How COVID-19 shaped the 2020 election, swinging some voters to Biden but bolstering Trump with his base

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When Nathan Jenkins traveled to Delaware last week to celebrate President-elect Joe Biden’s win, the 36-year-old Pennsylvanian brought a souvenir: T-shirts that read, “I survived COVID-19 and Virus-45.”

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Jenkins caught COVID-19  in April, and it almost killed him, he said. He and his wife, who was also infected, took to checking on each other at night to make sure the other was still breathing.

“It was really that bad,” said Jenkins, who was outraged by Trump’s response to the pandemic. The “Virus-45” slogan on the T-shirt was a reference to Trump, the country’s 45th president.

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But COVID was not the only issue that drove Jenkins, of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, to vote for Biden.

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“President Trump was a virus for this country for the past four years,” Jenkins said. “He brings racism out into the light that obviously was always in the shadows, but he made it okay to be racist.”

In the closing stretch of the campaign, it seemed that COVID would define everything about the 2020 election.

“COVID, COVID, COVID.”

It was Trump’s closing grievance of the 2020 campaign – a complaint that no matter how hard he tried to escape the pandemic, he couldn’t seem to change the subject or the storyline. 

But Tuesday’s results tell a more nuanced story. Yes, COVID dominated the news, hobbled the economy and gripped the nation. By Election Day, it had killed more than 200,000 Americans, upended daily life and sent the president to the hospital

© Jenni Girtman, AP Voters wait in long lines at Peachcrest Elementary School to vote in the state’s primary election on June 9, 2020, in Decatur, Ga. Coronavirus restrictions only allowed 10 people in the gym at a time so many machines were not being used, creating long wait times.

The pandemic was foremost on voters’ minds, according to a survey of the electorate conducted by the Associated Press. Four in 10 voters said it was the most important issue facing the country, by far the highest response to the question. Twenty-seven percent picked the economy, which has been battered by COVID restrictions on travel, dining out, movie-going and a slew of other activities.

Nearly all of those surveyed – 95% – said the federal government’s response to the pandemic was a factor in deciding how they voted.

But it also divided Americans as with so many other issues, with the electorate split over how to confront a public health crisis that has also crippled the economy. Voters were torn in the face of a virus that has threatened their lives and livelihoods, according to a broad survey of voters by The Associated Press, called VoteCast.

When asked which should be the federal government’s higher priority, 59% of VoteCast respondents said limiting the spread of the coronavirus, even if it damages the economy; 39% said limiting additional damage to the economy, even if it increases the spread of coronavirus. And while 77% of Biden supporters chose health over the economy, 86% of Trump voters chose the economy over health.

© Angela Weiss, AFP via Getty Images | Saul Loeb/AFP Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden (left) and President Donald Trump (right) are pictured during their respective campaigns.

‘Black cloud’ of the election

“The pandemic is the black cloud hanging over this election,” said David Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron. “It’s everything.” 

Still, John Feehery, a Republican consultant, said the pandemic did not lead to an exodus from the GOP, which stands a good chance of holding onto its majority in the Senate and gained seats in the House, where Democrats hold a majority. 

“People don’t want doom and gloom,” he said. “They want to get on with their lives.” 

Trump embraced the notion that Americans were tired of hearing about COVID. He blasted the media for focusing heavily on the pandemic and its spiraling death toll. He insisted the United States was “rounding the corner.”

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He mocked mask wearing and flouted federal health guidelines by holding huge rallies with little to no social distancing. 

“You turn on the news: COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID,” Trump complained at a rally in south Florida on Sunday. He hinted he might fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, after the election.

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Biden took the opposite approach, warning of a “dark winter” if Americans did not take the virus more seriously. He promised to empower scientific experts and tackle the crisis head-on. He kept a light campaign schedule, made sure his events were socially distanced and wore a mask everywhere, sometimes even two.

The day before the election, Biden accused Trump of failing to protect the country from the virus and said he was “responsible for so many deaths.”

As for Trump’s threat to fire Fauci, Biden offered this retort: “I’ve got a better idea. … I’m going hire Dr. Fauci. And we’re going to fire Donald Trump,” he said. 

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© Provided by USA TODAY Joe Biden and President Trump disagree on when and where masks should be worn.

