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Why Trump Can’t Count on COVID-19 to Suppress the Vote for Him

Voters seem determined to vote this year. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

We are nearly done with the 2020 presidential primaries. Connecticut on August 11 will wrap up that part of the cycle. And while there remain a goodly number of down-ballot primaries and runoffs (19, to be exact, with Delaware bringing it to a close on September 15), we’ve seen enough votes cast to get a sense of how much COVID-19 has damaged voter turnout.

It’s hard to compare primary turnout to the hypothetical of what we would have seen absent the pandemic, but an analysis by the New York Times suggests turnout has been pretty robust, particularly for Democrats:

Overall turnout among voters casting ballots for Democratice presidential candidates so far this year has already surpassed primary season levels in 2016, as did fund-raising between April and June. Democrats are nearing the record numbers set in 2008 on both counts, even though the marquee 2020 race, for the Democratic presidential nomination, largely ended in March with Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the presumptive nominee.


Roughly 34 million Democrats have already cast their ballots in 2020, and major states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have yet to report official results, meaning the number will most likely be millions more. By contrast, in 2016, just under 31 million Democrats voted in a more contested presidential primary race; in 2008, more than 37 million voted in the primaries.

Higher turnout was not universal, of course — particularly in the early stages of the pandemic:

A few states have seen a major drop-off in turnout in 2020. While some of that can be attributed to a less competitive presidential primary, states that weren’t adequately prepared for the pandemic were also deeply affected. Illinois, which held its primary on March 17, just as the coronavirus crisis was beginning to take hold in the United States, made few preparations, forcing polling stations around Chicago to shutter at the last minute because of a shortage of poll workers. In previous election years, turnout in the state was around two million; this year around 500,000 fewer votes were cast.


The state with the biggest decrease, Ohio, changed its election date multiple times because of the pandemic, the result of a clash between the governor and state legislature.

And even in states with higher primary turnout, there were systemic problems that reduced voting from what it might have been, including shortages in polling places on Election Day and incompetent processing of mail ballots and mail-ballot applications.

While Democrats set or threatened records for primary turnout, Republicans did relatively well for a year in which their incumbent president had no serious opposition. But it’s safe to say Democrats are almost certain to benefit more if overall turnout is high. A recent Monmouth poll of Pennsylvania showed Biden’s lead over Trump swelling from 7 percent in a low-turnout scenario to 10 percent in a high-turnout scenario.

So assuming the pandemic isn’t even worse in November than it has been since March, it seems unlikely that COVID-19 will hold down turnout enough to produce a significant shift in the GOP’s direction (and if the pandemic really is worse than ever, it’s unlikely the incumbent president and his party are going to win in any event).

That may be why Republicans are relying so much on suppressing the vote via their own efforts, including a plethora of lawsuits to make voting — especially by mail — more difficult. Many are intended to roll back mail-ballot accommodations made during the primary season. Others involve the more traditional GOP tactics of forcing aggressive purges of voter-registration rolls and short-changing polling places in areas with a lot of Democratic voters.

The ultimate GOP fallback position, of course, is to challenge the results if it loses, and there’s plenty of reason to assume that Trump’s relentless assault on voting by mail is designed to preserve that option, quite possibly by claiming victory on Election Night and then discounting subsequent mail ballots as “fraudulent.”

But high turnout will make all these tactics more difficult, and there is also some evidence (notably in a high-stakes judicial election in Wisconsin in April) of voter backlash against Republican voter-suppression efforts. All in all, COVID-19 is going to hurt rather than help the party of the president whose handling of this pandemic is getting lower ratings every day.

Why Trump Can’t Count on COVID-19 to Suppress the Vote