Eight Questions That Could Decide the Presidency
COVID-19? Racism? Climate change? BU experts on what to watch for
“It is going to be a roller-coaster ride like we, as a country, have never seen before.”
Almost four years after Joseph Wippl made that prediction on Inauguration Day 2017, hindsight confirms its prescience. The Pardee School of Global Studies and College of Arts & Sciences professor of the practice of international relations was talking about incoming President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. But his words also capture the myriad approaches Trump has taken in addressing racism, healthcare, climate change, COVID-19, and other issues.
With election day at hand, BU experts answer some critical questions that could determine whether, on November 3, we have four more years of a Trump administration or the start of a Biden-Harris term.
College of Communication associate professor of the practice, multimedia journalism
Will Trump’s handling of COVID-19 decide the election?
No. I think that when we look back, it will be clear that while it factored significantly in the outcome, it won’t be the major tipping point. There are plenty of one-issue voters, but my best guess is that the results will have been driven by a host of issues that affected different voters in different ways. For instance, it’s clear that some Trump supporters are switching their vote to Biden-Harris based more on single incidents such as his comments about the military (suckers, losers) versus anything he has or hasn’t done regarding COVID.
Then there’s the camp of Trump supporters who have buyer’s remorse. They have been swayed by a host of issues, and COVID is just another bullet point on the list. Some of them have been vocal about switching, even appearing in campaign ads to explain why they can’t continue to support him. They seem overwhelmed and exhausted, citing continuous chaos and disappointment in someone that they believed in. Democrats and some Republicans are looking at this very long list of complaints that includes Trump’s attacks on women, the press, and protesters, dismissal of medical and scientific expert advice, immigration detention policies that lead to the separation of children from their parents, and more. Democrats have certainly been reinvigorated, and currently, some pundits have noted that the large jump in early voting favors the Democrats.
If you look at advocacy such as the Lincoln Project ads, they have relentlessly hammered the Trump administration on a range of issues, including COVID, but again, it’s a laundry list. It will be interesting to see what impact the sheer weight of the airing these issues will have on voters. This has been no ordinary campaign ad season. It came at us like a tsunami via TV, radio, and social media.
How will Trump’s contracting the virus influence voters?
Well, his base is certainly ramped up, because they see his quick recovery as a sign of strength, and it reinforces his contention that the virus isn’t a big deal. Of course, medical experts have tried to downplay that rosy interpretation and stress that he got world-class medical care that is not the norm.
His detractors are enraged. They view him as continuing to spread misinformation using his own privileged treatment as a barometer. Again, for them, this isn’t necessarily a tipping point. It’s big, but it’s just one more reason to vote early, absentee, or stand in line at the polls on election day.
Slater Family Professor in Behavioral Economics, College of Arts & Sciences
Conventional wisdom says presidential elections are about “the economy, stupid.” Will voters focus on the hole we’re in or the fact that we seem to be climbing out of it?
There’s ample evidence that voters reward politicians for a strong economy, whether or not it is of the politician’s making. (For example, voters in Texas may vote for the incumbent because the oil price is high and hence the local economy is booming, even though Texas politicians have no impact whatsoever on the price of a barrel of oil.) When I’ve looked at data on Indian elections, it seems to be very much a “what have you done for me lately” sort of effect—what matters is how the economy does in the year immediately preceding the election. The economy right now is pretty dismal, so regardless of whether it is Trump’s fault, he will plausibly suffer for it on November 3. (Even countries that have handled the pandemic better have seen their economies shrink).
To turn to the second part of your question: I teach behavioral economics, and the topic we’re studying right now is reference-dependent preferences. People evaluate their circumstances relative to a reference point or benchmark, which is often whatever their situation was in the relatively recent past. So, I suppose one could argue that even an anemic and nascent recovery might help Trump if, on November 3, people ask, “How am I doing as compared to August?” But I doubt it. I’m not a psychologist, but I would guess most people still see themselves in a pretty deep hole relative to what they see as their reference level of just about anything—income, wealth, or happiness.
School of Law dean
Will the national discussion and the protests around police violence and systemic racism help Trump, Biden, or neither?
Neither. Each candidate’s responses to the protests around police violence and systemic racism will simply affirm their base’s existing views on these issues. Neither one of them will convince or attract any voters on these issues.
Will Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court likely bring out more Democratic voters in protest, or more Republican voters in support?
Republican voters have done a much better job of making the courts a priority in their voting; however, one undecided voter’s response to a question after the last debate made me change my mind. Her confirmation, I believe, will cost President Trump some voters, resulting in more Democratic voters coming out to vote in protest against Trump. The normally decisive factor in this undecided voter’s decisions is whether the candidate is pro-life. Following the second debate, this voter indicated that, once Judge Barrett was confirmed, he would vote for Biden. The undecided voter is not a fan of Trump’s divisiveness, but previously voted for the president because of the abortion issue. The voter indicated that, once Barrett was confirmed, he would have no more need for Trump because they will have all the votes they need on the court to overturn Roe v. Wade. I found this voter’s perspective very interesting. It never dawned on me that a Barrett confirmation would make Trump useless to some Republican voters, and I suspect that this undecided voter is not alone in his view.
