With less than two weeks left in a topsy-turvy presidential campaign season, one thing has remained quite consistent: Everything that President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden have done has been offset by the COVID-19 pandemic still raging in the United States.
“This is the pandemic election. It’s a whole different world,” said Sabrina Siddiqui, national politics reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and one of three politics experts who participated in a discussion about the 2020 election at Northeastern on Wednesday.
Siddiqui, who has covered political campaigns for years, and has been covering the Biden campaign since April 2019, said the pandemic hasn’t just shifted the focus in debates, or affected the way people will cast their votes. It has also fundamentally changed the way candidates campaign and journalists like her do their jobs.
“We’ve had to get more creative in terms of how we cover the campaign, as well as how to keep a pulse on the electorate,” she said. “You can’t just walk up and interview someone anymore.”
Siddiqui was joined by Steve Kornacki, national political correspondent for NBC and MSNBC, and Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, in the latest of Northeastern’s Civic Experience events. Joanna Weiss, editor-in-chief of Experience magazine, moderated Wednesday’s virtual panel.
One of the ways the pandemic has changed the election is that it has stretched Election Day into election season, as record numbers of people vote by mail in order to avoid crowded spaces on Nov. 3.
The shift means that the public may not know the results of the race with as much certainty on election night as in the past. So how do newsrooms call an election with so many moving parts?
Kornacki said that NBC, and most major newsrooms, has a dedicated “decision desk,” staffed by statisticians and other veterans of election cycles. The decision desk is isolated from the rest of the news staff in order to eliminate even potential interference, Kornacki said.
“There’s a lot we just don’t know about how it will play out,” he said. But it’s also possible that there will be less uncertainty than expected, he added.
The polls in Florida close at 7 p.m. ET, giving county officials there a chance to tabulate and report their figures in a matter of a few hours—and the Florida results are what Kornacki (and Siddiqui and Trende) will be watching carefully that night.
Trump won the state in 2016. If the county-by-county returns shape up to mirror those from 2016, it may well be that he’ll do it again. But all three experts said that if the results start looking more like a Biden win, it would be a significant development.
“The night could look a lot different if Florida goes to Biden,” Siddiqui said.
The crush of early and mail-in voters this year hasn’t just changed how journalists and pundits cover the election and Election Day results; it’s also changed the way pollsters quantify the race so far.
Mail-in ballots have thus far heavily favored Democrats in battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maine, and Iowa, according to reporting from The Washington Post.
But Trende cautioned against overanalyzing these early trends.
“The problem with early voting in the middle of a pandemic—where one party has been energetically urging its voters to vote early and one hasn’t—is that you can’t tell whether these are Election Day voters who are just trying to avoid the crowds,” he said.
In other words: Is the surge of ballots requested and returned by registered Democrats ultimately just “cannibalizing” Biden’s election day votes, or does it represent motivated new voters?
Trende noted that Hillary Clinton also had strong support from mail-in and early voters in 2016, but “it turns out Clinton was just cannibalizing her election day vote.”
The distinction will be important, Trende said, as this election is shaping up to be more about turning out each candidate’s base than about swaying a (very small) fraction of undecided voters.
As the votes continue to roll in, and the candidates’s campaigns push through the homestretch, Siddiqui had a final word for those watching from home:
“Be patient, and let the process play out,” she said.