Election 2020 Q&A with Arts and Sciences experts
It’s hard to think of a time in modern history when the United States has been this rattled in the months leading up to a presidential election.
A deadly pandemic swept its way through the country beginning in March, upending our lives as cases soared nationwide. The ensuing economic recession shuttered businesses, forced people from work and sent unemployment insurance claims into record-breaking territory. Then, at end of May, a white Minneapolis police officer callously killed George Floyd, a Black man, in broad daylight. Footage of that gruesome scene was shown around the world, prompting outrage by people of all races. That, combined with the similar killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, caused a national uprising against the systemic racism and inequities permeating our society.
How have these events influenced voter behaviors and opinions leading up to the presidential election between Republican incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden? We’ve asked experts from various fields in the College of Arts and Sciences to weigh in on how 2020’s monumental events will affect November.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Paul Beck is a professor emeritus of political science. He also served as Distinguished Professor of Social and Behavioral Science, with courtesy appointments in the School of Communication and the Department of Sociology. His areas of expertise include voting behavior, political parties and public opinion, and his political insights are often cited in local, national, and international media outlets, including The Columbus Dispatch, NPR and The New York Times.
Destiny Brown is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in political science and minoring in public policy and leadership studies. She is a recipient of the Major General Raymond E. Mason, Jr. Scholarship, director of the Governmental Relations Committee for Undergraduate Student Government and is a social change ambassador at Ohio State. She is a 2021 Teach for America corps member, and after graduating she plans on becoming a teacher prior to pursuing law school.
Judson L. Jeffries is a professor of African American and African Studies whose areas of expertise include campaigns, voting and elections, race and public policy, media and politics, and police-community relations. His courses include “Black Politics” and “Civil Rights and the Black Power Movement.”
Wendy Smooth is the associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Arts and Sciences and is an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies. She holds courtesy appointments in the Department of Political Science and the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, and her areas of expertise focus on women’s experiences in political institutions and the impact of public policy on women. She teaches the course “Women, Government and Public Policy.”
Nathanial Swigger is an associate professor of political science and teaches at Ohio State-Newark. His research focus includes topics on American politics, public opinion, political psychology and elections. He teaches the courses “Political Psychology” and “Voters and Elections.”
How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence voter turnout and behavior?
Judson Jeffries: At the end of the day, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic and the issue of social distancing is still featured prominently in our everyday lives. Unless we make voting in such a way where we are able to minimize the spread of this health crisis and people’s fear of being in crowds, I’m afraid a number of people might stay home. If they decide to stay home, I would hope they would consider using an absentee ballot. I suspect that the use of absentee ballots will reach an all-time high this year.
Nathanial Swigger: There is just so much uncertainty around what the state of the pandemic will be in November. Are we going to see a decline in cases? If an election were held today, I’d say that the pandemic is pretty bad for Trump. A significant majority of voters don’t approve of his handling of the pandemic.
Destiny Brown: The pandemic is what makes me most fearful about voter turnout. People are risking their health to cast their ballot this year. Those who may not be as inclined to vote may not take this risk. With rising cases of COVID-19, it would be difficult to ignore how going out to vote will risk public safety.
Paul Beck: It and the resulting economic recession will be the dominant issues of the campaign certainly. And if people are still afraid to go out and mingle, it’s going to drive them inside their houses where obviously you can’t go for an in-person vote. Well over the majority of states allow for what’s called no-fault absentee voting: You get a ballot, you fill it out and send it in. I think there are going to be a tremendous number of people who will end up voting by mail, though the ease of doing it and of counting mailed ballots will differ by state.
Wendy Smooth: The pandemic will impact the availability of poll workers, which is a great area for undergraduate and graduate students to think about getting involved in the democratic process. Our senior citizens have traditionally upheld that prestigious position, but, as we know, the pandemic is impacting our seniors more severely. Therefore, many of them have wisely opted not to participate as poll workers, which means we have a deficit of people who can serve the country in this way. Many organizations across the country are attempting to mobilize young people to become involved in the democratic process by filling the positions our seniors would traditionally fill.
How do you think the protests against racial injustice and a broader awareness of this country’s systemic racism will influence the election this November?
