Enough time has passed since the 2020 presidential election that we can now ask: How did COVID-19, probably the biggest event of the year – even of the century – affect the election results?
The answer to that question probably seems straightforward, considering how miserably Americans thought then-President Trump handled the pandemic. But the evidence we have points in many directions.
Let’s start with what history can tell us. That is, given what we know about elections held in the middle of a pandemic, what effect should did we expect the novel coronavirus to have had? If you’re scratching your head and trying to come up with a good comparison, it could be because we don’t have one. The closest analogy to what we saw in the US in 2020 is the influenza pandemic 1918-19that also erupted during an election year and killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.
The mid-term 1918 impact of the pandemic was also studied. But political scientists Chris Achen and Larry Bartels found that it was no particular effect to the election result; The Democrats (who were in control of the White House at the time) did no worse in the Congressional elections in places where the disease was badly hit than in places where it wasn’t. Something different Approach by Leticia Arroyo Abad and Noel Mauer found very little impact on the 1918 congressional vote and no subsequent impact on the 1920 elections. That does not prove that a pandemic cannot affect an election. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the 1918 election was a midterm; That said, even if people blamed Woodrow Wilson’s presidency for the pandemic, they didn’t extend that to the rest of his party. And perhaps the pandemic would have had a bigger impact if the country hadn’t been involved in World War I at that point. It is also possible that many people have not yet viewed the federal government as responsible for public health issues.
But what do we know to date of the role COVID-19 played in the 2020 presidential election? One way to answer that question is to examine the results at the state level and subtract Trump’s share of the vote 2020 share in his voice 2016It measures how much his vote has improved or decreased during these two elections. What we find, however, is not a statistically significant relationship. That said, Trump has done no worse – and possibly slightly better – in states higher COVID-19 death rates. The same applies when we compare the per capita votes against COVID-19 cases.
It turns out that Economic growthMeasured by growth in real disposable income per capita from the first to the third quarter of 2020, this could explain some of our observations. That is, if we compare Trump’s share of the vote from 2016 to 2020 to the extent of a state’s economic recovery, we find that Trump did much better in those countries where the economy recovered, and even controlled COVID-19 death rates . In other words, the $ 1,200 voters received this spring may have gone a long way towards lessening the political damage to Trump. Had he and Congress been able to obtain additional economic relief prior to the election, it might even have saved his re-election offer.
Other researchers have also found the same pattern Trump is doing no worse, and possibly better, at the county level in areas with higher COVID-19 mortality. And, perhaps a little uninteresting, I also found in my analysis that the economy seemed a little weaker in states with more COVID-19 cases and a little stronger in states with more COVID-19 deaths. One possible explanation is that even though the disease did spread, places with fewer health restrictions for businesses helped create a stronger economy in those areas (which helps Trump) and that the economy ultimately just had a bigger impact on the votes the people had. Researcher Solomon brass discovered an additional wrinkle in that more COVID-19 deaths appear to have hurt Trump in very white counties, while they did not in counties where large sections of the population are non-white.
To be clear, we still have no idea why these patterns occurred, and none of this suggests that Trump performed better in any areas because of the coronavirus. Suffice it to say, however, that this pattern is not what many would expect, given how poorly most Americans thought Trump handled the pandemic. What also makes it difficult to determine the impact of COVID-19 on voting? Like so many other issues in American politics, the pandemic was quickly interpreted through partisan lenses. The fact that the initial rainfall in March didn’t bring Trump much of a “rally-for-the-flag” effect or a temporary surge in popularity in the face of the crisis is telling. But then again, it’s the fact that it didn’t seem to hurt him too much either.
So what can we ultimately say about the impact of COVID-19 on the 2020 elections? Most likely it worked against Trump. Had it not been for a pandemic, he might still have lost the referendum, but considering how short the election was, he might have had a good chance of winning the electoral college. The damage to his prospects, however, was far from enormous, and this may have been mitigated somewhat by polarization. Indeed, a better response from Trump, which either helped reduce the spread of the disease or limit its economic impact, could have secured his re-election offer.