How the pandemic and protests could affect elections

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Election signs line a fence as Utah’s primary elections near. (Hannah Miner)

Leer en español: Como la pandemia y las protestas pueden afectar las elecciones

This year’s state and national elections will be impacted by the recent protests and pandemic in both voter turnout and campaign strategies.

Presidential election

The two main presidential candidates have been decided after Joe Biden clinched the Democratic Party’s nomination earlier this month by winning over 1,991 delegates. Biden will face President Trump as the incumbent.

BYU professor Adam Brown said President Trump experienced a rally in approval ratings in March when the pandemic hit the U.S., but approval has since gone down. “It looked like a classic example of what political scientists call a ‘rally round the flag’ effect. When Americans are startled by something (like a terrorist attack or natural disaster), they rally behind the president for leadership.”

Brown pointed to Trump’s “confused leadership and mixed messaging about the pandemic” and his reactions to the protests as reasons why the president’s approval ratings have come down.

According to Brown, it is unlikely to see people switch parties because those who do vote are often fixed in their views, but the recent events could affect voter turnout. “Trump’s performance may leave Republicans unmotivated to show up and vote. Or, if they do show up, they may find themselves opting out by voting for somebody other than the two major candidates.”

“Democrats, meanwhile, are as energized against Trump as opposition voters have ever been against a sitting president,” Brown said.

Local elections

When Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced group gatherings would need to be limited to prevent the spread of COVID-19, candidates for state elections needed to rework many of their campaign strategies and find ways to move campaigns online.

Gubernatorial candidate Spencer Cox’s campaign credits volunteers for its success during the early stages of the pandemic. “There really is something that’s lost when you don’t get to talk to someone face to face,” Deputy Campaign Manager Katie Miner said. “So what we’ve done to combat that is instead of using robo-calls and call centers and all the above, we’re having people volunteers call people in their area.”

Cox faced other challenges during March and April because as the sitting lieutenant governor he saw most of his time go to planning the state’s response to the pandemic. Miner said most of the campaign duties went to his running mate Deidre Henderson. To adapt to the pandemic, the campaign also decided to stop taking donations during the first months of the pandemic and instead asked potential donors to “think of their neighbors first.”

Gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman Jr.’s campaign shifted operations to Zoom in order to continue talking to voters. Campaign manager Marty Carpenter said at first they had to cancel some events while they adjusted, but then they were able to switch to virtual meetings. “I think it’s probably hardest on a candidate because most people who get into politics are people-people. They like to get out and talk and meet, and that’s certainly the case with Governor Huntsman.”

Miner said even with the lack of in-person events, there was higher participation among delegates for the nominating conventions in April, but she is unsure how that will translate to the primary elections. “The delegates definitely reported spending about 10 hours researching candidates prior to the convention, where in years past it might have been that they just showed up on a Saturday and left before all of the ballots were done.”

Now that the Utah Republican Party Nominating Convention is over and the state has started sending out ballots for the primary election, campaigns are shifting their focus to the next phases.

Huntsman announced that he tested positive for COVID-19 on June 10 after at least four members of his campaign staff also tested positive, meaning his in-person appearances will be even more limited leading up to the primary election. Prior to the announcement, Carpenter said the campaign team has been able to make necessary adjustments as things have changed with the pandemic. “Every time we feel like we get into a groove, there’s been a change.”

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