As Trump and Biden’s delivered dueling messages, the U.S. suffered a record-breaking new surge of infections: more than 500,000 new cases over a seven-day period, with deaths and hospitalizations climbing nationwide.

The day before the election, one American was dying every 107 seconds, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. As the vote count got under way, the U.S. hit a grim milestone: More than 100,000 new infections in a single day.

If voters needed any reminder of the pervasiveness of the virus, they got one when it hit the White House for a third time – with Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows contracting COVID along with several others others in Trump’s orbit. Meadows’ diagnosis came after an outbreak among Vice President Mike Pence’s top advisers, which came after Trump’s own bout of COVID. 

And just days before the election came this jarring declaration from Meadows.

“We’re not going to control the pandemic,” Mark Meadows told CNN, sparking fierce blowback from critics who said it showed the Trump administration had given up on fighting the virus.

A majority of voters said they had more confidence in Biden to handle the coronavirus crisis than Trump. When asked which candidate they thought would be better able to handle the pandemic, 47% said Biden and 38% said Trump, the VoteCast data showed.

But according to the survey, more voters trusted Trump on the economy, 51% to 39%.

For Maanefero Xederu Roberts of Pennsylvania, the pandemic – and his belief that Trump botched its response – reinforced his decision to vote for Biden. A 25-year-old independent, Roberts works two jobs, one selling juice at a stand in York’s Central Market and another as a chef, and both businesses have been hurt by the pandemic.

“I come in here,” he said at his stand in the market, “and nobody’s here. I work at the restaurant and I mostly cook for the waitresses.”

“They say the choice is between stopping the pandemic and opening up, one or the other,” he added. “When people give you an ultimatum, you’re in a toxic relationship and it’s time to get out.”

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At the same time, some voters agreed with Trump’s argument that lockdowns would wreck the economy – or as the president put it, the cure “cannot be worse than the problem itself.”

“How it was handled, no matter who was put in that position they were going to be criticized,” said Nicole Morrison, a 29-year-old Floridian and registered Republican.

Morrison said she doesn’t believe masks do much to protect against the virus, and she wasn’t wearing one when she cast her vote for Trump two days before the election.

© Zachary Anderson Nicole Morrison, a 29-year-old Florida voter, doesn’t fault Trump for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic

PPE for polling volunteers

As the pandemic weighed on voters minds, the virus also nixed election night parties, scaled back get-out-the-vote operations, caused a shortage in poll workers, and drove a tsunami of early and absentee voting.

At least 96 million Americans voted before Election Day, according to a tally by Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in American elections. 

© Andrew Harnik, AP Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, arrive at a campaign stop at Bucks County Community College on Oct. 24 in Bristol, Pa., where the former vice president faced hecklers chanting, “Four more years.”

As local election officials prepared to process a record number of mail-in ballots, they also had to search for bigger polling locations – to ensure voting booths were at least six feet apart. And they scrambled to provide volunteers with personal protective equipment.

Sherry Poland, director of elections in Hamilton County, Ohio, said she had a phalanx of “sanitation technicians” trained to clean voting booths between each use. The county has also invested in a stash of face shields, hand wipes, and other virus-killing supplies.

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Alex Triantafilou, a member of the election commission and chairman of Hamilton County’s Republican Party, said Ohio launched an “all hands on deck” effort to recruit new poll workers after many seniors bowed out.

Republican activists also had to adjust their campaign strategies, he said, with volunteers suspending door-knocking in the spring but then restarting in early July – albeit with COVID precautions so they didn’t make voters uncomfortable.

“We did it safely. We did masks, We’d step back from the door,” he said.

The election night festivities could not be salvaged, however, amid the virus surge. 

“We were on the fence as to whether to have one,” Triantafilou said, but decided against it amid the virus surge. The state Republican Party also opted for a virtual gathering instead of their usual “blowout” affair, he said.   

Seniors largely stuck with Trump

Older voters helped catapult Trump to the White House in 2016. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, Trump won 51% of 50- to 64-year-old voters, compared to 45% who supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Among those over 65, Trump’s advantage over Clinton was even greater – 53% to 44%.

Before the election, polls showed seniors drifting away from Trump, with older voters souring on him because of his handling of the pandemic. But while Biden did make inroads with seniors, he did not flip Trump’s edge. Trump won 51% of older voters, while Biden snagged 48%, according to VoteCast. Even those small gains for Biden likely proved critical in battleground states. 

