COVID-19 and the Electoral Map
It is much too early to know what effect the COVID-19 crisis will have on the presidential election in November. No one can now say with certainty whether Donald Trump will be seen as the knight in shining armor who got the country out of this mess or as an inept bungler who made a deadly crisis worse. But here’s what we do know. There have been some 400,000 confirmed American cases of the disease and about 13,000 deaths. About 10 million new jobless claims have been filed in the last few weeks. When the April unemployment rate is published early next month, it is likely to be in the double digits, after having been at 3.6 percent in January. And the public has gone from a mindset of “thank goodness that isn’t happening here” to worrying very practically about the health of their loved ones.
It is likewise too early to divine much from the electoral map. New York, New Jersey, and California, which all have been hit hard by the disease, are not Electoral College swing states; we can be pretty sure that Donald Trump won’t win a majority in any of them. The same goes in reverse for Louisiana—now the state reporting the fifth-highest number of COVID-19 cases—and Tennessee and Oklahoma: we can feel pretty confident that they will not vote for Trump’s Democratic opponent. Very roughly speaking, COVID-19 started out in Democratic coastal states and is in the process of moving into Trump’s strong base states in the middle of the country.
To make political prognostication even more difficult, how the American people felt about the coronavirus and the government response in late February was very different from how they felt about the situation in mid-March, and still very different from how they feel about things now in April.
Still, there are a few data points and trends that could help us think a bit more clearly about how the pandemic might affect the 2020 presidential election. We can start with one very simple fact: To win re-election, Donald Trump needs to hold on to the states he won in 2016, while the Democrats only have to flip states—perhaps as few as two—to take the White House.
Let’s take a close look at three states: Nevada, Michigan, and Georgia. Those three states will likely be in play six months from now. Before the coronavirus, polling suggested all three would be close in the 2020 election. And now all three are facing major economic and healthcare issues because of the pandemic.
Nevada, which has an economy heavily dependent on travel and tourism, has had more than 170,000 new unemployment claims in the past three weeks, which is about one-third of the number of employees statewide in the hospitality industry. In Georgia, the number of new unemployment claims jumped from about 12,000 (for the week ending March 21) to about 134,000 (for the week ending March 28).
As for Michigan, the state now reports the third-highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the country, chiefly because of Detroit, which is currently a hotspot. The state has seen close to 450,000 in new unemployment claims in the last three weeks, adding to its unemployment rolls at rates that far exceed even the hardest stretches of the Great Recession of a dozen years ago.
Plus, Michigan is still wedded to the automobile industry. Industry observers expect auto sales to drop a lot from “demand shock,” meaning sales of cars will be down because economic uncertainty will lead the public to delay large purchases. This will have a huge effect on the economy in a state that is home to some 1,600 automotive-related manufacturing companies.
According to a recent analysis from the Brookings Institution, jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector are among those most at risk during the coronavirus outbreak. Combined, the three large cities in these three states—Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Detroit—have about 1.1 million people employed in leisure and hospitality, making up fairly big percentages of the workforce in those cities: Las Vegas at 33.8 percent, Atlanta at 18.8 percent, and Detroit at 15.4 percent.
These cities will likely suffer greater economic downsizing than will most big cities in the rest of the country. The electoral consequences are not clear, however. Although economic downturns are generally not good for incumbents, no one knows whether the poorer individuals who lose their jobs will show up and vote in November. Nor can we guess how many of these individuals who lost their jobs will still be living in the same states come November.
The health research done by the University of Washington (reportedly used as a model for White House policy decisions) predicts that by then end of May, all three states will have several times as many deaths as they have now: Michigan is projected to have nearly 3,000 deaths, Georgia about 3,400, and Nevada about 900. The researchers also expect that all three states will experience shortages of hospital beds: Michigan is projected to be short about 910 ICU beds, Georgia about 740, and Nevada about 300. These figures are in flux, however, as just last week the predicted hospital bed shortages were much higher.
One more part of the COVID-19 crisis that might have an impact in the election: Recent data suggests that the coronavirus is disproportionately affecting African Americans in some places. For example, African Americans make up 14 percent of the population of Michigan but over 40 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths so far. This could affect the election—not just in Michigan but also in Nevada and Georgia, other states with higher-than-the-national-average minority populations—if it comes to be seen as a racial issue that drives urban-area voter turnout.
Having reviewed the gloomy public-health and employment situation in Nevada, Michigan, and Georgia, let’s return to how those states fit into the Electoral College process. To win the White House, the Democratic candidate will need to flip about 38 electoral votes from 2016. Trump won Michigan by only 11,000 votes and Georgia by about 212,000, and both are considered in play this time around, with a combined 32 electoral college votes. Hillary Clinton won Nevada by a small amount (1.6 percent), and the Trump team seems to think it has a chance to flip that state and its six electoral votes from blue to red.
The thinking is that Joe Biden (presuming he is the Democratic nominee) will have an easy time in winning Pennsylvania and its 20 Electoral College votes. Trump won the state in 2016, but it was a very close contest and it’s a state in which Biden was born and raised, and where he has always done well politically. Michigan and Georgia flipping would then seal the deal for Biden if no other states change.
