Whatever we thought the 2020 election was going to be about, it’s about something else now—but what, I don’t know. How will Covid-19 shape this year’s political narratives? Consider the following to be not exactly predictions, but more like political fanfic to spark the imagination.
After losing Wisconsin, Bernie Sanders finally concedes the Democratic primary to Biden, just as deaths start to accelerate. Biden definitely does not want to be the first presidential candidate to die during an election, so, being in a high risk demographic, he attempts to socially distance by conducting “rallies” over livestream and operating his campaign through a small inner circle of advisors. For Trump, strict distancing isn’t an option given the demands of being president, and he attempts to contrast himself to Biden in this respect, framing his personal risk as a sacrifice for presidential duty. Biden soon finds that avoiding human contact is a bit of handicap to his campaign and he’s about as comfortable with technology as you’d expect him to be; plus, he’s worried that avoiding in-person appearances is making him look weak and that endless coronavirus stories are crowding his name out of the news while giving Trump endless screentime. Biden tries to get himself out there more but has to delicately balance appearing like an active leader while fending off accusations that in-person campaigning is violating social distancing norms for selfish ends.
A historically massive stimulus bill keeps the major airlines afloat for a few months, but come mid-May flights are still down 70% and the airlines are hemorrhaging cash. Threats of mass layoffs, and counter threats of strikes, loom. American Airlines, having the weakest balance sheet of the major carriers, files for chapter 11 bankruptcy, and other major carriers look like they will quickly be following suit unless something happens. While there is near-consensus that a collapse of the airline industry would be disaster for the American economy, the idea of some kind of second “bailout” is intensely controversial amid reports of ongoing widespread closures of small businesses. Trump nevertheless organizes a new rescue package that gives the government an equity stake based on the current, record low share prices. Existing shareholders are massively diluted, but the deal allows the remaining airlines to limp along (four years later, the US treasury unwinds its position in the airlines for a 60% profit). How this is viewed depends largely on political affiliation: is Trump a shrewd negotiator and savior of industry? Or is a president who views his success solely through the lens of the Dow Jones doling out corporate welfare to profligate capitalists who knew any downsides of their risk taking would be covered?
Hotels are also seeing the downturn last longer than expected. Luxury hotels in particular have been hit hard, and Trump Hotels are, awkwardly, very unprofitable. Trump floats some rescue measures that would be conveniently self-benefiting, but there’s so much pre-emptive anger around the idea that he ends up denying he ever wanted to do anything like that in the first place. A story breaks about how cleaning staff at Trump hotels were laid off and lost their medical benefits, and people are predictably outraged; Trump says he doesn’t know anything about that and he’s not involved and something something witch hunt.
The confluence of anger at corporate welfare, mass unemployment, and de facto emergency nationalization of large segments of the healthcare industry galvanize support for progressive causes. Suddenly, universal basic income, student debt relief, and M4A are all mainstream ideas. Centrist Democrats act like that’s been their platform all along, and Republicans try to figure out whether they’re for or against the government giving people money if they call it something else. But for all those people who were ride or die progressives from the start, it’s bittersweet to see their causes take the spotlight only after the primaries have wrapped up. Biden knows he need to find a way to ride this momentum and chooses Warren as his VP. The Democratic National Convention occurs amidst gradually loosening social distancing guidelines, but it’s mostly a made-for-streaming event with no one from the general public allowed to attend. Disgruntled Bernie supporters complain about the optics of party big wigs anointing their establishment candidate amidst private smoke filled rooms.
Between April and July, two senators and five congressmen die from Covid-19. Seats that were previously not up for reelection or were considered safe are now in play, potentially upending the balance of power in congress. A number of first time candidates attempt to run not merely digital first campaigns, but digital only campaigns that are native to social media and run off of a fully remote volunteer network. Knocking on doors is out, and sliding into DMs is in. These pure-digital campaigns generate plenty of thinkpieces about the future of politics, but don’t end up being serious contenders for any national-level races. The old maxim about dogs on the internet proves true though, and a few stories come out about candidates making it onto ballets in local races but then turning out to be a teenager from a different state, a thinly veiled multi-level marketing scheme, or (allegedly) a sockpuppet ran by a foreign intelligence agency.
Several spring primaries are conducted entirely by mail-in ballot. Political strategists see how much this skews the demographics of voter participation, and policies for in-person voting becomes a battleground leading up to November. There are vicious debates around making mail-in voting easier vs risk of voter fraud; making polling locations readily available vs social distancing.
Three days before the first debate of the general election, Biden is hospitalized with a high fever. Needless to say, the next 48 hours are a huge clusterfuck. Ultimately, Warren announces that the debate can go on as scheduled with her taking take Biden’s place, while being very adamant that she and everyone else expects Biden to bounce back to health any day now. She absolutely crushes the debate, and lots of people are starting to imagine what a President Warren will be like. For two weeks, Warren acts as the de facto Democratic presidential candidate until Biden recovers enough to resume the last sprint of the campaign. But at this point, Warren seems to be driving the agenda and the Democratic ticket looks upside-down. Who is in charge here?
Mike Bloomberg donates $5 billion to New York relief programs. Everyone is still mad at him.