“Seniors should have been a slam dunk for him,” Cohen said of Trump. “That ties right into the pandemic.”

Trump’s campaign courted seniors with promises to drive down drug costs and other moves. But his dismissive rhetoric about the pandemic struck many older voters as cavalier and indifferent to their health and safety.

Andrea Figler, a retired 78-year-old voter in Pennsylvania, said Trump’s handling of COVID-19 was one factor driving her decision to vote for Biden. Figler, a retiree from Beaver County, said she believed Trump mishandled the pandemic by downplaying its risk and encouraging states to reopen before it was safe. 

“Obviously coronavirus is the biggest issue right now,” she said. “Biden is, I think, someone who will listen to the experts and get it under control.”

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COVID has taken a horrific toll on the elderly in America, with the virus raging through nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Eight out of every 10 COVID-19-related deaths reported in the United States were adults 65 years and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Biden tried to build on the shift with a massive ad blitz targeting older voters in battleground states.

“Our seniors that are being hit the hardest, they’re frightened,” Biden said in a spot that aired more than 9,000 times during the week ending Oct. 9. “I will not abandon you.” 

Trump’s campaign, by contrast, tried to use his own COVID diagnosis – and his recovery – as a selling point. In one spot, Trump is seen with his first raised as he emerges from Walter Reed Medical Center after his hospitalization.  

“President Trump is recovering from the coronavirus and so is America,” the narrator says. “President Trump tackled the virus head-on, as leaders should.”

It wasn’t just seniors who said the pandemic was top-of-mind. 

Maezie Kegrreis, a 21-year-old Florida voter who works in the technology sector, said she hasn’t been as personally affected by the pandemic. Days before Election Day, she told the USA TODAY Network that the virus would be a “big factor” in her decision. 

Trump “could have been more proactive” in trying to contain the virus, she said, adding that she is eager to see him voted out of office. His response to the pandemic was “super telling for everyone,” she added, noting that everyone she knows is being very cautious and heeding public health recommendations about social distancing and wearing masks. 

© Zachary Anderson Maezie Kegrreis, 21, said the COVID-19 pandemic was a “big factor” in how she voted this election. She’s eager to see President Trump ousted.

Shift among suburban women

In the 2016 election, Trump and Clinton essentially split the suburban vote, according to Pew, with Trump snagging 47% and Clinton garnering 45%. 

This year, Biden won suburban women 59% to 40%, according to VoteCast.

Concerns about Trump’s handling of the pandemic helped fuel that trend, but it was about much more.

Many women voters disapproved of the president’s response to police violence against African Americans and the civil unrest that followed George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. And they disliked his immigration policies that led to children being separated from their parents at the border.

Juli Evans grew up in the Cleveland suburbs and returned when she got married to raise a family. An independent who has voted for Republicans and Democrats for president, Evans says she has had enough of Trump and was backing Biden.

“I just can’t do four more years of Trump,” Evans said. “So many things he says are so fear-based, and I don’t want to live like that.”

Trump’s handling of racial tensions particularly concern her.

Evans, 53, has five children whose ages run from 13 to 25, including a daughter and two sons adopted from Ethiopia. They are among only a handful of Black residents in Bay, the suburb where they live.

“I have a multiracial family,” she said. “I adopted the boys 10 years ago and I never thought there would be an issue.”

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Leslie Smith, who has lived in Bay, Ohio, for 47 years and has three adult children, voted for Trump in 2016 because of his pledge to make conservative appointments to the Supreme Court. And she was supporting him again this year, even though she doesn’t like Trump’s behavior or rhetoric.

“He makes it difficult. You don’t really want to be associated with the man because he is a bully, he’s an egotist and he can’t stop tweeting crazy stuff. Even if he does something good, he poops all over it with his tweets,” Smith said. “I’d like to put up a sign that says ‘I like his policies but I really can’t stand him.”’

For Jenkins, the Pennsylvania man who survived COVID, surviving “Virus-45” was even more important.

“We did cure it on Nov. 3. It’s done.” Jenkins said. As for his T-shirts, he’s already trademarked his slogan – and at $20 a pop, they’re going fast.

Contributing: Camille Caldera, Catherine Candisky, Zachary Anderson, Christina Suttles and Mike Argento

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How COVID-19 shaped the 2020 election, swinging some voters to Biden but bolstering Trump with his base

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