US election: Identity politics overwhelms Covid pandemic as factor in presidential race

Campaign signs in rural upstate New York, where heated rhetoric dominated US President Donald Trump and his contender Joseph Biden. (photo: Kerry Cullinan)

While President Donald Trump's mismanagement of Covid-19 may help Democratic contender Joe Biden turn the final corner in a tight US election, identity politics and the economy have loomed as bigger factors than health in voter choices. Voters in key battleground states, like Michigan and Nevada, explain why.

The United States election came just as the country was racking up some of the highest-ever daily rate of new coronavirus infections in the world. But in comparison to the economy, Covid-19 and health care issues have still ranked lower on Americans’ priorities than the economy when people finally turned out to the polls.

All in all, the pandemic threat has failed to generate the kind of landslide support for Democratic contender Joseph Biden that some had hoped for, or even anticipated.

Instead, “identity politics” - including a gaping rural-urban divide - remain more dominant factors in the campaign than the Covid-19 issues that have transfixed the world.

Nor did healthcare seem to rate as high a concern either - even though some 20 million Americans stand to lose their health care coverage if the Affordable Care Act is finally overturned by a second-term Trump administration either through action in the Supreme Court or Congress.

Massive ‘Covid rebuke’ didn’t happen: While the mounting toll from the coronavirus has certainly played a role in a higher support for retirees and suburbanites for Biden in some places, a huge Covid-driven “rebuke” of President Donald Trump just did not occur at the magnitude that Democrats had expected.

This was already apparent in the early hours of Tuesday evening, even before returns were being counted. A CNN exit poll found that about one-third of Americans considered the economy the most critical election issue. Only one in six considered the pandemic, and one in 10 cited healthcare policy or violence, as their top issues. One in five people cited racial inequality.

The same impasse was reflected in the see-saw changes in early election results recorded in key US “battleground states” reflecting the log-jammed political divide between urban and rural voters, no matter how hard hit their states might have been with the virus. Overnight Wednesday, mail-in ballots were still being counted in key states where battles raged, while a complicated calculus of 270 state “electoral college” votes, and not the popular vote, determines the final outcome.

“There was a lot of energy and expectation - on the Democratic side and I would say even in America - that there was going to be a surge, a rebuke of Trump, particularly over the virus,” said political analyst, David Gregory, speaking to CNN.

“And what we're seeing so far is that has not been the case. It’s a really tight race. We're even seeing some evidence out of exit polling that a lot of voters out there are saying ‘hey, it's really important we get this economy open, even if the virus spreads a little bit more.’”

Trump Campaign Signs, Delaware County, Kerry Cullinan.jpg
Defiant Trump campaign signs adorn homes in rural community of upstate New York - mirroring sharp divisions of the US vote. Photo: Kerry Cullinan

Biden benefits from “Covid” vote - but only marginally:
That’s not to say that there was no ‘Covid factor’ at all.  More people from key demographic groups, like seniors and suburbanites, shifted significant votes to the Democrat’s Biden - as compared to Hillary Clinton four years ago. That surge of support was being felt in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as in expanding suburban regions of sunbelt cities in Arizona and Nevada - making these states major players in the final election outcome.

“A lot of seniors don’t feel like[Trump] has handled this very well - because literally they’re dying… people are legitimately dying I mean,” said one Reno, Nevada resident, a construction worker whose 64 year-old wife’s pre-conditions puts her seriously at risk from Covid.

Adding to the uncertainty in all of these states was the fact that an unprecedented number of voters cast their ballots in this election by mail, and those ballots were being counted last, rather than first, creating a dizzying set of ups and downs in the results.

Beyond the pandemic, however, another systemically hot health issue in US politics - abortion - was a countervailing factor keeping many people loyal to Trump - virus or not.

“Abortion is a HUGE factor. I have heard many people say it all comes down to who ‘will save the babies’, said one businesswoman in Ann Arbor Michigan, who voted for Biden, where the Democratic candidate  was hanging onto a slight lead Wednesday evening.

“I honestly don't get it,” she added. “No thoughts or consideration to helping the babies after they are born, but the pro-lifers are faithful in their voting. I’m seriously thinking of moving to Canada.”

A New York City public health expert said “as far as I can tell, people care about healthcare but apparently believed the false dichotomy Trump presented of pandemic lockdown or the economy, and many preferred the latter.  When Trump says that he did everything he could about the pandemic, and it was all China’s fault anyway, his supporters and apparently many other people believe him… After almost four years, you’d think people would have learnt.  But he’s very good at what he does.”

Identity politics overwhelms Covid - no matter who wins. In Trump strongholds like eastern Tennessee’s Putnam County, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, a local store that sells Trump memorabilia just opened, and jacked-up pickup trucks have been parading around downtown shouting the president’s praises, relates a prominent  lawyer with deep roots in the community:

“One of the trucks carries a big flag with Trump’s sagging, jowly face placed on top of Rambo’s body, firing an M-60 machine gun. And he drives around the square yelling ‘Trump Trump Trump’. A disturbing number of people honk in support of him. From my window, Trump support has nothing to do with rationality,” said the attorney, who asked not to be named.