School of Public Health professor of the practice, health law, policy, and management, and director of the BU Institute for Health System Innovation and Policy
Will the Trump administration’s legal assault on the Affordable Care Act, and failure to produce a new health care plan, be a major issue for voters?
The persistent and worsening COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the critical issues posed by the legal assault on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) established a decade ago. The ACA has been the focus of 70 attempts to abolish or modify the law. On November 10, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a suit challenging the ACA as unconstitutional.
The suit was initially filed in Texas district court in February 2018. It is rooted in the argument that after the 2012 Supreme Court decision upheld the individual coverage requirement provision of the ACA (National Federation of independent Business v. Sebelius) under Congress’ taxing authorities, and then the subsequent 2017 revision to the tax law that zeroed out the tax penalty, the ACA has been rendered unconstitutional. The argument rests on the premise that without the tax in place, the coverage requirement is unconstitutional, and thus the entire law should fall. Since the ACA stands as the law of the land now, it requires the Trump administration to defend it, which the Department of Justice has refused to do.
The legal assault on the ACA was front and center during the Amy Coney Barrett Senate confirmation hearing to fill the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—and for good reasons. While it is unclear how she would vote on the case, her conservative, “constitutional originalism” grounding has led to fear that she would be the deciding vote against the ACA. Trump in his recent campaign and debate speeches continues to speak of a new healthcare plan, but after three and a half years, no clear proposal has emerged from Trump or the GOP. Dismantling the ACA without an alternative to provide health insurance will add insult to injury for millions of Americans affected by the COVID crisis.
CAS professor of earth and environment and BU Institute for Sustainable Energy associate director
Will climate change and the Trump administration’s denial of it help bring out younger voters in droves, as has been suggested, or will they stay home again?
Public opinion polls reveal that two-thirds of adult Americans want stronger government action to address climate change. This support has not been diminished by the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps because the pandemic and climate change share many of the same existential threat attributes. Generally speaking, support for climate action is much stronger among younger voters.
The youth turnout in the Democratic primary elections in 2020 was down relative to 2016, but many primaries were held during the first wave of the pandemic. Analysis of early voting in the presidential election through October 24 suggests that young people (ages 18 to 29) may be voting in larger numbers compared to 2016. My sense is that the principal motivators are unhappiness with how the Trump administration has handled the pandemic and outrage over the death of George Floyd. The 15 million to 26 million people who participated in the protests in June were the largest protest movement in the country’s history.
Will concern about climate change also be a driver of a larger youth turnout? Youth concern is heightened by a steady drumbeat of visible impacts of climate change—rising seas, drought, wildfires, tropical storms, heat stress—impacts once thought to be a problem “down the road” that are now routine. Five of the six largest wildfires in California in the last 90 years occurred in 2020. But I think that climate change is just one component of young adult angst about the direction of the country, and about their personal futures that are tied to the pandemic, inequity, political dysfunction, and the short-term prospects for economic recovery. Many young people want changes in policy and behavior that simultaneously improve economic and environmental outcomes and reduce inequity. This is not a technical challenge—it is one of personal and collective will.
William E. Huntington Professor of History, CAS
Will this be the election that ultimately leads to a real discussion about changing the Electoral College or doing away with it altogether?
Donald Trump won the presidency despite receiving almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. With populous blue states like California likely to deliver Joe Biden even bigger margins on November 3, President Trump’s path to reelection would almost certainly rest on victory in the Electoral College, despite the opposition of a majority of American voters.
Might such a result, or on the other hand, a resounding triumph for Biden and his party, catalyze significant reform in the Electoral College? The answer is no—or not directly. Five times in the nation’s history, the Electoral College winner has lost the popular vote. In the 19th century, all three such outcomes fueled major changes in American politics, while leaving the constitutional structure intact: 1824 led to creation of modern parties and political conventions; 1876 marked the consolidation of white supremacist, one-party rule in the South; 1888 sparked admission of six new western states to alter the Electoral College balance of power. The elections of 2000 and 2016, however, resulted in no such structural changes.
In 2021, constitutional elimination of the Electoral College would require the unlikely support of states and political actors (the Republican Party) that benefit from the current system. Even clever workarounds—like the effort to finesse a popular vote system with states promising to allocate their electoral votes to the top vote-getter nationally—remain long shots that might not even pass muster with the Supreme Court. As in the 1800s, the only real prospects for political change would be glancing blows to rebalance the Electoral College, such as the admission of new states, rather than a direct assault. The nation’s weirdest college will likely dominate US elections for a long time to come.
November 7, 2020
November 7, 2020
November 7, 2020