23 April 2020
23 April 2020

We thought we had it all figured out.

It wasn’t that long ago that former Vice President Joe Biden staged one of the biggest political comebacks in U.S. history — surprising the pundits and perhaps even himself when he managed to overcome a series of early election year losses and clinch the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

Back then, in the waning weeks of winter, Americans were all set to focus on a Trump versus Biden race for the White House — bracing for months of endless political headlines and campaign ads.

And then a pandemic hit —moving in shortly after Joe Biden moved into the lead in the nominating process and before he won back-to-back endorsements from his main Democratic rival and the man he served as a loyal second-in-command for eight years.

The emergence of COVID-19 pushed everything else into the background. At another time, the  displays of support for the Biden campaign from Senator Bernie Sanders and former President Barack Obama would have been front page news. But not now.

The United States is in the midst of an election year unlike any other. Perhaps the closest analogy might be the presidential election held in 1944, during World War Two. But even that comparison is a stretch.   Americans engaged in combat abroad is one thing — an invisible foe that creeps into our cities and towns is another.

Most of us in the USA are under state and local orders to stay home to avoid catching the coronavirus and perhaps passing this highly contagious — sometimes deadly — disease on to others.   That means traditional campaign activities are pretty much taboo:  no rallies, community meetings, or big fundraising galas.

We are, in short, in uncharted territory.

Some would say President Trump has the advantage since he still has the White House stage.

Biden, by contrast, is stuck at his home in the state of Delaware. His campaign has installed a state-of-the-art television studio in the basement of the house that he uses for television interviews and social media.

There is no doubt that at a time when he should be all over the news, his very political presence is diminished by the pandemic

“I’m locked in the basement… like a lot of you are,” he said during a recent video address to a labor union convention that was held entirely online.

Some of his supporters say they want to see more of him and worry that he is being denied the sort of media exposure the president is getting on a daily basis. Others believe it will be a lot easier for voters to relate to someone who is in the same position they are in… someone without the everyday drama that Donald Trump seems to relish… someone who has the temperament to  handle a national tragedy with calm and compassion.

Barack Obama touched on that aspect of the Biden campaign in his 12-minute endorsement video:

“Pandemics have a way of cutting through a lot of noise and spin to remind us what is real and what is important.   This crisis has reminded us that government matters. It’s reminded us that good government matters. That facts and science matter. That the rule of law matters; that having leaders who are informed and honest and seek to bring people together rather than drive them apart — those kind of leaders matter” Obama said.

It was a great speech. And it became almost an afterthought — blotted out of the public consciousness by one of Donald Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings. These regular appearances at the White House have become a useful tool for the president, enabling him to both reach out to his political base and lash out at his foe of the hour:  from the news media, to Democrats in Congress, to the World Health Organization.

The president’s goal at this daily “Trump Show” is clear — to constantly shift blame away from himself and put the focus on someone or something else.

If he can’t do a campaign rally, then these briefings will suffice, according to President Trump — who from time to time has tweeted about his high television ratings.

Let the record show he tweets about the ratings… not about the tens of thousands of Americans who have died an agonizing death from COVID-19.

Then again, Trump acknowledges that empathy is not his strong suit. His focus is solely on “winning” and his base loves it.

He says he can’t wait to start doing campaign rallies again — packing arenas with adoring crowds.      Trump also says he is looking forward to appearing before the party faithful in August at the Republican National Convention.

IF there is a convention.

The Democrats have already pushed their convention back a month, and Biden has raised the possibility that with a pandemic virus still on the loose, they might have to reconsider the whole  notion of a standing-room-only gathering of thousands of party delegates. The candidate who has had to replace in-the-flesh campaigning with live-streaming from his basement admits a “virtual convention” is a possibility.

Just think of the contrast: Trump strutting on an oversized convention podium with all the Hollywood-type razzle-dazzle he can muster, and Biden with a speech that is more conversational and down-to-earth delivered in a far more sedate setting and live-streamed to the world.

Or perhaps he could address the convention on a “Zoon” videoconference! Just think of the possibilities in a campaign season where the latest technology is sure to be much on display.

But one aspect of the 2020 election will definitely be done the old-fashioned way — even in a pandemic.

There will be no voting online.

Democrats are calling for at least more access to mail-in ballots for those who — for one reason or another — won’t be able to vote in person.  Republicans — including the president — want as little voting by mail as possible.

The recent primary election in the state of Wisconsin — where voters chose presidential candidates as well as deciding many state and local offices — gave a preview of what might lie ahead.

It was the first major election held since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Last minute efforts to delay the election and provide for more mail-in ballots — moves requested by the governor —  were blocked by the state’s high court.

What ensued was both a disaster and a triumph of the American spirit.

There was confusion and partisanship. Polling places were closed and combined  at the last minute when scores of election workers — many of them elderly volunteers — said they just could not show up and put their lives at risk.

But tens of  thousands of voters did. They formed long lines in the chilly spring air, trying to keep a safe distance from others as they waited for a chance to cast a ballot.

One held up a sign that said it all: “This is ridiculous!” it read.

The president was asked about it the next day. “I don’t know anything about their lines….I don’t know anything about their voting,” he told reporters.

But all Americans should consider this as our leaders debate how to hold a national election in this time of crisis:

Two weeks after the April 7th Wisconsin primary election, we learned of the high price those dedicated citizens paid.
Health officials in the state announced that 19 people who participated in the primary — either by voting or by working as election day volunteers — later tested positive for the coronavirus.



Paula Wolfson

Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for

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