“Trump is a cult figure in red states like Tennessee,” the attorney added. “He received 71 per cent of the vote in Putnam County. We were reliably 55 per cent Democratic until the 2010 election.” This was when local politics flipped during Barack Obama’s presidency - as racist rumors about the president’s origins and religious persuasion became rampant.

“Trump’s supporters share his fears and hatreds. More ‘bad others’ – illegal immigrants, rioters, black people and the much-feared and utterly non-existent ‘ANTIFA’ – dominate their fears. Trump rails against them and tells these people that they are right, they are smarter than people with education, than people with money, than these bad others. He makes their irrational prejudices into virtues. And they love him for it,” he added.

Many Americans simply do not understand the intimate connections between government policies and what’s happening in their personal lives, he also observed.

“Government is a ‘bad other’: the enemy, something to be mistrusted and opposed at all costs. So the Trump voter doesn’t give a flip about healthcare when they walk into the voting booth.  They do not believe that the government could ever provide them decent healthcare.

“They ‘know’” Obamacare has failed and is bad – even though it only ‘failed’ because the GOP congress wouldn’t fund it or implement it. The Trump voters vote on issues like their professed opposition to abortion and transgender rights, and their support for gun rights. Their vote has nothing to do with their own economic interests, except to the extent that their information system has told them that socialism is bad. And a vote for Trump is a vote against the undefined bad other, socialism.

“As for Covid, the Trump voters mostly do not believe it is real. They won’t wear masks. They assemble in groups, at churches and proms. Our hospital numbers are through the roof, but they don’t believe it, because their information sources tell them, doctors overreport Covid to get money - ‘those educated greedy doctors again.’

“And they chuckle to themselves, congratulating themselves on how they’ve seen through the liberal conspiracy, because at least THEY aren’t falling for this Covid nonsense. This is from people who have family members who have died with Covid. The denial is astounding, and inexplicable to me. But it is as real as the coffee in my cup.”

Of course, conservatives see the robust support for Trump very differently. Scott Jennings, a Republican campaign adviser from Kentucky, argued that Trump’s base of support had, in fact, expanded in this election to include new African-American and Latino voters in areas like Miami-Dade county, where Trump campaigned heavily, and did even better than he had in 2016 against Hillary Clinton.

Jennings said in a CNN interview: “Republicans are pretty well stunned at how well Donald Trump did.

“There has been a clear realignment here for the Republican party to attract new working class voters of all races. When you look at the resilience of the Republican party in all these states with these large rural areas, among working class voters, the attraction of some new hispanic voters, even some African American voters.

“I also think there has been a rejection of the Democratic party, and in some cases the media, of the liberal elites in rural America. They feel like they are held to different rules: double standards. They’ve been browbeaten for their support of Donald Trump, and they turned out in droves yesterday to let folks know it. It’s not all bad for the party right now.”

Atmosphere of fear. Yet, despite the more positive spin of some conservative pundits, Americans of all persuasions were bracing for Trump’s legal challenges, possible violence and more nail-biting while an outcome remained elusive. With Michigan and Wisconsin swinging toward the Democratic contender Wednesday evening, the projected electoral college count for Biden stood at 253 out of the golden 270 votes. But large final counts of the mail-in vote remained outstanding in key states like Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada; wins in just two of the three would clear his path to victory.

From New York City to Washington DC and Dearborn, Michigan, more and more storefronts were being boarded up in the anticipation of potential violence from both left and the alt-right - depending on the way the election falls.

The electric tensions were being fuelled by Trump’s defiant comments about the race’s outcome, already on election night. Appearing at about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday morning at a White House party of some 250 campaign supporters, Trump claimed victory and said that he would contest the continued tabulation of mail-in ballots still underway in many states.

“We want all voting to stop.  We don't want them to find any ballots at four o’clock in the morning and add them to the list, OK,” Trump said in his televised remarks, protesting the continued counting of mail-in ballots, as districts in key states tried to process huge ballot backlogs.

“This is a fraud on the American public… an embarrassment to our country.  We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly we did win this election,” he said. “So our goal now is to ensure the integrity for the good of this nation. This is a very big moment... We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we will be going to the US Supreme Court.”

People in rural and working class neighborhoods who bucked trends to support Biden have been keeping their heads particularly low. Not only in Tennessee but as far west as Nevada, Trump supporters roam Republican stronholds demonstrably, and sometimes visibly armed.

The Reno construction worker who voted Biden said he has been afraid to post a campaign sign on his lawn for fear of violent reprisals. He is fearful that roaming brigades of Trump supporters parading through his neighborhood might somehow point the finger at him as a target - and has alerted a friendly police officer just in case.

“They're not hard to identify,” he said. “They drive around in pickup trucks with tattered American flags hanging out. It’s really sick what they have done with our flag.

“Our flag is considered a symbol of freedom and democracy and they’ve turned it into a symbol of racism and hatred and bigotry.”

Kerry Cullninan and Raisa Santos in New York City contributed to this story.