It’s Time to Cancel the U.S. Presidential Campaign as We Know It

From party conventions to in-person voting, the coronavirus pandemic has made traditional election activities into deadly gambles.

By Laurie Garrett, a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and columnist for Foreign Policy.
Joe Biden takes a selfie with an attendee during a campaign event
Joe Biden takes a selfie with an attendee during a campaign event at Hiatt Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 2. Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Let’s get serious, America. It’s time to ask, during a time of plague, whether—and if so, in what form—democracy can continue as usual. The answer is likely to be disappointing. For the first time in the country’s history, the United States must contemplate canceling the Democratic and Republican national conventions and campaign rallies, and give serious consideration to arranging ways of organizing election day that don’t require in-person voting.

Consider the apparent fallout from Super Tuesday voting on March 3. Democrats voted in 14 states in their presidential primaries, with some states showing record turnouts and long voting lines. California voting turnout was especially robust. The following day, the state saw its first COVID-19 death and Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency across California, as evidence surfaced of community transmission in several counties.

But the dangers of the election campaign aren’t just a matter of voting. American democracy is built one handshake at a time, along with selfie poses, baby kisses and photogenic hugs. Democrat front-runners former Vice President Joseph Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders are inveterate shakers and huggers, making contact with more would-be voters in an hour than most people might in a month of social encounters. A candidate’s hands can be a vector, taking the virus from one eager citizen to the next, and the next, and so on.

That’s been demonstrated by the aftereffects of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. On Feb. 29, U.S. President Donald Trump spoke to about 19,000 people gathered inside Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, and met with many adoring followers, shaking hands, hugging and kissing many. Trump had assured the crowd that “everything is really under control,” and his administration’s response to the outbreak was “given very good grades, like an A-plus-plus-plus” from experts.

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But unknown to him, the coronavirus was in the room, and it wasn’t deterred by his rhetoric. On March 7, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that an attendee from New Jersey tested positive for the coronavirus. The sponsoring American Conservative Union assured the nation that the infected individual had no contact with Trump or Pence (although American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp told the Washington Post he met with the patient, and shortly thereafter shook Trump’s hand on the stage). Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, however, issued a statement that he was quarantining himself, no longer appearing on Capitol Hill. At the CPAC gathering he shook hands with the COVID-19 patient from New Jersey. “Last night, I was informed that 10 days ago at CPAC I briefly interacted with an individual who is currently symptomatic and has tested positive for COVID-19. That interaction consisted of a brief conversation and a handshake,” Cruz’s statement read. Knowing other Republican leaders might need to follow suit, CPAC issued its own statement: “Our children, spouses, extended family, and friends attended CPAC. During this time, we need to remain calm, listen to our health care professionals, and support each other. We send this message in that spirit.”

Over the next two days, four more members of Congress who had contact with the CPAC patient also quarantined themselves. One of them, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, had previously mocked fears of COVID-19 during an emergency budget session by appearing on the House floor wearing a gas mask. Another of the self-quarantined, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, informed the White House that he had shaken the president’s hand after meeting with the CPAC patient. There is general anxiety in the Senate, as more than two-thirds of its members are at higher risk for coronavirus illness due to their over-60 ages. After a March 9 press conference in which questions arose about the president’s and vice president’s possible exposure to the coronavirus at CPAC, White House officials told reporters that neither leader had been tested for infection.

CPAC has become a regular part of the U.S. political calendar, but nobody can argue that it’s indispensable. The same is true of many other traditions of U.S. presidential campaigns, including rallies, rope lines, and baby-kissing. There’s no good reason not to immediately suspend all such nonessential conventions of U.S. democracy—starting with the party conventions themselves. This should be a no-brainer for Republicans. The Republican convention scheduled for August 24-27 in Charlotte, North Carolina, features a virtually uncontested candidate, and will constitute a nationally televised megarally for the president. If canceled due to the epidemic, its absence would not affect the Republican Party’s selection of Trump as its candidate.

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The sacrifice involved in canceling their convention would be greater for Democrats than for the Republicans. Many political observers believe that the race between Biden and Sanders will be so tight that their July 13-16 convention in Milwaukee will fail to have a clear winner on the first delegate vote, turning into a brokered convention—the party’s first in nearly 70 years. To win the party’s candidacy either Biden or Sanders must win more than 50 percent of delegates’ votes. Even if one of the two men arrives in Milwaukee having won enough primaries to be the clear victor on a first delegate vote, Democrats need a love fest full of glad-handing, in-your-face negotiating, and baby-hugging to unify the party and rally its TV-watching troops. If the epidemic forces cancellation of the Milwaukee gathering, the party’s candidate may be at a distinct disadvantage going into the general election against Trump and his base of loyal support.

Yet the political system should note that such sacrifices are not unprecedented. On Nov. 5, 1918, the United States held midterm elections for congressional seats during World War I. The Spanish influenza was raging across the United States, claiming huge death tolls in most of the nation’s large cities and striking terror across the country. Politicians abandoned most campaigning rituals, such as rallies and speaking tours. (Because it was not a presidential election year, the convention-cancellation question wasn’t raised in 1918.) Voter turnout was merely 40 percent, well below the usual for the era. Yet no one thought to question the legitimacy of the outcome.

