There’s no denying that 2020 has been a historic year on many counts. A pandemic rages, businesses are shuttered, civil unrest erupts across the nation, and unemployment has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression almost a century ago.
“Every presidential election cycle, we hear ‘This is the most critical election of our time,’” says Steve Wuhs, a political science professor and assistant provost for internationalization at the University of Redlands—noting this year it might be true.
“We’re certainly in a moment where lots of things are happening that we didn’t think were possible,” says School of Education Professor Brian Charest.
How will the confluence of today’s issues impact the November elections? U of R experts weigh in with perspectives from a variety of fields.
Campaigning during a pandemic
COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way candidates interact with voters. There are few giant rallies or high-profile, in-person fundraisers. Instead, with voters homebound, candidates are sending out more mailers and buying more online ads. “They’re putting money where people are—sitting in front of their computers,” says Political Science Professor Renee Van Vechten.
On a local level, the pandemic’s impact on campaigning presents challenges for both the voter and the candidate. Without person-to-person networking, candidates have fewer ways to gain visibility with voters. “Lack of personal interaction with candidates could make some voters uncomfortable, but online resources will continue to be critical resources,” she says.
Still, people are fired up for the upcoming election—on the left and the right—says Charest. “There’s a real sense of urgency and desire among many people to be more involved, so they are trying to leverage technology and social media to engage voters.” Candidates are holding campaign events via video conference, and volunteers are writing emails, sending texts, and making phone calls instead of knocking on doors.
Fear of falling
“Presidents tend to get blamed or given credit for economic conditions based on what happens on their watch,” says School of Business Professor Satish Thosar, who holds the William R. and S. Sue Johnson Endowed Chair in Finance. While an incumbent presidential candidate tends to have an advantage, Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush both served only one term, in part because many voters blamed them for the bad economy.
What’s different these days, Thosar says, is many voters attribute their current economic woes not to the current administration, but rather to a once-in-a-century event—the pandemic. “Economics will still impact the election results, but it will not play the central role,” he predicts. Instead, people will make their choices based on other issues: racial disparities, health care, or public safety. “And many of them have already made up their minds.”
Like many economists, Thosar regularly looks at polls as a barometer for election outcomes. But he also checks what odds-makers on gambling sites are saying. Unlike many pollsters, gamblers are taking into account wildcards such as the spread of disinformation and potential voter suppression. “People who are putting money on election outcomes are projecting the contest to be much tighter than the published national polls.”
What’s most notable about the 2020 economy is how it moved into free fall with lightning speed after pandemic-related stay-at-home orders, says Economics Professor Nate Cline, highlighting the disproportionate impact on the retail and service sectors. “That has never happened, so it makes the government response more difficult; we don’t have great tools to deal with a crisis we’ve never encountered before.”
Cline, who studies U.S. and international macroeconomics, believes the government should continue to give cash directly to citizens, although he acknowledges there is not a political consensus around the idea: “We want people to continue being able to pay their mortgages, rent, utilities, and other bills because the economy cannot recover in any reasonable sense while a pandemic is still raging.”
As for unemployment, Cline says studies show that its effect on the election will be less about current numbers and more about the trend: “If you have a job and unemployment is increasing, you are going to be pretty worried you might lose it,” he says. “However, if unemployment is high but decreasing rapidly, those who still have jobs will not be worried and may be more willing to vote for the incumbent.”
Casting a ballot in an age of social distancing and civil unrest
The pandemic has also introduced new significance to the option of voting by mail, as authorities continue to advise people to maintain social distance for health and safety reasons. While a few states—including California—have made the process more available by automatically sending vote-by-mail ballots to all registered voters, that’s not the case everywhere. In other places, politicians question the validity of a vote-by-mail process, claiming it will lead to fraud.
Professor of Race and Ethnic Studies Jennifer Tilton says limiting mail-in voting—like closing polling places, enacting strict voter ID laws, and curtailing early voting—harkens to voter suppression efforts of the past. Tilton notes Black and Latinx communities are already disproportionately suffering the impacts of COVID-19, and recent decisions about mail-in ballots and changes to polling places could create overcrowding on Election Day.
“There’s a real sense of urgency and desire among many people to be more involved.”
—Professor Brian Charest
“The right to vote is sacred, and nobody should have to choose between their health and safety and the exercising of that right,” she says. “Voting is a fundamental American right and responsibility. I would think Republicans and Democrats would unite around a commitment to preserve people’s access to the vote and expand access to the vote.”
After all, Charest says, “If we believe that democracy works best when more people participate, then state and local officials should be doing everything they can to make access to safe and secure voting easier—not harder—for people across the country.”
Wuhs notes that an individual’s perspective on issues such as voting by mail are shaped by history: “Until the 1960s, substantial segments of the American population could not vote or participate in the democratic process. If you’re in a population that has fought for your rights historically—and is fighting for your rights in the streets right now—you look at this election in a different way than those who see protests as a threat to law and order.”
Skepticism and hope
U of R experts agree that one of today’s biggest challenges is the climate of distrust around political institutions and news outlets. “It’s difficult for people to judge the veracity of news and information,” says Van Vechten. “Anyone can be edited or misrepresented because video and audio are easily manipulated, and it spreads so much faster because there are so many online platforms it can be disseminated on.”
At the same time, it’s important to look for valid sources of information and to stay informed, says School of Business Professor Riaz Tejani, who is an expert in law and ethics. “Of course you should protect your mental health, but don’t check out from social media,” Tejani says. Given the short time until the election, he advises citizens to stay engaged. “Be critical about everything you read—look at sources and dates. And, if someone shares misinformation, correct it.”
When people look solely to information sources that reflect their values and ideological base, issues become that much more polarizing. “This makes the idea of reconciliation or establishing a common vision for the country challenging for candidates,” says Wuhs. “When you believe that your institutions don’t work, and you don’t necessarily agree with your neighbor about which institutions work, you end up with an electorate that is cleaved into chunks.”
But that makes participating in the democratic process all the more important. The upcoming election could feel like the most critical one not only because of breaking news like the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg or the president’s COVID-19 infection, but also because it’s the only one we can affect anytime soon. Thus, it’s our responsibility to use our votes wisely. Van Vechten urges voters to avoid the temptation of focusing solely on the presidential race and to broaden their view to include state and local politics: “Your vote carries more weight in local elections, so research your local candidates.”
While elections are important in the country’s trajectory, voting is not the only tool citizens can use to make changes they want to see. “One of the positive things about the amount of engagement that we’re seeing is that it has the potential to transform the way people think about being involved in a participatory democracy,” says Charest. “We’re seeing an uptick in folks getting involved in local issues at schools, city councils, or community organizing. And that bodes well for the future.”
Editor's Note: This article appears in the fall 2020 issue of Och Tamale magazine.