xactly how the coronavirus pandemic, the current unrest sweeping the country and the nation’s economic woes will affect November’s presidential election is unclear, but voter turnout will be key, experts say.
“There’s so much uncertainty and we’re not sure exactly how some of these things are going to play out in the election, but one of the things that has not changed and where there’s amazing stability is the president’s approval,” said John Lapinski, the Robert A. Fox Leadership Professor of Political Science at Penn. “The support among his constituents is rock solid. So, it is really going to be about turnout.”
Lapinski, who is also the director of the elections unit at NBC News, and former Republican Congressman Charlie Dent spoke on the eve of Pennsylvania’s primary at a virtual event organized by Perry World House.
The hourlong Zoom discussion, moderated by Michael Horowitz, interim director of Perry World House, touched on mail-in balloting and how the pandemic and protests might play into the election, how to battle disinformation, and if President Donald Trump could cancel the election (Short answer: He can’t.)
Both agreed that one effect of the pandemic is that mail-in voting will increase, and depending on how states manage the process it could lead to delayed election results if counting continues for days or even weeks. It could be the case that swing states like Pennsylvania can’t announce a clear winner on election night, they said.
Lapinski said it is crucial that the media make the public aware that vote counting with mail-in balloting can take longer, and just because there might be a delay doesn’t mean the election wasn’t legitimate.
“We don't want people to be alarmed,” Lapinski said. “But it will take as long as it takes, and I think that everybody just needs to understand that.”
There is a partisan divide on mail-in voting, with some Republicans claiming it unfairly benefits Democrats, but those assumptions haven’t held up in studies, they said.
Both agreed it was impossible to know how the protests over George Floyd’s killing by police would affect the election.
Lapinski said it will be interesting to see how the events influence who Joseph Biden picks as his vice president.
This election cycle is unusual in that typically by this time of year the cable channels and newspapers would be full of election news, and now it’s barely a blip, taken over by COVID concerns and the protests and Trump’s reactions, which has led to a dearth of Biden coverage.
“I think what this election is about is the president of the United States and his record and his conduct in office,” Dent said. “As hard as Joe Biden will try to make it about sharing what his vision is for the country, it’s really not about Joe Biden it’s about Donald Trump.” That could end up working out well for Biden anyhow, he said.
After Labor Day, the election will go into full swing, said Lapinski, and Biden will be a big part of the conversation then.
After Trump’s controversial statements about the protests, some Republican lawmakers in swing states might feel the need to disassociate themselves from him, Dent said.
“I can’t imagine how embracing the president would help them,” he said.
Both agree the House will likely remain in Democratic control, and that it’s anyone’s guess what happens with the Senate.
“A lot of people are thinking that this is the year for the Democrats to win the trifecta,” Lapkinski said. “People should not discount the fact that President Trump is a formidable candidate.” With so much uncertainty this election cycle, news organizations need to prepare for a variety of possible scenarios, he said.
Despite the current crises and pain, Americans are resilient, and the country will get through these difficult times, Dent said.
“I think hopefully everyone's adopting a greater appreciation that might have those as we witness, with COVID particularly how our minority communities have been disproportionately impacted,” he said. “I hope we better understand each other as Americans and we’re all coming from, even if we don't always agree. I’m hoping, but I think we're fundamentally a good people, and we want to make this country better.”
Lapinski agreed, pointing out how he’s seen many people go above and beyond during the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s a lot more people on the good side than the bad side, and I think we all have examples of them,” he said.
A video of the PWH talk can be viewed on YouTube.