Five ways the coronavirus could change American politics

How will the coronavirus crisis affect American politics?

The focus, for now, is naturally on the emergency itself. As of Friday evening, more than 1 million people in the U.S. had been infected by the coronavirus and more than 59,000 had died, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

But here are five areas where the crisis could have a political impact over the longer term.

Universal health care

The global nature of the health crisis has been a reminder of the United States’s status as the only first-world nation without universal health care coverage.

Additionally, the underpinnings of the U.S. system — where many people’s health insurance is linked to their employment — is under new scrutiny as enormous job losses scythe across the nation. More than 30 million Americans have filed new unemployment claims in the past six weeks.

There is some evidence that the crisis is shifting public views of health care.

A Morning Consult poll in mid-March, just as the crisis was beginning to hit the U.S. hard, found increasing support for universal, government-provided coverage.

The poll found 26 percent of all adults saying it was “much more likely” they would support such a concept and an additional 15 percent saying it was “somewhat more likely.” 

Fifty-nine percent of Democrats chose one of those options, but so did 25 percent of Republicans. Only 12 percent of adults said the crisis made it less likely they would support universal health care.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a leading proponent of the idea, has asserted that the crisis makes his case. 

In a March op-ed for CNN, written before he suspended his presidential campaign, Sanders asserted that universal health care was vital because people would otherwise be discouraged from seeking medical treatment because of the cost. “When somebody is not treated for the virus, that means the infection can spread to many others, putting whole communities at risk,” he wrote.

Still, there is no guarantee that the coronavirus crisis will move opinions on universal health care in a permanent way. And even if it did so, it is an open question whether legislation to achieve it could be enacted. 

Republicans, including President Trump, are adamantly opposed to such an idea. And even the much more modest Affordable Care Act passed under former President Obama remains divisive. Forty-two percent of voters think it was a good idea, while 35 percent say it was a bad idea, according to a March poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.

Mail-in voting

The coronavirus crisis may yet herald a change in Americans’ perceptions of voting itself — specifically, the desirability of casting ballots by mail rather than in person.

If the virus were to still be a danger in November, many people would be reluctant to wait in long lines for protracted periods. 

There are already signs that the nation is warming to the idea of voting by mail. 

An AP-NORC poll released last week found almost 40 percent of adults supported holding elections exclusively by mail — an approximate doubling of the popularity of that opinion since 2018. 

In the same poll, an outright majority — 56 percent — said people should be allowed to vote by mail without having to provide a specific reason for doing so. 

Five states currently hold elections entirely by mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Several other states permit some elections to be conducted by mail or allow individual counties to decide to hold mail-in elections if they wish.

Trump has been notably skeptical of the idea, asserting at one point simply that “mail ballots, they cheat. … Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters.” Trump himself, however, voted by mail earlier this year, casting an absentee ballot in Florida.

There are some concerns across the partisan divide that mail-in voting may carry a higher potential for fraud than in-person voting. 

But the states that have adopted it have not incurred wide-scale problems, and the coronavirus crisis could see its acceptability reach critical mass.


President Trump announced on Twitter on April 20 that he would move to “temporarily suspend immigration into the United States” in response to the crisis.

He subsequently issued an executive order, but it was not quite so sweeping. It paused green cards from being issued for at least 60 days, but it included a number of exceptions. It did not, for example, affect green card applicants who are already in the United States.

Immigrant advocates blasted the move nonetheless, accusing the president of using the crisis to pursue the kind of hard line on the issue that he has long favored.

Some opinion polls, however, suggest many Americans share Trump’s views — at least for now.

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted from April 21 to April 26 found 65 percent of adults backing the idea of temporarily blocking “nearly all immigration into the United States during the coronavirus outbreak.”

Republicans in that poll supported such a pause overwhelmingly, 83 percent to 17 percent. But Democrats, usually seen as more pro-immigration, were split evenly: 49 percent supporting and 49 percent opposing.

Immigrant groups argue that such results could be a temporary blip in the midst of a crisis and should not distract from the fact that most Americans think immigration is a net benefit to the nation.

But the nature of the crisis — a threat that began in China and went on to cause havoc across the globe — could yet affect views not just of immigration but also of freedom of movement and globalization more generally.

The social safety net

Could the coronavirus crisis — and the sheer scale of the economic devastation it has wreaked — also lead to a reappraisal of the need for a stronger social safety net in general?

The fact that the nation is experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime shock suggests to some people that sizable changes could be made. 

Businessman Andrew Yang held out the idea of a universal basic income during his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. In April, Yang tweeted that Spain was adopting universal basic income in response to the coronavirus and that “the US should follow suit.” A Washington Post headline around the same time asserted that “the pandemic strengthens the case for universal basic income.”

Others have asserted that the crisis reinforces the need for paid sick leave — a call that Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) made at a March news conference. 

There are also new questions about unemployment benefits and whether some states lack the infrastructure to get such assistance promptly to those who need it.

But many experts are skeptical that even such a major crisis will fundamentally alter how most Americans view the social compact.

Joshua Clinton, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, recently told CNBC, “There might be a slight shift, but I don’t think that you’ll see a grand shift in how people think about the structure of the state and the relationship of the state to their own lives.”

Political campaigning

One of the most obvious political impacts of the coronavirus has been on the nature of campaigning.

With mass rallies out of the question, candidates and campaigns have had to think about other ways to reach voters.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, has been largely confined to video messages from his Delaware home and has struggled to remain as central to the national political discussion as might be the case in more normal times. President Trump has been accused by critics of using his press briefings on the crisis as a replacement for the rallies that he can no longer hold.

The Democratic National Convention has already been pushed back from its originally scheduled date in mid-July to a month later. Trump has insisted the equivalent Republican event will go on as planned the following week.

It is clear that the crisis will have a profound effect on this year’s presidential campaign.

But it is harder to imagine other changes — such as a shift to virtual campaigning — sticking for good and becoming the norm in future election cycles.

Tags Andrew Yang Bernie Sanders Coronavirus Cory Booker Donald Trump Joe Biden Kirsten Gillibrand mail-in voting Unemployment insurance Universal health care

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