History also shows that proceeding as normal with democratic politics amid an epidemic can distort election outcomes. In 1976 incumbent President Gerald Ford ran against Democrat Jimmy Carter amid fears of a so-called swine flu. Two of the most famous virologists of the day, polio vaccine inventors Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, agreed with the CDC that a new form of influenza had emerged that might be as deadly as the 1918 pandemic. In haste, vaccines were manufactured, and a month before the general election mass immunization commenced. Some batches of vaccine caused side effects and were withdrawn, and the entire swine flu issue turned into a fiasco as influenza failed to hit the nation, and hundreds of people complained of lasting damage to their health from the vaccines. The threat of swine flu didn’t prompt any changes in the democratic process—conventions, rallies, or voting—but it may have contributed to Ford’s loss nevertheless.

Iran offers an especially chilling cautionary tale. Its first identified cases were seen in hospitals in early February, and two deaths were announced on Feb. 19. But the government proceeded with the robust, nationwide celebrations of the Iranian revolution on Feb. 11 and national elections on Feb. 21. Both events involved massive crowds, and New Yorker writer Robin Wright quoted a local health-policy expert as saying, “It was the political decision that led to this outbreak in Iran.” Epidemiologists estimate that around the time crowds lined up to vote, Iran already had more than 18,000 COVID-19 cases. Today about 10 percent of Iran’s parliamentarians are infected, several officials in the ayatollah’s ruling circle are sick or have died of the coronavirus, and the country has the third-largest epidemic in the world, after China and Italy. While Iranian officials may not have recognized the scale of their COVID-19 crisis when the Feb. 11 celebrations took place, they certainly knew the elections 10 days later posed a hazard of expanding their epidemic.

What would a U.S. presidential election look like without crowded polling stations, boisterous mass rallies, raucous conventions, and their days of side parties, glad-handing, and baby-kissing? It’s time we found out, but for now the presidential campaigns are standing in the way. The Trump campaign so far insists that no changes in either rallies or the Republican convention will be made, regardless of the epidemic. Many of his supporters, including members of the American Christian Union, continue to attend very large evangelical gatherings and believe that the arrival of COVID-19 is biblically predicted, and their faith will protect them. Some are marketing what look like rock-band tour T-shirts saying, “COVID-19 Media Hype Pandemic World Tour 2020. Mainstream Media: Keeping you scared with propaganda since 1987.”

Neither the Biden nor Sanders campaigns have at this writing issued statements regarding the epidemic’s impact on their future plans. The Secret Service is detailed to protect the president, vice president, top White House officials and presidential candidates (if requested) from real and present dangers to their survivals, whether at the hands of a would-be assassin or a crashing car. To date, it has not issued coronavirus-specific policies for the campaign. But the facts are clear: There is no easy way to screen would-be rally attendees for infection, as COVID-19 can be carried and spread by people who have no outwardly measurable symptoms or fever. Putting six feet of open space between the candidates and their crowds might eliminate the direct risks that Biden, Sanders, and Trump face—both as recipients and vectors of infection—but do nothing to mitigate dangers for the assemblage.

But even if the campaigns were themselves amenable to change, the cultural resistance would be vast. So much of U.S. politics is about the optics of enormous rallies, featuring cheering fans, in rock-concertlike atmospheres. Moving from Rolling Thunder tours and handshakes to social distancing and YouTube microspeeches would likely suck the energy out of the presidential election, with unpredictable effects on the outcome. It’s sensible to move the campaign heavily into online formats. New forms of digital advertising and minivideo productions might generate some public interest, although the failure of the heavily financed, TV-rich Michael Bloomberg campaign demonstrates the limits of such outreach.

Actual voting can, and should, proceed with heavy emphasis on mailed ballots. To the extent that in-person polling is unavoidable, great attention should be paid to social distancing—keeping all citizens three feet apart from each other in line and inside the voting area. Get-out-the-vote campaigns—whether through door-knocking or canvassing shopping malls—should also entail proper social distancing. (The same is true of the U.S. Census, which is a vital component of future congressional mapping, and is set to commence on April 1.)

We are “in uncharted territory,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on March 2nd. He’s right—but not only as concerns COVID-19, but also our entire political process. The United States has already struggled with cyberdisruption of its elections, trolls posting phony campaign material, and violent threats against journalists at political rallies. Now Americans face a virus that threatens to undermine their most sacred constitutional process. And the virus won’t wait for primary elections to proceed, conventions to gather, or November ballots to be cast, and it could well exploit those events, spreading as wildly in the United States as it did after Iran’s elections.

The United States can’t afford to follow the ayatollah’s example, holding national elections as its epidemic soars. The government can’t tell the people to avoid public gatherings, work from home, stay away from school, all the while holding gigantic political rallies and conventions. We must swiftly abandon the old way of garnering voters, and invent a new, less contagious one. Time is not on our side.

Laurie Garrett is a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer. Twitter: @Laurie_Garrett