One pandemic, two Americas and a week-long election day

The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election took place during a convergence of crises (a pandemic, an economic crisis, a systemic racism crisis). Pundits argued that COVID-19 will be one of the biggest issues affecting the elections. This brief analysis focuses on how the pandemic was framed by the two candidates in their rally discourses, the potential connections to the election results and what’s next.

One pandemic, two realities

Trump and Biden painted two realities regarding the pandemic and what’s at stake.

Trump consistently downplayed the virus, even after getting sick himself. His rally discourses from very early on, paint a rosy picture, albeit full of contradictions: “But while I’m president, the United States we use every tool, and we’ve done it. By the way, our country is doing great. We have the pandemic should have never been allowed should have never been allowed to happen by China,” (Oshkosh-Wisconsin-8/17). And while numbers kept spiking, Trump kept reassuring Americans: “But you know what, without the vaccine, it’s ending too. We’re rounding the turn; it’s ending without the vaccine. But the vaccine is going to make it go quicker. Let’s get rid of it.” (Macon-Georgia-10/16).

Trump constantly applauds his packed crowds: “What a crowd. What a crowd. You see what’s going on, on the road all the way up here. We have people all the way up.” (Carson City-Nevada-10/18) and at different points he mocks Biden for being cautious, wearing a mask, holding virtual rallies.

Trump paints Biden as the one who will destroy everything: “Joe Biden would terminate our recovery, delay the vaccine, prolong the pandemic, and annihilate Georgia’s economy” (Macon-Georgia-10/16). The election is “a choice between a deadly lockdown and a safe vaccine that ends the pandemic with or without the vaccine.” (Montoursville-Pennsylvania-10/31).

Biden’s reality is a much bleaker one. In his rallies, he emphasizes COVID-19’s toll: “Today, unfortunately, America is going to… reach a tragic milestone, 200,000 deaths recorded as of today because of the coronavirus, 200,000 deaths all across this nation (Manitowoc-Wisconsin-9/21).

He applauds respecting preventive measures: “There’s so many of you here, I wish I could go car to car and meet you all. I don’t like the idea of all this distance, but it’s necessary. I appreciate you being safe. What we don’t want to do is become super spreaders, but thank you so much.” (Bucks County-Pennsylvania-10/24).

Biden harshly criticized Trump’s handling of the crisis; for downplaying the pandemic, politicizing and discouraging people from wearing a mask, for giving up. For Biden “the first step of beating this virus is beating Donald Trump.” (Detroit-Michigan-10/31).

In his rallies Biden promises to end this pandemic, without shutting down: “I am not going to shut down the country. But I am going to shut down the virus.” (Broward County-Florida-10/29).

Finally, in Trump’s discourses the pandemic is approached mostly towards the middle-end of the discourse, while in Biden’s it is approached from the very beginning or first quarter of the speech. This focuses the attention on the problem and implicitly the vulnerability for Trump.

COVID-19 and elections results

COVID-19 cases surged before and on election day, especially in battleground states. In October, for 82% of registered voters supporting Biden, the outbreak would be “very important” to their vote, compared to only 24% Trump supporters. In a CNN exit poll, COVID-19 was ranked the third most important for their decision, behind the economy and racial inequality. The pandemic already affected the election process, resulting in a record number of mail-in ballots, and delaying the results.

On November 7, the AP called the race for Biden (290 vs. 214 electoral votes). Georgia and Arizona who switched from “red” to “blue” (voting Republican in prior five presidential elections, and both having Republican governors) are also among the states with high COVID-19 cases and deaths. But Biden did not win by a large margin. Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, who voted for Trump in 2016 (but blue in the four prior elections) voted for Biden and were also affected by the pandemic. However, it is also true that the states most affected by pandemic, remained loyal to either Biden and Democrats (California, New York) or Trump and Republicans (Texas, Louisiana). Florida also voted for Trump (while in 2008, 2016 voted for Obama).

While other factors beyond the pandemic were critical in this election, it seems that where there were many illnesses and deaths, Trump’s speech focused on the denial of evidence lost to Biden’s call to defend ourselves, to solidarity and collective care. It also seems that Trump’s pandemic reality remained shared by many of his voters.

Elections are over, the nation is still very divided

Biden declared his victory as for We The People,” and emphasized this is a time to heal, to unite and to listen to science. However, Trump and his supporters are yet to officially concede and the Trump administration will still handle the national pandemic response for the next months. It remains to be seen who will dominate the Senate. Currently, Republicans seem to lead, but some things might still change (e.g. Georgia’s run-off on January 3). Equally critical, Americans remain divided in their views of COVID-19 and mask wearing (e.g. Republicans and Whites are less likely to wear a mask) as COVID-19 numbers keep surging.