Warning, In Danger Of Collapse: Voter Turnout, The Economy, and Trump’s Re-Election Chances
By Zac Emanuel
With American Presidential elections happening every 4 years, and the last great pandemic 100 years ago, the odds of both occurring in a given year are minimal. Therefore, the fact that records of voter turnout worldwide from the last great pandemic exist is very fortunate for us. To maximize the available data, we are going to look at both global voting trends and American trends both from a disease standpoint and from an economic fallout standpoint. The COVID-19 crisis has a two-pronged effect on the November ballots for the American Presidency. The first being how the virus itself will affect voters, whether due to fear of infection, or the continued shutdown of our schools. The other prong is the economic crisis that has resulted. Traditional voter turnout modeling, alongside polls on the current handling of the virus, suggests that there will be a wave of incumbent punishment this November.
While Americans have been staying home in greater numbers than ever before since the outbreak of COVID-19, the fear of contracting illness in leaving quarantine is not the only influence that preventative measures may have on voter turnout. Quarantine, isolation, and the banning of public gatherings prevent such social lives that would not only allow and normalize electoral participation but encourage it. As a result of the sociological aspects of combating this pandemic, we also may reduce the population’s overall likelihood to vote. Looking at the Spanish Flu of 1918, 20% of those who voted in the 1914 and 1910 American midterm elections did not vote in the 1918 midterm elections. In fact, an increase in infections immediately after the elections that year combined with the drop in turnout, offers what the New York Times calls “the worst outcome for any election.” Looking 100 years later, Beall, et al examines not turnout rate, but the voting preferences of those who do turn out, allowing us to move beyond the framework of strictly voter turnout modeling and into how voters will vote.
The theoretical application of past models to determine the effect COVID-19 will have on the November 2020 American elections is complemented by the data that came from the 2020 American Democratic primaries. In the immediate aftermath of the outbreak being proclaimed by the World Health Organization on March 11th as a pandemic, two states without large percentages of mail-in voting held their primaries without a delay, while Florida saw turnout bolstered through higher than normal mail ballots and most voters in Arizona’s primaries voted early. In contrast, Illinois conducted its primary as planned and provides very pertinent data that can be used. The Chicago area saw a third of the turnout that it traditionally saw, according to Illinois Board of Elections Spokesman Matt Dietrich. A suburb of the city saw only 15% of its registered voters turn out. These “exceedingly low” turnout numbers offer a picture of what November 2020 could look like as the virus remains a dominant factor in everyday life.
Wisconsin, like Illinois, is a state with traditionally low absentee or mail-in ballot rates, with only 1 in 10 ballots cast remotely during the 2016 Presidential Primaries. In the face of not only COVID-19, but the state’s primary also got even more chaotic and controversial, as the Democratic Governor Tony Evers attempted to get the election date rescheduled, first by agreement with the Republican Legislature, and then by emergency power. Following a loss at the state Supreme Court, and the United States Supreme Court refusing to take the case, the election was held on its original day. The state saw turnout drop from 49% to 31%, but more dramatic is that 80% of that turnout was via absentee ballot.
This compounds with the absentee ballot spike, leaving a concerning trend, that even if most voters were to vote by mail, turnout could still plummet. All told, the picture offered for November 2020, from the turnout trends of the 1918 elections in the midst of the Spanish Flu and the ones being offered in Illinois and Wisconsin, is of one of low turnout, and those who turnout voting more conservatively should COVID-19 remaining a dangerous part of everyday life.
The crisis COVID-19 has wrought across the world is not strictly a result of the disease’s health-related complexities though. To understand how this virus will affect the November 2020 elections, the economic effects of the crisis it is causing have to be analyzed to try and understand how the economic aspects will come in to play at the ballot box. From February 19th, 2020, to March 23rd, 2020, the Dow Jones Index lost 37% of its value, and the United States GDP contracted 32.9% in the second quarter. Mohamed El-Erian, a former deputy director of the International Monetary Fund, described it as a “generation-defining moment,” saying “I’ve never seen an economic stop on this scale, certainly never in big countries and all at once.”(Partington and Wearden).
In Europe, the Great Recession and its wake’s effect on politics provide such a glimpse. Anna Bosco and Susannah Verney, in their 2012 paper tracking the 2010-2011 election cycles in southern European countries hit hard by the recession, found a commonality with Häusermann, as they too noted a decrease in turnout in the countries hit hardest economically in the countries they studied. Most notably, though, they observed that the incumbent lost in 10 out of the 12 countries they examined. In fact, in examining voting in countries with economic crises, they concluded that “incumbent punishment seems to have become the hallmark of crisis elections.” They did notice similar trends in that the traditional opposition did not succeed, and that untraditional and new candidates rose, “whose common characteristic was the rejection of the existing system.”