Judson Jeffries: There’s an opportunity to transfer the protests in the streets to a protest of sorts at the voting booth. At the same time, there has been quite a bit of opposition to these protests — a segment of the population that does not see these protests as legitimate grievances in the face of racism and injustice but rather as riots. It is important to distinguished between the two. Riots are spontaneous acts of violence that are frivolous and lack a political purpose. What we’ve been seeing over the last several months can hardly be characterized as riots. We can call them revolts or we can call them rebellions or insurrections, but they certainly aren’t riots. While it is possible that the folks who protest will transfer that protest activity to a different kind of protest activity at the voting booth, there’s also the likelihood that those who oppose these protests will frame their opposition in the form of a vote they think will quell further protest activity. So, it’s possible that the two could cancel each other out, but I sincerely hope that is not the case. We are at a critical juncture in our country’s history. If meaningful change isn’t brought about in the wake of these heinous and high-profile murders of the three people to whom you referred earlier, I’m not sure it will ever happen.
Destiny Brown: It is amazing to see how many people are discussing the election and are eager to vote. Understanding this, candidates now more than before will put racial justice into their platforms. This should be something many will be happy about; our elected officials finally are recognizing racism as a problem that we should change. However, I view the immediate and sudden concern of Black lives as inauthentic and negligent. It appears that this focus on seeking racial justice is because it is popular in the media and on social media platforms. Politicians have contributed to the perpetuation of racial violence and inequities in this country for so long, even with previous lives of Black people being taken by our criminal injustice system. A part of me hopes and dreams that the protests will influence this election cycle to be the beginning of the journey toward an anti-racist nation. A part of me is happy to see the revived desire to vote. But, I cannot ignore the part of me that views the focus on combatting racism as performative and for the sake of capitalizing on this moment to get elected.
Wendy Smooth: Some people are under the guise that the mobilizations that were so active in the wake of George Floyd's murder have dissipated. But much of that mobilization and energy we saw by way of marches and protests has moved online and has moved into get-out-the-vote campaigns. We see within the Black Lives Matter movement greater conversation about using both protest and the ballot as twin ways of fighting racial injustice and for social inclusion. That energy that we've seen in communities across the country I think will be a part of this election cycle.
Paul Beck: Public opinion polls are telling us that many more white Americans now are persuaded that Black Americans and minorities in general are not treated fairly by the police. So, there is a real groundswell of support for Black Lives Matter and for this perception that there is unfairness. That’s a big change. Whether it’s going to affect how people vote in November is another matter. There may have been people who were fine to either not vote in the past or to vote Democratic or at least for Democratic candidates at the presidential level. But Republicans are banking on a reaction against the Black Lives Matter protests to gain them votes beyond their base. There is no evidence yet, however, that this is happening.
When you examine recessions and presidents running for re-election, what has that looked like historically and what does it mean in 2020?
Judson Jeffries: No president in the last 100 or so years who has gone up for re-election has survived a recession. Not even George H.W. Bush, who I thought had a heck of a chance of being re-elected despite a recession because he was so successful a year or so before in the first Gulf War. I can’t help but think that this economic downturn has resulted in people being unable to pay their mortgages the way they had been before the pandemic. People have been out of work for significant amounts of time. I have seen any number of “For Sale” signs in the front yards of homes in the Westerville neighborhood in which I live. I can’t help but wonder if the owners of those homes are experiencing a financial pinch.
Nathanial Swigger: Historically, a recession is terrible news for the incumbent. We would never expect an incumbent president to win re-election with unemployment over 11%. If voters are judging on the state of the economy, that’s not good news for Trump. The caveat is that there is some work that indicates people don’t really judge the president by the state of the economy anymore. Instead, they’re more likely to shape their view of the economy based on the president. If you look at 2012 and 2016, you had the situation where Democrats think the economy is great because they had a Democratic president. Republicans think the economy is terrible because there’s a Democratic president. This is basically a party polarization effect where partisans view the world through partisan-colored glasses. That might actually help buffer Trump from any kind of economic effects.
Paul Beck: It looks like we will have the greatest recession we have had going into a November election since the Great Depression of the 1930s. That will be very damaging to President Trump, and he knows that. You can see that in how he has reacted. He felt before the pandemic that the economy was going well, the stock market was up, unemployment was down, and he really felt that he could win re-election based on the state of the economy. That particular tailwind that helped his candidacy is gone. Now what he’s facing is a very powerful recessionary headwind that I think is going to be problematic for him.
Wendy Smooth: President Trump is very aware and sensitive to issues around the economy. His first electoral success was built around his ability to create a robust economy. We heard repeatedly throughout his first term that he was having great success lowering unemployment and creating economic opportunities. In the wake of the pandemic, we've seen that success stripped from his areas of claim. That is going to have an impact on how the Trump campaign mobilizes the messaging that will go forth, because a really critical pillar of their re-election strategy has evaporated in the midst of a horribly mismanaged pandemic.
