How the surging virus has crashed into campaigning in every imaginable way

The collision of an election and a pandemic has thrown campaigns and early voting efforts into a last-minute frenzy, and the dual narratives seem to be reaching an apex at precisely the same moment.

Candidates in races all over the country are squeezing in final bursts of campaigning while simultaneously navigating the coronavirus surg.
By Julie Bosman, Sarah Mervosh, Sydney Ember, Jacey Fortin and Robert Gebeloff

Drive-thru polling places. Candidates trying to sell themselves to voters on Zoom. Canvassers in masks and gloves knocking on doors and then scurrying 6 feet back.

The coronavirus has upended the 2020 election season at nearly every turn: emerging as the dominant issue among candidates up and down the ballot, scrambling U.S. campaign traditions and complicating the way that votes are cast. And as Election Day nears, the country is in the grip of the pandemic like never before.

“All we’re missing is the asteroid landing with flesh-eating zombies, and our year will be complete,” said Paul Lux, the supervisor of elections in Okaloosa County, Florida, and one of the nearly 9 million Americans to contract the virus.

Lux once worked long hours from his office in his mostly Republican county in the Florida Panhandle. With the election season nearing an end, he found himself in isolation last week, trying to oversee the entire voting apparatus for the county’s 210,000 residents on an iPad from the recliner in his den.

His elections office was shuttered for deep cleaning. Some of his colleagues also tested positive. And Lux was monitoring early voting as best he could, between checking his temperature every two hours.

The collision of an election and a pandemic has thrown campaigns and early voting efforts into a last-minute frenzy, and the dual narratives seem to be reaching an apex at precisely the same moment.

Candidates in races all over the country are squeezing in final bursts of campaigning while simultaneously navigating the coronavirus surge and asking questions that political strategists have never before contemplated. Among them: Might voters actually like you better if you keep your distance?

Voters who had never considered mailing their ballots are doing that for the first time rather than braving their usual indoor polling places. And some in the nation’s army of Election Day workers are weighing what levels of protective equipment to wear — if they go to the polls again this year at all.

When the presidential contest began ramping up in early 2020, there was little inkling that the year would be defined by the coronavirus pandemic. But when Iowans gathered for caucuses in early February, the virus may have already been quietly spreading.

For a time, it seemed that it was mainly affecting people in Democratic-leaning cities and suburbs on the East and West coasts where the virus struck early. President Donald Trump asserted in September that the COVID-19 death toll in the United States was at a “very low level,” but only “if you take the blue states out.”

By now, though, few places are untouched as a third virus surge is sweeping through vast stretches of the nation, including Republican-dominated sections of the Great Plains and the Mountain West. And in the battleground states, a growing share of cases is emerging in counties that supported Trump in 2016.

The last time that Americans voted during a pandemic — the midterm elections in 1918 — infections similarly surged in October. Candidates who could not campaign wrote letters instead. Voter turnout was low. And those who cast ballots called for change, flipping both chambers of Congress.

Now the virus is threatening the very traditions of American political life.

On election night in 2016, dozens of Democrats in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, gathered at the local party office with beer, wine and pizza to watch the results come in. This year, they expect to be at home, alone.

“The thing that we’re missing is the comradeship of being together with people who think like you do and want to talk about it,” said Anita Klein, a political organizer in Sheboygan since the 1970s.

Vickie Tonkins, the chairwoman of the El Paso County Republican Party in Colorado, weighed throwing an election-night party in a hotel ballroom, but COVID-19 guidelines imposed by the governor made the plan too expensive.

“It is disappointing because we are anticipating great victories here,” she said. “It is what it is.”

What will never be forgotten in 2020 is the COVID Election, when a pandemic turned upside down all parts of U.S. democracy, from the campaigns to the poll workers to the millions of people trying to cast their ballots.

The Campaigns

‘We really lost that sense of connectivity’

When the coronavirus hit, the first question facing campaigns was existential: How do they even go on?

The physical endeavors of campaigning — handshaking, hugging, kissing babies and squeezing together to snap photos — have been mostly shunned, particularly by Democrats. Casual fundraisers in living rooms were replaced by Zoom gatherings. Gymnasiums and county fairgrounds, once venues for campaign rallies, have been repurposed as coronavirus testing sites.