This incumbent punishment and mainstream party destabilization that Bosco and Verney noted, is further built upon a paper by Enrique Hernández and Hanspeter Kriesi. While punishing incumbents during downward economic crises are common, they found that “In contexts like the Great Recession, the punishment of the incumbents by the voters is not only likely to occur in much greater proportions, but its consequences are also likely to be long-lasting.” Through these lenses, the model Europe suggests is that the worse, and longer, the economic crisis is, the more the incumbent will be punished.
The same is true in the United States, to the point where the state of the economy is, as Vavreck writes, considered one of “of the structural or fundamental conditions that drive election outcomes.” In fact, while elections are inherently a contrasting of two options to see which one is liked more by the voting population (in theory), “but that independent of this almost tautological effect, the state of the economy is an even better predictor of the outcome,” according to Robert Erikson. In examining incumbent Presidents losing elections in the 20th century, this theory is seen in practice. When looking at elections held during recessions during the 1900’s incumbent Presidents Hoover, Carter, and H.W Bush lost in 1932, 1980, and 1992 respectively. Out of the last ten presidential elections featuring an incumbent, the incumbent has won 7 times. Carter and H.W Bush constitute two of the three losers, with President Ford being the third, in addition to then-incumbent-Vice President Nixon losing against John F. Kennedy in 1960. These losses become dramatic when one considers the incumbency advantage.
Over the last 20 years in the United States, being the incumbent has offered an advantage ranging from three to eight percentage points in the polls, depending on year and office, with the incumbent President on the lower edge of the scale.
The evaporation of this advantage for incumbents is seen in the fact that it is estimated that each percentage point of Gross Domestic Product gained or lost in the last four financial quarters translates into an almost equal share of a percentage point of votes gained or lost by the incumbent President according to Annie Lowrey and Larry Bartels.
However, it is impossible for the point to point comparison to hold, strictly due to the limits of voter shares, ideological preference, and the absolute implosion of the American economy. Therefore, the incumbency advantage is not only erased, but the punishment of the incumbent American President is likely to be harsh as well.
The COVID-19 crisis will have two effects on the November ballots for the American Presidency. The first is the effect on voter behavior as a result of its pathogen based consequences, with the second being the economic crisis that has resulted. Each has distinct effects on voting trends. A study (by Beall, Schaller, and Hofer) suggests that those actively thinking about the pandemic will vote more conservatively, in addition to potentially dramatically lowering voter turnout. The economic effects suggest a harsh punishment for the incumbent, while traditionally each percentage of contraction is almost equal to a contraction in the incumbent’s vote share, this theory will ultimately be stretched by current contraction. In order to weigh how COVID-19 will affect the election, how each of these different aspects affect voting trends needs to be measured, alongside the strength of each. As already discussed, the “salience” of the pandemic on the voter’s mind will cause them to vote more conservatively, benefiting America’s conservative Republicans. In addition, lower turnout is generally viewed as favorable to Republicans, as in the 2016 Presidential Election, registered voters who did not turn out were more likely to lean Democrat than Republican.
Republicans themselves believe this fact to be true, with both Speaker of the Georgia House David Ralston and President Trump both acknowledging the danger increased turnout poses to Republican electoral chances. Speaker Ralston decried expanded absentee ballot access as a result of COVID-19, believing that potential increased turnout “will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia.” President Trump believes that with increased “levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” In fact, conservatives as far back as 1980 acknowledge that their “leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” As a result, the pandemic-specific aspects of the crisis suggest lower and more conservative voter turnout will be beneficial to the Republican party and President Trump’s re-election chances.
This contrasts with the discussed punishment of the incumbent due to the economic crisis, however. With a contraction of approximately 33% in the second quarter, the current economic crisis is the worst in modern history. Professional economists are not the only one noting this dramatic contraction, as it has resulted in over half of American households having an income decline, and one in ten American workers have lost their jobs since the spring. During that time frame, 65% of Americans noted a belief that the economy was getting worse. As a result, we can almost assuredly count on the economic effects of the crisis still being felt- dramatically- by the year’s end.
In conclusion, while lower turnout and increased likelihood to vote conservative are possible for the 2020 Presidential Election, due to the fact that the economic aspect of the crisis is going to be more poignant on Election Day, alongside Trump’s underwater approval rating on his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, Donald Trump is at a significant disadvantage to be re-elected. As political strategist James Carville said, “It’s the economy, stupid,” and this will ring true this fall. While there certainly will be aspects of the crisis that are beneficial to Republicans, such as decreased turnout and the ties between concerns over cleanliness and a propensity to vote conservative, the widespread damage from COVID-19 spells a stinging rebuke for the incumbent president and his party.