What is the significance of Sen. Kamala Harris’ selection as the vice presidential nominee, and how will it influence voters in November?
Wendy Smooth: The selection of Sen. Kamala Harris — an African American and South Asian woman — is a phenomenal historic marker for our country. It speaks to the further development of our democracy. It etches a moment in which we inch a little closer toward becoming truly a country of “We the People,” and it is symbolic of that progression. It also comes at a time where we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which grant many women — white women in particular — the right to vote. So, we go from exclusion of women to a woman running on a major ticket as the vice presidential nominee. That’s huge for our country. It speaks to our nation. It speaks to the movement for women’s inclusion and for racial minority inclusion. It speaks to an American dream story: She’s the daughter of two immigrants who came to the United States to seek greater educational opportunities.
Judson L. Jeffries: There is symbolic import in Joe Biden selecting Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice- presidential running mate. It reminds me of the selection of Geraldine Ferraro by Walter Mondale many, many years ago. I hate to be a killjoy here, but I'm not exactly sure what Mr. Biden is trying to accomplish with this pick. Harris represents California, a state he is expected to win no matter who he selects as his running mate. If he is looking to solidify his support among Black women, I'm not sure the selection of Harris moves the needle much, as Black women have been one of the most loyal voter bases for the Democratic Party for decades. If he is hoping to increase his support among Black voters generally, again, it is not clear the selection of Harris will show dividends because African Americans aren't going to vote for Trump for a whole host of reasons. If Biden is hoping to bolster his support among women generally, I'm not sure this pick does the trick. I do not believe women who voted for Trump four years ago will seriously consider crossing over for the Democrats simply because a woman is the vice-presidential candidate. I am also not sure that those non-Black voting age women in the Democratic camp who elected not to vote last time for whatever reason, will be prompted to vote this year because a woman is on the ticket. Biden's pick of Harris is as curious to me as John McCain's selection of Gov. Sarah Palin was some years ago. To be clear, Harris is a highly qualified politician, but if we are asking how her selection will bolster Biden's electoral prospects, that is not readily apparent to me.
Nathanial Swigger: Obviously, it’s historically significant and symbolically important. She’s the first woman of color to be a major party vice presidential candidate, and if Biden-Harris win, she’ll be the highest ranking elected woman in U.S. history. But I’m not sure this really influences voters. I’m pretty skeptical about VP candidates adding much to the presidential campaign. Embarrassing or bad candidates — think Thomas Eagleton or Sarah Palin — can be a drag on a ticket, but in general people vote for a president, they don’t vote for a VP.
Do you feel like voter participation in local elections will be greater now than before?
Destiny Brown: I am confident more people will participate in local elections than ever before. I just hope the desire to suppress the vote will not be greater. Many people have learned the importance and power the local government has at influencing their day-to-day experiences. We have witnessed the power of local elections with protests and pandemic mandates. People are either pleased with their local officials or ready to vote them out. Given this, I hope there are more voting locations open for the general election in November than for the primaries. When I went to vote in the primaries, I had to stand in line for close to three hours. With the magnitude of anticipated voter participation, I hope communities are prepping.
Judson Jeffries: Ordinarily, I would say yes because, as the famous, venerable former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.” But since we’re in the middle of a pandemic, I would be naive to think that voter turnout is not going to be impacted. Were we not in a pandemic, I would predict voter turnout would be at unprecedented levels. But since we are in the middle of a pandemic, I believe it may actually adversely impact voter turnout.
Paul Beck: If you mean voting for local candidates in this presidential election, I think it’s the presidential election that drives the turnout by and large. Now, if you’re thinking of off-cycle elections or midterm elections outside of a presidential election year, it could well be the case that we will have higher turnout in those elections in future years. In Ohio, we set records in 2018 when the turnout rate was 41-42% of eligible voters. Now, that’s not very high; it’s not even close to a majority. So there really is a falloff when it comes to these midterm elections. And there’s more of a falloff when you go to these off-cycle local elections where there are no statewide candidates on the ballot and we’re voting for school boards, city councils, county commissions and the like. Those turnout rates tend to sometimes drop as low as 20% of the eligible electorate.
Wendy Smooth: I’ve long said to many undergraduate students that the most powerful level of government was at the local level. These are the decisionmakers for our local community — where we live, work and play day to day. The protests across the country really illuminate the importance of paying attention to who is leading in our cities and our counties. The protests brought new life to understanding the relationship between mayors and police. I think there’s a lot more interest at the local level in understanding who makes decisions and a greater understanding for how to impact that process of decision making locally.
