November 3 was not only the culmination of an unprecedented presidential campaign, but the day also set a record for the second highest number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States. The day after, yesterday, the U.S. topped 100,000 cases for the first time. Indeed, many pundits and pollsters were convinced that President Donald Trump's failure in managing the global pandemic would be decisive with voters, particularly in crucial older demographics. So why didn't we see the scenario of a coronavirus-fueled Joe Biden landslide?
Bad numbers: The U.S. has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world and the highest number of recorded deaths, at more than 234,000. In a national opinion poll from early October, 57% of respondents disapproved of the president's response to coronavirus.
• Many pointed to a direct correlation between soaring case numbers and Trump's downturn in polls through the summer and fall: "Where COVID-19 infections are going is by far the biggest factor in determining Trump's chances of winning," Michael Arone, a managing director at State Street Global Advisors, told Fortune.
• Although the warning signs were already present, only 24% of Trump supporters said the pandemic was an important voting issue, with the economy, Supreme Court appointments and even health care taking precedent, according to the Pew Research Center.
Why Trump is holding strong: Now, between the nail-biting as the neck-and-neck results of mail-in ballots continue to roll in, some are starting to question whether so-called COVID voters really materialized. Though Biden is cruising to a comfortable margin in the overall popular vote, the fact that the race is coming down to a few thousand voters in a set of swing states shows the power of the president's rhetoric and the strength of his base to sweep aside the pandemic narrative.
• The election may mark a growing divide between those who follow the scientific data not only around coronavirus but also other pressing global issues like climate change. But as Vox reports, many Trump supporters see the crisis as a choice between public health priorities and the urgency of opening the economy back up.
• In a poll of its science-loving readers, the journal Nature found that a full 87% percent of respondents supported Biden. In contrast, the GOP has seen increased registration in states across the country, with a former Obama White House staffer describing Trump's base as one of the most inelastic and engaged in American history.
• "It is depressing to see that the American electorate have not heeded the evidence of the last four years to give a strong message about the damage being caused by Trump's actions and behavior, for their own country as well as the wider world," Athene Donald, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, UK, told Nature.
Some wonder what happened to all the so-called COVID voters — Photo: Deccio Serrano/NurPhoto/ZUMA
Will science over populism prevail? Of course, the race is only so close because of the specific nature of the American electoral system. Still Biden's gaining the most votes of any presidential candidate in American history, cannot erase the fact that the country is deeply divided. And COVID-19 appears to have only deepened those divisions.
How it looks to the world: A would-be COVID effect on the political fortunes of other national leaders is still hard to gauge. Allies of Italy's populist firebrand Matteo Salvini scored poorly in regional elections in September, which many blamed on Salvini's poor response to the pandemic. Likewise in the UK, support for Prime Minister Boris Johnson has plummeted for mismanaging and underestimating the severity of the virus.
Yes, but: Brazil's Jair Bolsanaro has been as outlandish as Trump in defying scientific recommendations, and yet hasn't suffered in popularity.
• Such globally-minded heads of state including President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel have experienced increased popularity as they largely let scientific evidence lead their pandemic responses, with far-right populists slipping or stalling in France and Germany as well as Italy.
• "Populists have become masters in the art of stirring up imaginary fears, that of insecurity or migrants," Catherine Chatignoux writes in Les Echos, "(but have) no magic recipe for dealing with the very real fear represented by COVID."
Takeaway: One thing is certain, with record turnout (also thanks to mail-in ballots), COVID didn't stand in the way of voters making their choice. But election results not only have causes, they have consequences: Whatever factors bring the winner past the finish line in the U.S. election, we will wind up with one of two very different approaches in how to confront the pandemic.
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