Photo illustration by Katie McBride

Those who study politics often decry “horse race” coverage of elections, a focus on the most recent poll, who’s up and who’s down — essentially a popularity contest that loses sight of policy and reduces candidates to underdogs or front runners.

Ernest McGowen, an associate professor of political science at UR, has identified factors that he considers important indicators as we near the 2020 general election.

“There’s normally a timeline of events that will have an impact on the election,” McGowen says. “So we would say generally, ‘OK, what is the economy doing? Are we involved in some kind of foreign affairs event like a war? What’s the level of the stock market? Are we in inflation, deflation — are gas prices high or low?’”

Typically, he says, these factors create a picture that allows voters to consider how well the current administration has done and whether, in the new election, voters should choose an alternative set of policies.

But this year, he says, that’s all out the window.

“Now, with the coronavirus, all of the discussion is around who did what, when, who did what well, and who could have done better. And so, what I really think it’s going to come down to for 2020 is: What is your view of the coronavirus?”

This single issue will greatly affect voters’ views on a range of issues, including health care and public education.

“Even public education is now in question due to the coronavirus and the reaction to it,” he says. “It wasn’t in question in January. It wasn’t in question last year. So that’s what I would say is most interesting: not necessarily where we are as a country, but our faith in the leadership based on the uncertainty going forward.”

Pundits often say an incumbent has a clear advantage. But McGowen thinks that’s not the case this time around. He says voters will choose their next president based on who will handle the pandemic better.

“Most times, people vote for the incumbent based on the job that they’ve done previously,” he says. “So if you’re OK with immigration, you may like Trump, or if you’re OK with the stock market. Normally, decisions made about Trump would be based on a retrospective evaluation of how he’s done.”

McGowen says the pandemic has also led to uncertainty around current polling. Interestingly, he says, the 2016 polls basically made the right call. “The polling that said Hillary Clinton was going to get more votes than Donald Trump was right.”

Yet this year, the run-up to the election is uncharted territory, he says.

“We are still voting in 2020 as though we have two new potential presidents because each one of them is going to have to deal with a situation that none of us thought would ever actually happen. So no, I would not say that we are going to be able to use past patterns to explain what’s going to happen in November.”