What kind of new obstacles are the youngest generation of voters facing, and how are they responding?
Destiny Brown: Student voters, especially newly registered or younger, may struggle with the complexities that will be required to vote this year. Students may not understand how to vote out-of-state, mail-in, or what it takes to vote. The processes may differ based on where students are from and what the protocols will be in Columbus for in-person voting. Additionally, if anyone remembered the complexities with the Ohio primary, many struggled with the ever-changing information on how to vote and when to vote. Hopefully, there were lessons learned and the process will not be as daunting or confusing. Many of these obstacles can be overcome with adequate school resources, proactive guidance from the Board of Elections and legislation to make voting more accessible.
Nathanial Swigger: We did see a surge in youth turnout in 2018, which was really interesting. I think for this generation, 18- to 25-year-olds, we’re going to see a number of interesting challenges for them. In terms of voting, a lot of the activity we typically use to get young people involved is uncertain. I don’t know how the voter turnout drive is going to work in the era of social distancing. Are there going to be campus clubs and activities that can register students to vote? I don’t know. Are those students going to be able to get absentee ballots? Does the state have infrastructure that enables them to vote by mail if they’re on campus? Will they be able to register in Columbus if they’re living at home? They’re going to be facing — as many people will be — a number of truly bizarre challenges in an election where we’re going to be dealing with stuff we haven’t dealt with.
Paul Beck: They always face obstacles. They’re voting for the first time. They don’t really have the habit of voting. You may not even know where the polling place is in your district. You may not be registered. Young voters are also extremely mobile geographically. Many of them are coming from the towns of Ohio or outside Ohio to Columbus to be students at Ohio State. They may have registered back in their hometown — let’s say Canton or Akron — but to be able to vote in Columbus they have to change their residence. It takes substantial effort to first register and then change the address that is listed so you can vote where you are now living. A lot of people don’t think to do that in time to vote. As a result these various factors, young people have the lowest turnout rates of any age group in the population, and they may vote in a turnout rate that is half what it is for elderly voters. What effect does the pandemic have in all of that? I think it just makes things more complicated. Ohio has done a pretty good job of clarifying what you need to do to be able to vote absentee, but it still requires more attention than just showing up at the polls.
Wendy Smooth: In some states, it's still a challenge for college students to understand and get really clear communication about choices they might make to vote from their area of domicile — meaning where they currently live — or to vote absentee. In every election, we always have challenges around communicating that to young people, and in this election cycle in particular because so much of our interaction is online, getting that message out can be challenging for some communities across the country.
What issues do you feel voters will be most passionate about this November?
Judson L. Jeffries: Three things: race, their health and the economy. The economy is going to be featured prominently in the upcoming elections both locally and nationally, and race is going to be on the front burner of every political discussion, if it isn’t already. Equally important, Americans want to know who among our democratically elected leaders has the best ideas for getting this pandemic under control and restoring the country to a sense of normalcy.
Paul Beck: I think the coronavirus and its economic consequences. That’s going to dominate things. I think the Black Lives Matter movement — both in the feeling on the part of voters that minorities are treated unfairly and in a potential backlash among voters who want to be defensive of the police — will be an issue. I think another big issue connected to the coronavirus is health care. Millions upon millions of Americans do not have health insurance. Millions have so-called Obamacare, but it is being challenged in the courts by Republicans, including the president. Millions have lost their insurance when laid off by their employers. Millions were not eligible for Obamacare or employer paid insurance. If they are affected by the coronavirus, they’re facing enormous costs of treatment, particularly if they are hospitalized or if they have to go into an intensive care unit. Beyond normal health care needs, that’s going to be an issue that will weigh on people’s minds heavily.
Nathanial Swigger: It’s going to be a huge amalgamation of the everything of it all. There’s sort of this backlash to the pandemic and the economic frustration and the police brutality, and it’s all coming to a head in a way that I think is actually really interesting. This is the year people are going to turn out because there’s so much that it’s really hard to ignore.
Wendy Smooth: There are voters who will be extraordinarily moved by questions around how to stabilize and address the pandemic and its effects on the economy. We see already that the Democrats are going to run really hard on this idea of pandemic management, and for some voters, that is the absolute No. 1 issue. The importance of police reform will also be at the top of mind in terms of how our justice system is operating and whether it is fully functioning and accessible for all citizens. The inequities we see in terms of race in America is a really critical conversation.