One thing to remember here: Those who do political campaigning for a living are even more confused right now than the voters. A recent Los Angeles Times story speculated about how the pandemic might affect the election. “One former White House official said Trump’s reelection campaign advisors are terrified that the coronavirus outbreak, which so far has hit largely Democratic coastal cities hardest, will soon scythe across the rural areas that remain deeply loyal to Trump.”
This unnamed official likely has that wrong. The coastal cities and the rural areas are unlikely to flip because of this issue. Non-swing states are non-swing states for a reason. As I said above, Trump and his supporters need not be worried much about what his approval ratings are in Oklahoma or Kansas or even Louisiana.
But the data indicates that Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Detroit are at the beginning of a fairly big economic drop. The layoffs are likely to last longer than the $1,200 in federal relief money. And it’s possible that, even once COVID-19 is beaten back, it can resurge later after social-distancing measures are eased.
Let’s look a little more closely at each of these three cities.
Las Vegas has seen all of its casinos closed for the first time since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. With the Strip shuttered for the spring and maybe the summer as well, Nevada’s $6.6 billion gaming industry is on hiatus. Things are so bad that a homeless shelter had to close because of the danger of passing coronavirus to each other with social distancing being impossible there, and the 500 homeless people are now sleeping outdoors in a parking lot.
City leaders see the current economic problem as similar to the post-9/11 falloff: The public may be afraid to travel again for a long time. In the year following the 9/11 attacks, 1.8 million fewer annual passengers flew into McCarran International Airport than the pre-9/11 peak. Spending dropped by $35 million as well. It took until 2004 for the city’s visitor numbers to reach pre-9/11 levels.
“You’ve got the age-old problem of ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself,’” Hugh Anderson, managing director at HighTower Las Vegas, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “This is a human emotion at this point where people are afraid for their own health and the health of others. When you have that component, you have the mix for a declining economy.”
An additional economic data point can be found in sports betting. March Madness is one of Las Vegas’s biggest cash grabs each year, second only to the Super Bowl. In March 2019, gamblers put $346.6 million in bets on the Las Vegas sports books. This year, of course, that number is closer to zero.
The 2020 Final Four was expected to have an economic impact of $100 million for Atlanta. The Masters golf tournament, in nearby Augusta, has been postponed from its early April dates, and it may skip this year altogether. Airlines are taking a hit from the coronavirus, and Atlanta has the busiest airport in the world and is the headquarters for Delta Air Lines, which has 36,000 employees in the state.
Atlanta had almost 112 million visitors in 2018, supporting nearly half a million jobs and generating some $66 billion for the state. Those numbers will be cut down substantially. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the state’s restaurant industry was expected to make $25 billion in revenue this year. But sales in Georgia are already down 50 to 70 percent, Georgia Restaurant Association CEO Karen Bremer told the Atlanta Business Chronicle.
Restaurants and bars in Georgia operate on profit margins of 4 to 6 percent. If closures are mandated, Bremer roughly estimates the state’s industry would need as much as $83.3 million per month in aid just to cover occupancy and labor costs. “I’ve been talking people off a cliff [the past few weeks],” Bremer said. “Peoples’ cash is pretty well dissipated. . . . The industry can’t take a hit like this. It’s too fragile. The government needs to step in.”
Because the city’s convention center is being converted into a field hospital, the huge annual Detroit auto show has been canceled, and the more than 700,000 attendees won’t be dropping any coin in the Motor City in June.
Meanwhile, Trump has been playing an odd game with Michigan citizens. In late March, he attacked GM CEO Mary Barra over how the company will be making ventilators and surgical masks at its plants. GM said it was waiting on directions from FEMA, and Trump said the company was been dragging its feet.
“Why is the president only attacking us? What are other automakers doing? Who else has a plant ready to go? Strange he is attacking us,” said a GM insider quoted anonymously in the Detroit Free Press. “We are, by far, ahead of anyone else. [Trump] is a master of diverting blame to others. We are not dragging our feet. And we are not negotiating with the government.”
But Trump’s insults to Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer go beyond his usual craziness. When Whitmer, a Democrat who won the 2018 governor’s race by more than 400,000 votes, began asking the feds for more masks, ventilators, test kits, and other aid, Trump insulted her at press conferences and on Twitter:
I love Michigan, one of the reasons we are doing such a GREAT job for them during this horrible Pandemic. Yet your Governor, Gretchen “Half” Whitmer is way in over her head, she doesn’t have a clue. Likes blaming everyone for her own ineptitude! #MAGA
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 28, 2020
This set off a firestorm in the state. Longtime Detroit columnist Mitch Albom closed his scathing March 29 Free Press column this way:
We don’t need presidential name-calling. We don’t need disrespect. We don’t need the most powerful person in the nation, whom we helped elect to his job, refusing to return our governor’s calls and acting like a pouting child waiting to be asked nicely before he shares his toys.
Now is not the time to be a child, Mr. President. Now is the time to put away childish things. To be a man. You can begin by respecting a woman. Her name is Gretchen Whitmer. She is our governor. And like her or not, she represents us to you. She counts. We count. Please, at least act like you understand that.
Trump’s behavior toward Michigan is strange enough that it makes you wonder whether he fully understands that he needs to win the state to secure a second term.