And scores of candidates themselves — from Trump to members of Congress to City Council hopefuls — have contracted the virus, forcing them off whatever campaign trail they had managed to construct, at least for a time.

Mike Kelly, a five-term Republican congressman from northwest Pennsylvania, goes each year to parades and county fairs, chatting with voters and even buying livestock. This year, Kelly came down with the virus in the spring. County fairs were canceled by summer.

“We really lost that sense of connectivity on a lighthearted basis,” said Melanie Brewer, his campaign manager. She said that the campaign tried to make up for lost meet-and-greets with Zoom, but “it’s not the same as holding a funnel cake and talking to your congressman.”

There is nothing more powerful than a personal conversation, said Jonathan Jakubowski, chairman of the Republican Party in Wood County, Ohio. He said he has worn a face mask to visit hundreds of homes over the past three months.

Monica Sparks, a Democratic commissioner in Kent County, Michigan, has had to get creative. She dropped leaflets at doors but did not knock on them. She made her campaign signs bigger than usual this year — adding a picture of herself to each one.

“I need people to know and see me and see my smile,” she said.

The Election Workers

To work the polls or stay away?

With time running out, some volunteer poll workers, who are often older and may face more risks from the virus, are weighing whether to even proceed this time around with what they see as their civic responsibility. The workers who are going forward say there is a different set of rules this time. Snacks to share with other poll workers are out. A purseload of grim gear is in: Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, masks.

Charli Jones, 56, of Columbus, Ohio, comes from a line of poll workers. Her mother worked the polls. Her grandmother did, too.

“I wanted to do my part, and I also wanted voters to see a face that might look like them,” said Jones, who is Black.

But arriving at the decision to work the polls in a state where coronavirus cases are rising was not easy for Jones, who said her husband and mother have compromised immune systems.

“I really do wish that we did not have to subject ourselves, or other people, to in-person voting,” she said.

Gloria Willis, a retired fourth-grade teacher in Gifford, Florida, once relished the tradition of Election Day, when she got up early, packed herself two sandwiches and arrived at her local community center at 6 a.m. for a long but fulfilling day of greeting voters and examining driver’s licenses.

“It was a joy,” she said.

When she got the call this year, she thought of the people she has known who have died from the virus — five and counting.

“That was enough to say no,” said Willis, 72, who will be staying home this year.

The Voters

Casting ballots from everywhere

Officials in Wausau, Wisconsin, set up a drive-thru voting site for the first time last weekend. Hospitals in Marathon County, Wisconsin, have restricted visitors because of the coronavirus but are allowing an exception before the election for people there to witness patients casting absentee ballots from their hospital beds.

Even for voters who are “dyed-in-the-wool ‘I want to go to the ballot booth’” people, as Geoff Badenoch, a poll worker in Missoula, Montana, describes them, this year will look different: with poll workers in masks, 6-foot-separation lines on the floor and spray bottles of disinfectant all around.

Whether their votes will be influenced by the pandemic remains an open question.

While the coronavirus first spread fastest and worst in urban and suburban counties that tend to support Democrats, the geographic pattern of the pandemic has since shifted. By late spring and summer, the pattern began to shift more into small cities and rural counties that are more solidly Republican. The share of cases reported in red counties has grown every month, from 20% in March to 56% now, a New York Times analysis of virus data shows.

Some of this shift is happening in states that are heavily Republican overall, but much of it is occurring in counties that represent Trump’s base within battleground states.

In North Carolina, cases were distributed evenly among red and blue counties through the summer, but now more than 60% of new reports are coming from counties that supported the president. In Wisconsin this month, nearly 75% of cases — and 80% of deaths — are attributed to counties that supported Trump in 2016.

As coronavirus cases are soaring to new and alarming peaks, how the virus’ path may affect which candidates people vote for remains uncertain. In one survey, a Civiqs daily tracking poll of registered voters, only about a quarter of people who identify as Republicans say they are at least “moderately” concerned about the pandemic — about the same now as in June.

Sandy Roberson, the Republican mayor of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, whose son had been quarantining on a college campus after being exposed to the coronavirus, said he hated how divisive the debate had become in trying to place political blame for the spread of the virus.

“I don’t know if we could have handled it better,” he said of the president. “The whole COVID-19 experience has left a lot of people feeling a lot less in control, like you’re just bobbing out at sea. There’s a sense of helplessness, and that loss of control is having an impact, and we’re going to see that politically.”

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