in November revolves around voting by mail.
In the early days of pandemic, most states quickly embraced voting-by-mail — which has a successful track record in 5 U.S. states and would prevent risky in-person contact at polling places. But here, again, Trump’s non-stop bashing of vote-by-mail has had a huge impact. This week, researchers at the University of California-San Diego said that while before 2020 there’d been no difference in how partisans viewed mail balloting, as we enter the fall now more than half of Democrats prefer vote-by-mail, but less than a quarter of Republicans do.
That’s potentially problematic for Democrats because — even before Trump’s non-stop bashing of the process and the arrival of a Trumpist head of the U.S. Postal Service who implemented changes that have slowed the mail — the rapid expansion of postal voting has come with a high error rate. NPR reported last month that more than 550,000 absentee ballots were rejected in the primaries — a steep spike — and that suggests the numbers could be much bigger in a higher-turnout general election.
That was before a new problem was exposed here in Pennsylvania, the state that many experts believe could decide the presidential election: “Naked ballots.” In complicated legal maneuverings, necessitated by the Republican Party’s jihad to make voting as difficult as possible, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that election officials should discard mail ballots that don’t arrive inside an inner, security envelope.
One Philadelphia election official told my Inquirer colleague Jonathan Lai that the ruling could mean as many as 100,000 Pennsylvanians might see their vote thrown away — with the majority of those mail ballots coming from Democrats, in a state that Trump won by just 44,000 votes in 2016. And remarkably, this, and the recent postal delays, may not be the biggest problems with voting by mail. On Wednesday, Trump refused to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power, adding: “We’ll want to have — get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very — we’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.”
In spite of this, Democrats have embraced voting-by-mail with a quasi-religious zeal that almost defies reason; in Philadelphia’s critical western suburbs where I live, some Dems even have “Vote By Mail” yard signs. With news of the “naked ballot” ruling, there was talk of yet another, costly voter-education campaign in which Pennsylvania voters would be bombarded with spots telling them how to use the security ballot.
That’s essential. I continue to believe that voting through the compromised USPS should only be a last resort for those who must be quarantined or who are medically avoiding even masked contacts because of the coronavirus. The best way to vote is to receive a mail-in ballot and physically deposit it in a drop box, which ensures your vote will arrive and leaves a paper trail (although you’ll still need to navigate the security envelope). Or, if you’re like most people who occasionally visit the supermarket, voting in person will be just as safe as that, and you’ll be doing more for democracy than buying those low-calorie popsicles that your wife sends you out for.
I think Democrats should be proud of the fact that they’re the ones who respect science, who value community, and who believe that doing anything possible to not spread a deadly virus makes one a better citizen. But they need to hold democracy — and the unique risks that 2020 now poses — with the same regard as white-coated doctors. Having a plan to vote and make it count is the healthiest thing Americans can do right now.