Primaries, presidential elections, and pandemics

Political science professor Marc Meredith shares his thoughts with Penn Today on what the coronavirus pandemic could mean for primaries, traditional campaigning activities, and voter turnout.

One person voting behind a curtain in one of a row of three voting booths

How will the new coronavirus and social distancing efforts affect the upcoming presidential primaries and the general election? Political science professor Marc Meredith shares his thoughts with Penn Today on what the pandemic could mean for primaries, traditional campaigning activities and voter turnout.

What effect did coronavirus have on this week’s primaries?

The most direct effect it had was causing one state to cancel its primary, which was Ohio. The other three states all still held them and two of the three—Florida and Arizona—have substantial numbers of voters cast their ballots before Election Day, using either absentee or early in-person voting. So turnout wasn’t as affected there. In Illinois, a much higher share of ballots are cast on Election Day. There we saw pretty clear evidence that turnout was down relative to where we expected it would be before the pandemic.

It is not clear who benefits or loses from low voter turnout. My biggest concern right now is that certain groups of individuals feel safer about showing up at the polls to vote than other groups. I will be particularly concerned if we were heading into November and younger people feel more capable than older people of voting.

Has there ever been a time in history when a primary has been canceled? Is it even possible?

Prior to the pandemic, we already witnessed the Republican Party canceling their typical presidential primary in 2020 in a number of states. It would be much harder to change the date or delay the presidential election because it’s timing is specified by the Constitution. 

I think you have more leeway with the remaining presidential primary elections because the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees are largely settled at this point. There isn’t quite as much pressure to hold them now in order to settle on a candidate.

A footnote on that is we need to have primaries for our other federal offices like Senate and House seats. Some states also still need to select their gubernatorial and other state office candidates. So while we can get away, potentially, with delaying these primary elections for president now, we do eventually have to figure out who our candidates in these other races are going to be for the November elections.

What works in our favor is that some states hold primaries for these offices in late summer or early fall. So we still have time to get primaries done for these offices if we just delay the upcoming primary elections and accepted that the presidential nominations at this time are settled.

How much does campaigning affect elections, if all handshakes, baby kissing, and roaring rallies are off the table? 

Political scientists have thought for a while now that the effects of traditional campaign events are pretty limited. The influence of things like holding a rally in a city and shaking hands is probably more important for the primaries than the general elections. So things probably won’t change that much when we have no more big speeches in arenas for the rest of the cycle.

What also might be lost though is the type of get-out-the-vote activities that occur in the lead-up to presidential elections, where people knock on people’s doors to convince them they should go vote. Political scientists have shown that is an important determinant of voter turnout. People are more likely to go out and vote when people mobilize them in person rather than with a phone call or letter. There is a chance that voter turnout would be negatively affected if we lose our ability to have volunteers knock on people's doors and encourage voting.

How could candidates make up for the inability to mobilize door-to-door?

We’ve had lots of growth in the last 20 years in digital campaigning. Originally this was largely a tool for fundraising, but if we are all going to be stuck inside for many months one has to think that the campaign that can more effectively engage in a digital campaign strategy will have an advantage. Digital campaigning will be more important as people consume more Facebook, Twitter, and Hulu during this time of social distancing.