Campaigns in the Age of COVID-19

 Joe Murray  |    June 08, 2020

On June 1, all candidates running for office at the federal, state and local level in Wisconsin must file their nomination papers to have their names qualify for the November 3 election ballot. The process of running for office begins long before Election Day, starting months in advance with candidates collecting signatures to qualify for the ballot, fundraising and building grassroots political organizations to get their names and messages out to voters.
But this year, candidates face a very significant challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed almost everything. In the age of social distancing, political campaigns will have to adapt to the restriction on face-to-face interactions with voters while campaigning at every level. Events that feature large crowds have been canceled, and the most common task of the grassroots campaign ‚ÄĒ knocking on doors ‚ÄĒ is taboo for now.¬†
In spite of all this, the elections to be held on November 3 are underway. Three political factors will ultimately influence the final results, perhaps significantly, one way or another: 

  1. The 20 state legislative seats with no incumbent running.  
  2. The incredible surge in absentee voting. 
  3. The big question of how voters will respond to the COVID-19 ‚ÄúSafer at Home‚ÄĚ shutdown that has produced the highest number of unemployed workers in Wisconsin since the Great Depression.

Open legislative seats

The 2020 legislative election cycle includes 20 open state legislative districts. These are districts where the incumbent has decided to retire or possibly run for a different office.  In the state Senate, there are seven open seats; in the state Assembly, 13 districts are open. This is an average number of open seats over the last 10 years. 
After looking closely at the voting history of all 20 open seats, one conclusion is pretty clear: only six of the 20 districts (30.0%) will be or could be highly contested between the two major parties. The other 14 seats are either strong Democrat or Republican districts and will remain in the same party hands after the elections on November 3.

Why are open legislative seats important to political insiders? Because open seats in any election cycle, depending on where they are located, offer the best possibility to flip from one party to the other. Based on historical voting numbers, only six open seats fall into competitive territory this year, and this means that additional ‚Äúopportunity‚ÄĚ seats will be in districts with incumbents running for reelection, and incumbents are generally more difficult to defeat.

Absentee voting will continue to skyrocket in Wisconsin

Badger State voters have a long-held tradition of turning out to vote in big numbers. Wisconsin voter turnout is always near the top compared to most states, and political prognosticators believe that November 2020 voter turnout could break all previous records in the state. 
Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, many believe turnout will surge, in large part due to absentee early voting.¬† Prognosticators point to the recent election for state Supreme Court between liberal Jill Karofsky and conservative Dan Kelly. In the April 7 election, 71% of all votes cast were absentee. This represents a dramatic increase over all previous elections. For example, in the November 2016 election and 2018 midterms, fewer than 30% of all votes were cast absentee. Fear of the pandemic drove Wisconsin voters to vote absentee, ‚Äúessentially turning the voting pattern in Wisconsin upside down, from being mostly in-person to mostly by mail,‚ÄĚ according to UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden.
Assuming absentee voting surges, how will this impact final results? Donald Trump carried Wisconsin by approximately 22,000 votes in 2016, one of the narrowest margins in the country. Will the November absentee surge prove to be an advantage for Trump or Biden? And how will this surge affect down-ballot elections for Congress and state Legislature? Research has suggested that down-ballot races could be most impacted by higher turnout driven by absentee voting. That may influence the outcome in highly competitive districts where the two parties spend the bulk of their time and resources. 

How will the COVID-19 shutdown impact November elections in Wisconsin?

On March 25, Gov. Tony Evers issued his first ‚ÄúSafer at Home‚ÄĚ order, prohibiting social gatherings, shuttering thousands of businesses, and restricting movement for everyone except ‚Äúessential‚ÄĚ service providers. On April 15, Evers directed the state Department of Health Services to extend the order for an additional four weeks.

The original order to stay ‚Äúsafer at home‚ÄĚ was issued by Gov. Evers with no input from legislative Republicans who control both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature. When the governor had his Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm extended the order until May 26, GOP leaders were again not consulted. From a political standpoint, this means Gov. Evers will receive either the credit or the blame from voters for this shutdown.¬† ¬†¬†
With Evers in support of the extended shelter orders and Republicans arguing for a gradual but faster opening of the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic response may be viewed in a classic Democrat versus Republican political frame this November. If that happens, it’s an open question: which side will benefit politically?
Today, it’s difficult to predict. Will Wisconsin voters hold Gov. Evers responsible for the economic fallout from his order to shut down and punish down-ballot Democrats this November, or will voters hold President Trump responsible for the medical and economic fallout and punish Republicans at the polls? It was, after all, governors who were responsible for orders to shelter in place, while the Trump administration struggled for an effective response to the pandemic.  

On the one hand, opinion polls show the shelter orders were popular in Wisconsin; but on the other hand, there were several protests in Wisconsin and elsewhere objecting to the ongoing quarantine. It’s unclear how this will play out in November. The quarantine may have been necessary to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19, but it created a large, diverse and growing segment of economic losers. Those economic losers do not fall neatly into partisan columns. 
We will have to wait until November to get the answer.  

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA. 

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