The COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an unprecedented challenge for the US presidential elections. It coincides with the middle of the first of three scheduled steps to hold them, namely the choice by each party of a candidate through the primary elections or caucuses. This has led some states to delay their primary elections till the summer, in the hope that circumstances will get better for voters to go to the polls. However, this will be hard in light of the expectations by experts and officials of the US health sector that the pandemic will persist through the summer and autumn of this year. This has driven US officials to consider making changes in the second step (the convention of each party to officially select a candidate), and the third step (the officially scheduled voting date of 3 November 2020).

With the continued pandemic and expectations of a further increase in the number of infections, now standing at 1.4 million Americans, and the death of 89.5 thousand Americans as of 17 May 2020 according to New York Times estimates, the US will hold its first presidential elections amidst a national health crisis which will have an impact on the priorities of the issue list based on which US voters will cast their votes, and also on the procedures of the presidential elections where federal authorities and state officials consider making amendments to voting rules to fit in with the persistence of the pandemic till November 2020.

3 November 2020 is a critical date. It is the day on which the US voter will not only choose the next US President but also all members of the House of Representatives (435 members), one third of the members of the Senates (35 senators out of 100), 11 state governors, and nearly 5 thousand seats in the state legislatures.

Chances of delaying the date of the presidential elections

In view of the expectations by the health and epidemics sector experts and officials of the persistence of the pandemic until the autumn of this year, the question of whether President Donald Trump could delay the US presidential elections beyond 3 November 2020 has come to occupy the minds of many people both inside and outside the US, especially after Jared Kushner, senior White House adviser and the President’s son-in-law, said in an interview with the US Time magazine that he is not personally sure that the presidential elections could be held on time if there is a second wave of coronavirus in autumn.

Despite the announcement by the US President and his election campaign that he is not thinking of delaying the presidential elections, practically, he does not have the constitutional power to do so if he does have the desire. The US Constitution has mandated the Congress to choose the date of the presidential elections. Since 1845, the Congress has chosen the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November as Election Day, and the date has never been changed ever since.

Even at times of epidemics and catastrophes, the President cannot bypass Congress to delay or cancel the presidential elections because the exceptional power the President has at those times would be delegated by the legislature. Historically, Congress has never enacted a law authorizing the President to fix or change the date of the presidential elections in states of emergency. Therefore, Congress, with its two chambers, remains the only institution with the power to change the date of the presidential elections.

The President might, however, put some pressures on Congress to change the date of the presidential elections through supporting popular pressure campaigns on its members. Yet this will require the approval of both chambers of the Congress, which is impossible in light of the partisan division within the legislature where the Republicans have the majority in the Senate while the majority in the House of Representatives is with the Democrats who will reject this option because it would be in President’s Trump’s interests. They greatly fear that he would seek to influence the elections in some way or take measures that would make voting arduous and exhausting for Americans at a time when the virus is spreading in different parts of the country.

First electoral issue

With the expected persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic over the next few months, with its consequences in terms of enormous economic losses and an increase in the unemployment rate among Americans to unprecedented levels since the Great Depression in the 1930s and its continued threat to public health, the pandemic and its different implications will constitute, according to most opinions, the pivotal issue to preoccupy US voters and based upon which they will make up their minds in the November 2020 elections.

The results of an opinion poll carried out by the Gallup Center, which is specialized in US opinion polls, which were released on 21 April 2020, indicate that the pandemic tops the concerns of Americans at 45 percent, ahead of the other traditional domestic issues that used to preoccupy the American voter during the election year, such as economic issues and jobs (9 percent) and health care (6 percent).

Indeed, the threats posed by the pandemic have become the leading issue in US presidential campaigns, especially with the doubts cast by Democrats on Trump’s credibility and on his adequacy in responding to the public health emergency that led to a sudden slowdown of the US economy. In contrast, President Trump’s campaign focuses on the claim that he is the person most capable of dealing with the threats posed by the virus, that he has taken good precautionary measures to protect Americans, and that he can once again revive the US economy as he did during the first three years of his presidency while punishing China for its failure to act promptly to curb the virus and communicate with the world more clearly and transparently.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the chances of winning by Trump and Biden

The COVID-19 pandemic has wasted much of the economic gains which were achieved by President Trump by the end of his third year in the White House and which were the focus of his recent State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. He has been strongly counting on those gains to win the upcoming presidential elections, particularly after overcoming several obstacles the last of which being his impeachment. After having achieved an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent, which is the lowest in five decades, that rate increased to 14.7 percent in April 2020 where 20.5 million Americans lost their jobs since the economic activity halted in mid-March in light of the measures to contain the pandemic.

Historic experience shows that during major national crises threatening the country, Americans have always stood behind the President attempting to win a second presidential term as the national leader capable of protecting them and maintaining their security, such as President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001, and President Barack Obama after the 2008 global economic crisis. This might enhance Trump’s chances of winning in the elections of 3 November 2020.

However, President Trump faces many challenges that might reduce his chances of winning in the upcoming elections, including the decline in his popularity among Americans since the beginning of the pandemic after a period of high popularity upon overcoming the procedures to impeach him at the beginning of 2020. This is due to his successive failures in dealing with the pandemic which has become the top electoral issue as indicated earlier. In contrast, Joe Biden, the presumptive and favourite Democratic nominee, is ahead of him by 6 percentage points in most opinion polls.

In addition to the above, President Trump faces other challenges that reduce his chances of winning a second presidential term, including his failure to expand his electoral base (composed mainly of white Anglicans, rural voters and conservatives), which was behind his win in the 2016 presidential elections, while the Democratic Party, with all its ideological spectra, stands behind its candidate Joe Biden who is supported by all previous rivals, including Bernie Sanders.

Nevertheless, some Democratic donors and former officials in the administration of President Barack Obama have fears that Biden’s management of his campaign from home amidst the pandemic has made him less visible in the media for many of the voters compared to President Trump who dominates the US landscape through the daily media briefings to manage the pandemic which score ratings comparable to the ones normally scored by major US sporting events, although a number of Republicans think that those briefings could result in serious harm to Trump’s political position and might even lead to his defeat in the presidential race for the White House and to the loss by the Republican Party of its majority in the Senate.

Conclusion

Considering that the US managed to hold the presidential elections during the Civil War in 1864, they are expected to be held on time (3 November 2020). However, changes in the voting method will be the centre of an intense controversy between the Democratic and Republican parties in light of the latter’s objection to extending the right of voting by mail to all voters under the continued COVID-19 pandemic. The six months prior to voting by the electorate may bring many surprises that might affect Donald Trump’s chances of winning a second presidency.  

* Researcher in US Affairs.

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