As Democrats and Republicans vie for midterm control of Congress in November, Covid-19 will likely be both everywhere and nowhere.
On the face of it, the pandemic appears to be far from voters’ minds and candidates’ lips right now. Two years after helping to sink Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, few voters name it as a top priority; the candidates don’t focus on it either. Even though the United States has passed 1 million deaths reported by Covid-19 as the primary season got underway in earnest may’s beginningthe virus has apparently lost its importance as a political issue.
Democrats don’t typically brag about their responses to Covid-19 or the rollout of vaccines under the Biden administration. If they talk about the pandemic, they tend to focus more on helping the country out of it. Republicans don’t want to talk about Covid either, because their base doesn’t take it as seriously. If they do, it’s usually to criticize public health institutions that have taken center stage over the past two years.
But if you look closer, the pandemic still has a huge, if more subtle, influence on American politics. Inflation – a crisis that began with supply chain and labor issues caused by Covid-19 and was likely amplified by aspects of US relief legislation – is the #1 problem for American voters at present. Murders and drug overdose death began to rise during the pandemic, soured public mood on the future of the country and portends a difficult campaign for the ruling party.
“It’s been so widespread that you just don’t notice it,” said John Gasper, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied the effect of past natural disasters on political behavior. “People are tired of blaming Covid for a lot of things. Politicians don’t want to keep talking about Covid.
Both sides no doubt have reasons to leave Covid-19 aside when they go to the stump or produce their campaign videos, Neil Malhotra, a political economist at Stanford University, told me. President Joe Biden and the Democrats have been in power for two years and the pandemic is still ongoing. Much of the Republican voter base has been skeptical of the significance of Covid-19 for some time, giving their candidates little reason to focus on it.
The exception is far-right candidates who oppose public health interventions to slow the pandemic. Some Republicans continue to make clear their opposition to mask or vaccine mandates and other measures, even as these restrictions have been lifted almost everywhere.
This bizarre reality – in which the pandemic that has killed 1 million people is most effectively politicized by those who opposed it – reflects the unusual nature of Covid-19 as a political event. It started out as something resembling a natural disaster: disruptive, but not something that sticks in voters’ memories. But, unlike most hurricanes or tornadoes, the pandemic did not end in a relatively short time. It has gone on for years – long enough to evolve into a political wedge issue that candidates use to stoke their most strident supporters.
“Covid has gone from disaster to … fodder or kindling for the ongoing culture war,” Gasper said. “It’s one more thing than fanning the fire to fuel your base.”
Why Covid-19 feels – mostly – invisible in mid-term campaigns
The decline of Covid as an overt political issue has been precipitated. In January, at the height of the omicron wave, this was one of the best responses in Gallup poll asking Americans to name the most important problem facing the country. But three months later, in April, the share that still ranked the pandemic as the No. 1 problem had fallen from 20% to 4%; it lagged behind Russia and fuel prices among people’s concerns.
Inflation and the state of the economy in general became the main issues for voters. These issues have their roots in the pandemic, but are complicated by other events such as the war in Ukraine.
Over time, voters generally have less tolerance for politicians who blame the same thing for all the world’s problems, even if there is some truth in that. This is old news. So candidates are responding to that apathy in the 2022 campaigns. Democratic politicians, in particular, tend to be very reactive to voter attitudes, Malhotra said, and voters are done with Covid-19.
“They’re really trying to see where the voters are, trying to get to what the median voters are thinking,” he said. “The mass voting base in this country is over Covid. They simply are. It’s the truth.”
The example of Democratic Governor Jared Polis in Colorado, who is up for re-election this year, is revealing. Polis has positioned itself as more libertarian on the pandemic response, in a state that leans toward Democrats but where Republicans can still win in the right political environment.
Polis ended Colorado’s state of emergency in July 2021. During the omicron wave this winter, he would not tolerate calls for new mask mandates. He has framed its policies on Covid-19 as “moving forward”. And he was rewarded with one of highest approval ratings of any Democrat seeking re-election this year.
Kyle Kondik of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia noted that even in a deeply Democratic Washington, Mayor Muriel Bowser is seeking in her campaign to find a balance between touting the city’s mitigation efforts while taking credit for reopening its schools.
In Republican campaigns, Covid-19 is either invisible or the government’s response is mocked. Nevada GOP candidates seeking to challenge Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in a key gubernatorial race have all stressed their opposition to mask and vaccine mandates as well as business shutdowns. Tellingly, in the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate election from Pennsylvania, candidates Dave McCormick and eventual winner Mehmet Oz took right turns during the campaign. Oz previously supported pandemic responses before campaigning against mask mandates because masks “don’t work.”
Such sentiments are as powerful as anything in Republican politics right now. Like CNN noted earlier this yeareven though Trump himself has tried to counter vaccine skepticism, many of his front-runner candidates have continued to come out very publicly against their opposition not only to vaccine mandates, but to vaccination as well.
This fits into the general themes of distrust of experts and institutions that have long characterized Republican campaigns, most notably during Trump’s assumption of the presidency. These anti-establishment attitudes are now taking on a Covid framing after two years of living through the pandemic.
“I think that translates into a critique of the Covid mitigation techniques that public health authorities have suggested,” Kondik said. “So it may be that Republicans are going against these pundits to signal that they are on the side of their own constituents.”
In that sense, Malhotra told me, some of the seeming invisibility of Covid is a by-product of it largely serving to reaffirm people’s pre-existing beliefs. That hasn’t changed the trajectory of America’s recent political polarization, which has split high-income, low-education voters into the GOP camp and low-income, low-education voters. education in the Democrats.
How Covid-19 will influence US policy going forward
Yet the pandemic has already toppled a sitting president, a rarity in recent US elections. Every pundit I spoke with attributed Trump’s loss in 2020, at least in part, to not taking Covid-19 seriously enough and failing to organize a effective response.
So it can’t be said that it hasn’t affected American policy at all. But it remains to be seen whether our political character has changed in more fundamental ways as a result of the past two years.
In the past, natural disasters have tended not to have a major or lasting effect on voting behavior or political attitudes, according to research by scholars like Gasper and Malhotra. Their immediate impact is too concentrated and too fleeting to change what tens of millions of people think of the government and its leaders.
Covid-19 is already different, given the much longer timeline over which the pandemic has unfolded. As long as we live with runaway inflation and the other side effects of the virus, it will leave a mark – perhaps subtle but detectable – on people’s politics.
Amy Walter, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, told me there might be political advantage in opposing the pandemic response now. But she added that politicians taking office are also tasked with addressing the resulting problems: economic uncertainty, rising crime and other public health crises related to addiction and mental health that have been exacerbated by Covid. -19. And if they don’t act, they could end up paying the price later.
“A politician may be able to win today by opposing the public health establishment’s response to Covid,” she said. “But that same politician will likely face the downstream challenges that Covid has imposed on our society. And, if they are judged as not sufficiently addressing these issues, they could be vulnerable in their own re-election bid.
We all live in a world irreversibly changed by the experience of the pandemic. So while the virus may fade as an object of media attention or voter concern, that doesn’t mean the United States is the same country it was before Covid-19 arrived. .
The consequences of the pandemic on American politics have been subtle and even surprising. But they’re still there, if you know where to look.