How Covid-19 is invisibly influencing the 2022 midterm elections

As Democrats and Republicans vie for control of Congress in the midterms in November, Covid-19 will likely be both everywhere and nowhere.

On the surface, the pandemic seems to be far from the minds of voters and the lips of candidates right now. Two years after it helped sink Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, few voters name it as a top priority; candidates aren’t focusing on it either. Even though the United States passed 1 million reported Covid-19 deaths while the primary season was kicking off in earnest in early May, the virus has seemingly lost its salience as a political issue.

Democrats generally aren’t boasting about their Covid-19 responses or the rollout of vaccines under the Biden administration. If they are talking about the pandemic, they tend to focus more on helping the country move on from it. Republicans don’t want to talk about Covid either, as their base doesn’t take it as seriously. If they do, it’s typically to criticize the public health institutions that have taken center stage during the last two years.

But if you look closer, the pandemic is still having enormous, if subtler, influence on American politics. Inflation — a crisis that began with supply-chain and workforce issues caused by Covid-19 and was likely amplified by some aspects of the US relief legislation — is the No. 1 issue for US voters right now. Murders and drug overdose deaths began rising during the pandemic, souring the public’s mood on the country’s future and presaging a difficult campaign for the party in power.

“It’s been so extensive that you just don’t notice it,” John Gasper, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied the effect of prior natural disasters on political behavior, said. “People are sick of blaming Covid for a lot of things. Politicians don’t want to keep talking about Covid.”

Both sides arguably have reason to leave Covid-19 out when they take to the stump or produce their campaign videos, Neil Malhotra, a political economist at Stanford University, told me. President Joe Biden and Democrats have been in power for two years and the pandemic is still ongoing. Much of the Republicans’ voter base has been skeptical of Covid-19’s significance for a while, giving their candidates little reason to focus on it.

The exception is the hard-right candidates who oppose public health interventions to slow down the pandemic. Certain Republicans continue to make clear their opposition to mask or vaccine mandates and other measures, even though those restrictions have been lifted almost everywhere.

That bizarre reality — in which the pandemic that killed 1 million people is being most effectively politicized by the people who opposed the response to it — reflects the unusual nature of Covid-19 as a political event. It started as something akin to a natural disaster: disruptive, but not something that sticks in voters’ memory. But, unlike most hurricanes or tornados, the pandemic wasn’t over within a relatively short time. It lasted years — long enough to evolve into a political wedge issue that candidates use to stir up their most strident supporters.

“Covid has transformed from a disaster to … fodder or kindling for the ongoing culture war,” Gasper said. “It’s one more thing to stoke the fire in order to feed your base.”

Why Covid-19 feels — mostly — invisible in the midterm campaigns

Covid’s decline as an overt political issue has been precipitous. In January, in the thick of the omicron wave, it was one of the top answers in Gallup’s poll asking Americans to name the most important problem facing the country. But three months later, in April, the share who still put the pandemic as the No. 1 issue had dropped from 20 percent to 4 percent; it was trailing Russia and fuel prices among people’s concerns.

Inflation and the state of the economy in general have become the dominant issues for voters. Those problems have their origins in the pandemic, but they are complicated by other events like the war in Ukraine.

Over time, voters typically have less tolerance for politicians blaming the same thing for all the problems in the world, even if there is some truth to it. It’s old news. So candidates are responding to that apathy in the 2022 campaigns. Democratic politicians, in particular, tend to be very reactive to voters’ attitudes, Malhotra said, and voters right now are done with Covid-19.

“They’re really trying hard to see where voters are, trying to reach what the median voters believe,” he said. “The mass voting base in this country is over Covid. They just are. That is the truth.”

The example of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis in Colorado, who is up for reelection this year, is telling. Polis has positioned himself as more libertarian on the pandemic response, in a state that leans toward Democrats but where Republicans can still win in the right political environment.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis, right, heads into a news conference about Colorado offering Covid-19 vaccinations to children on October 28, 2021.
David Zalubowski/AP

Polis ended Colorado’s state of emergency in July 2021. During the omicron wave this winter, he would not tolerate calls for new mask mandates. He has framed his policies on Covid-19 as “moving forward.” And he has been rewarded with one of the highest approval ratings of any Democrat seeking reelection this year.

Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics noted that even in deeply Democratic Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser is seeking in her campaign to strike a balance between touting the city’s mitigation efforts while also taking credit for its schools reopening.

In Republican campaigns, Covid-19 is either invisible or the government response is the subject of ridicule. The Nevada GOP candidates looking to challenge Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in a key gubernatorial race all stressed their opposition to mask and vaccine mandates as well as business closures. Tellingly, in the GOP primary for the Pennsylvania US Senate election, candidates Dave McCormick and eventual winner Mehmet Oz took hard-right turns during the campaign. Oz had previously been supportive of pandemic interventions before he then campaigned against mask mandates because masks “don’t work.”

Such sentiments are as powerful as anything in Republican politics right now. As CNN noted earlier this year, even though Trump himself tried to counter vaccine skepticism, many of his favored candidates have continued to run very publicly on their opposition to not only vaccine mandates but to getting vaccinated at all.

It fits into the general themes of distrusting experts and institutions that have been a hallmark of Republican campaigns for a long time now, most notably during Trump’s rise to the presidency. Those anti-establishment attitudes are now taking on a Covid framing after two years of living through the pandemic.

“I think that comes out in being critical of the Covid mitigation techniques that public health authorities have suggested,” Kondik said. “So it may be that Republicans place themselves in opposition to such experts as a way of indicating they are on the side of their own voters.”

In that sense, Malhotra told me, part of Covid’s apparent invisibility is a byproduct of it largely serving to reaffirm people’s preexisting beliefs. It didn’t change the trajectory of America’s recent political polarization, which has sorted high-income and lower-education voters into the GOP camp and low-income and higher-education voters to the Democrats.

How Covid-19 will influence US politics in the future

Still, the pandemic has already toppled one sitting president, a rarity in recent American elections. All of the experts I spoke with credited Trump’s loss in 2020 with, at least in part, his not taking Covid-19 seriously enough and failing to marshal an effective response.

So we can’t say that it hasn’t affected American politics at all. But whether our political character is altered in a more fundamental way as a result of the last two years remains to be seen.

In the past, natural disasters have tended to not have a major or lasting effect on voting behavior or political attitudes, according to the research conducted by scholars like Gasper and Malhotra. Their immediate impact is too concentrated and too fleeting to change how tens of millions of people feel about the government and its leaders.

Covid-19 is already different, given the much longer timeline on which the pandemic has unfolded. As long as we are living with runaway inflation and the other secondary effects of the virus, it will leave a mark — perhaps subtly but detectable — on people’s politics.

Amy Walter, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, told me there may be some political benefit to be found in opposing the pandemic response now. But she added that politicians coming into office are also being tasked with fixing the resulting problems: economic uncertainty, rising crime, and the other public health crises in drug abuse and mental health that were exacerbated by Covid-19. And if they fail to act, they may end up paying the price down the road.

“A politician may be able to win today by being opposed to the public health establishment’s response to Covid,” she said. “But that same politician will likely be dealing with the downstream challenges that Covid has wrought on our society. And, if they are deemed as insufficiently addressing those issues, they could be vulnerable in a re-election bid of their own.”

We are all living in a world irreversibly altered by the pandemic experience. So while the virus might be fading as an object of media attention or voter concern, that does not mean the US is the same country it was before Covid-19 arrived.

The consequences of the pandemic for US politics have been subtle and even surprising. But they are still there, if you know where to look.