How covid-19 could impact electoral politics 📊 March 15, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is an atypically large shock to the system that could have major political implications

Welcome! I’m G. Elliott Morris, a data journalist at The Economist and blogger of polls, elections, and political science. Happy Sunday! This is my weekly email where I write about politics using data and share links to what I’ve been reading and writing. 

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How covid-19 could impact electoral politics

The coronavirus pandemic is an atypically large shock to the system that could have major political implications

The title of this week’s newsletter may sound tone-deaf, so let me assure you now that this is not the case. The pandemic of covid-19, the new global coronavirus, is an enormous threat to our economic and political situation that could end in the deaths of hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people. The US government should take appropriate steps—closing bars and restaurants, liming mass transit, subsidizing paid sick leave, etc—to address a crisis that grows more severe by the hour. (Check out these graphs of how rapidly the disease spreads if you’re still not convinced how important self-isolation is.)

The remaining major 2020 Democratic presidential candidates took to an audience-less CNN debate tonight to talk about the crisis. Unsurprisingly, both used the debate’s intense focus on the coronavirus outbreak as an opportunity to argue for their marque health care policies. Joe Biden said that were he president today, he would use the executive's national emergency powers to make testing for the virus free-of-charge. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, argued that the health care system faces enormous challenges from the outbreak that are only some of many examples of why we need permanent government-funded education. Both made good points, though Biden made one of the leading quips of the night when he said that “people want results, not a revolution.” It is not lost on most readers that Biden’s delegate lead in the primary reflects well on the vice president’s claim.

With the debate viewing behind me, I think that Sanders massively squandered his opportunity to make the case for making drastic, permanent changes to the health care system. I think he has also missed his last chance to tilt the Democratic primary back in his favor.

But before I get there, let me be clear, it would be very hard for Sanders to come back at this point. My math suggests that he needs to win nearly 60% of the remaining delegates in order to win a majority of them before the convention. To hit that mark, he would need to double his current support in the national polls (he’s currently hovering around 30%) and pull off a comeback roughly 6 times as large as the one Joe Biden did in late February.

Sanders has acknowledged the difficulty of his path forward. At a press conference last week, he said that he is losing the battle over electability (true) but winning the ideological one (debatable). The debate on Sunday was his chance to prove the latter statement, and to push Joe Biden to accept some more liberal issue positions. He proved relatively unsuccessful. Biden stuck to his guns on health care, bank reform, funding for social security and medicare. In fact, the most progressive position of the night may have been Biden’s pledge to pick a female running mate, which Sanders said he would likely do and is something the country should “move towards.” (Fun data: political bettors at PredictIt have been pretty convinced of a female nominee for a while, and tonight, all the top picks are women.)

But here’s the point. The covid-19 pandemic represents a great opportunity for much-needed policy changes in America. In the past, similar crises—what political scientists call “punctuations”—in the status quo have been common sources of fundamental political and social change. The Civil Rights act, a solution to national unrest over racial tensions and caused by mass liberalization on equality of the races, is one of the most obvious examples.

Sanders is right that the coronavirus lays bare a lot of flaws in our health care system. Sunday was his night to make that case to a party craving solutions, and fast. But his insistence that Medicare for All is the only solution will probably fall on deaf ears. The primary will likely continue on its current track, with Joe Biden winning a large majority of remaining delegates off the back of his electability advantage.

The other electoral implications from the coronavirus are obvious. Although partisanship has already shaped voters’ interpretations of the president’s actions—I wrote about this for The Economist this week—if the economy continues to slide during the election year, Donald Trump’s chances of re-election will be significantly weakened. Read more about what a recession would mean for 2020 here.


Posts for subscribers


Links and Other Stuff

If you read one thing this week, make it these animations of how diseases spread

This is really, really great work from the Washington Post:


What I'm Reading and Working On

I’ve been coding a lot and don’t know what’s on the writing schedule for this week just yet. I usually figure that out Monday mornings. Keep up with me on Twitter for more. I’m isolating myself at home which means plenty of time to spend reading books instead of commuting. John Holbein just sent me his recent book with Sunshine Hillygus, Making Young Voters, and I might blog here about it soon. (PS, if you write a politics- or data-adjacent book, send it to me! I’m a pretty voracious reader and very happy to share/review books I enjoy.)


Thanks for reading!

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