May 1, 2020

America's Covid-19 epidemic has changed our daily lives in many notable ways, and the presidential race hasn't been immune. From changes in when and how voters cast their ballots to campaigns going virtual, the epidemic has already left its mark on the 2020 presidential election—and it could have lasting effects on campaigning and voting for years to come.

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How voters are casting their ballots amid Covid-19

Perhaps the most noticeable effect America's Covid-19 epidemic has had on the presidential race so far relates to how—and when—states are conducting their primary elections.

While mail-in and absentee ballots are not necessarily new (every state has its own rules for who qualifies for mail-in ballots), the new coronavirus epidemic has prompted many states to loosen those criteria—or abandon them altogether and shift to an entirely mail-in system.

That shift largely occurred after Wisconsin's April 7 presidential primary. At the time, many states were headed toward their projected Covid-19 peaks and the number of U.S. deaths tied to the new coronavirus had just eclipsed 10,000. Several states that had been scheduled to hold their primary elections on April 4 announced that they'd be delaying their primaries due to the new coronavirus. For instance, Alaska, Ohio, and Wyoming delayed their primaries to shift to mostly mail-in systems.

But Wisconsin didn't follow suit. Wisconsin officials decided to hold the state's primary election on time and in person. The state received backlash for the decision, with observers saying residents were forced to choose between casting their votes and risking exposure to the new coronavirus. And as of Wednesday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services had confirmed at least 52 cases of Covid-19 among people who may have been exposed to the virus while voting in the state's primary election or working at the polls that day.

Amid the controversy surrounding Wisconsin's primary, more than 15 states postponed their primaries or switched to conducting their primaries via mail with extended deadlines, and New York—which is the epicenter of America's Covid-19 epidemic—has canceled its presidential primary completely.

In addition, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has pushed back the start date for the Democratic National Convention from July 13 to Aug. 17—and some believe Democrats instead could hold a virtual convention if necessary.

But one primary deadline that has not moved is the DNC's June 9 cutoff for states to hold their presidential primaries. The DNC has said any state that misses the deadline could lose half their delegates at minimum, though the committee said it will review requests for waivers. Currently, Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana, and New Jersey are scheduled to hold their primaries after that deadline.

It's also worth noting that many public health experts, including CDC Director Robert Redfield, have predicted another wave of the epidemic coinciding with the country's fall flu season, which could make in-person voting for Nov. 3's general election particularly risky.

Campaigning goes virtual

While using social media and other online platforms has become a popular campaign tactic in recent years, in-person events, fundraisers, and appearances have always been a staple in presidential and local election campaigns. But those appearances have largely been put on hold, and both former Vice President Joe Biden, who's the presumptive presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, and President Trump, who's running for reelection, have ramped up their virtual campaigning.

As The Guardian's Daniel Strauss notes, Biden in recent weeks has been broadcasting from a camera in his basement. He and his campaign team have launched a regular podcast and nearly daily host live streams of Biden answering questions or talking with other political figures. Biden's also been appearing on televisions more regularly, appearing on both local and major networks from remote locations. His campaign also has dedicated money to push ads on Facebook, is hosting virtual fundraisers, and is looking "to set up a digital 'ropeline' where Biden can interact with voters," as well as "virtual house parties," Strauss writes.

Meanwhile, President Trump's campaign also has ramped up its virtual efforts—though Buzzfeed News notes that Trump and his campaign have had a significant virtual presence for the past five years. Ken Farnaso, the Trump campaign's deputy press secretary, in a statement told Buzzfeed News, "As part of our efforts to reelect" Trump, "we are hosting virtual events, training members of the Trump Neighborhood Teams online, activating the massive volunteer network to make calls on behalf of the President, and continuing our efforts to register voters online."

Trump's campaign also has launched a new app that "uses gamification to drive voter outreach and valuable data collection," CNN's Dana Bash and Bridget Nolan report. According to Bash and Nolan, "A Trump supporter can access his or her phone contacts through the app and then is encouraged to share the app with friends." Users can collect points through the app by sharing it with friends and participating in other activities, such as sharing one of Trump's tweets. Users then can redeem their points for rewards, including a discount at Trump's campaign store and a picture with the President.

In addition, as Buzzfeed News notes, Trump has been spending more time in the virtual spotlight as he's participated in daily press conferences regarding his administration's response to America's coronavirus epidemic.

Changing electionsand possibly the electoratefor years to come

Rob Flaherty, the digital director for Biden's campaign, told Buzzfeed News that the virtual shift for campaigning has been a long time coming—and could be an enduring strategy for candidates.

"In some ways this is the world that every digital person in every digital story you've ever written has said would come," he said. "I think one of the things that's interesting is that the stuff that we're doing now is not that different than the stuff that we would need to do to win in a general [election]."

America's coronavirus epidemic also could help shape the political parties—and the electorate in some states—going forward. For instance, Doug Herman, a Democratic strategist, told Politico's David Siders, "When you've got governors with stratospheric approval ratings for their handling of the crisis … and you have governors from states like California and New York and Illinois leading the crisis response … you're going to see that leadership reflected in polls for the presidency in future election years."

But a lot could change between now and Nov. 3. As Siders writes, "The only certainty about the fall election, it seems, is more uncertainty about the state of the post-coronavirus political landscape."

For more on how America's Covid-19 epidemic is affecting this year's presidential election, check out Advisory Board's new Radio Advisory podcast.

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For more on how America's Covid-19 epidemic is affecting this year's presidential election, check out Advisory Board's new Radio Advisory podcast.

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