Thursday, October 22, 2020
Did I mention there’s a election going on? The elephant in the room, as they say. And the donkey too, of course. We can hardly chronicle the Great Pandemic of 2020 without talking about how it’s impacted our election year process. It would be easy to call this election year unique, but I can assure you as an historian and from a lifetime of observation that every election year is unique. This one just happens to have a pandemic.
While I’m thinking primarily about the presidential campaign today, I’m acutely aware that COVID-19 affects all our candidates for public office this year. My first campaign experience was in 1952 at the age of seven, knocking on doors with my dad who was running for Inglewood City Council. Personal contact which is such a vital part of campaigning is out of the question this year. Candidates at every level have had to be innovative.
Presidential politics have always combined mass media and personal appearances. And they are always contentious. There is just too much at stake. The public phase of the 59th election developed as expected throughout 2018-19 with numerous candidates announcing their intention to run for the Democratic nomination. As the incumbent, the Republican candidate was already known. By July, 2019, no less than twenty Democratic candidates made appearances at the Iowa Presidential Candidate Forums. A series of debates was held for nominee hopefuls and one by one candidates began to drop out.
February 2020 saw the first cases of COVID in the U.S. In March the pandemic was declared and the Democratic National Committee announced that the 11th Democratic nominee debate would be held without an audience. States began to postpone primaries or arrange mail-in primaries because of the virus. The Democratic Convention was postponed to August 17-20. With the Republican Convention scheduled for August 24-27, the timing of the conventions was unusually close.
We saw the conventions as made-for-television this year. True, we’ve watched them on television as long as we can remember, but they were live, noisy, spontaneous. This year they were calm, scripted, and staged. When conventions were started back in 1831 they took the choice of presidential nominees out of the “smoke-filled room” (a.k.a. “The Room Where It Happens”) into a national forum. We saw party members fight over planks on the platform and we saw state delegations vote again and again until the nominee was chosen and the vote was made unanimous for the record. I, for one, loved it.
No two conventions were alike. in 1924 the Democrats took 16 days to agree on a presidential candidate. Prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan were the big issues. There were demonstrations. There was yelling. There were fist fights. All broadcast nationwide on the radio from Madison Square Garden in New York City.
I didn’t witness that one, but I was in the television audience when Chicago police beat and tear-gassed anti-war demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic Convention. Major issues besides the war in Vietnam included civil rights and the recent assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King. Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination without running in any primaries. (Eighty percent of the primary votes had gone to peace candidates.)
So this year’s conventions were pretty tame, considering.
The other big change in this pandemic year concerned the debates. There were three presidential debates scheduled for election year 2020. You may have seen the first debate held in Ohio on September 26, 2020. The concern for the pandemic was evident. The two candidates were carefully distanced from each other and from the moderator. The audience was very small, distanced, and mainly masked. However because many of the people involved in the preparations, including the President, tested positive for COVID within a week, the Debate Commission proposed a separated virtual format for the second debate.
A virtual debate was not acceptable to the President, so the Democratic candidate participated in a town hall question-and-answer session on October 15 while the President had his own separate town hall at the same time on a different network. The third debate is scheduled for tonight and at this point the candidates will be on the same stage. What is the history?
In 1960 John F. Kennedy (D) and Richard M. Nixon (R) had a series of four televised debates. The third debate had them in two different studios, one in Los Angeles and one in New York due to their campaign schedules. They could see and hear each other and the moderator. Major issues included the Cold War, Formosa (Taiwan), and the space race brought on by Sputnik. The debates were vital to both candidates because neither had the advantage of being an incumbent. If one had been an incumbent, he may well have turned it down. But they both needed the exposure.
Debates are not required, but they are a way for the major candidates to gain a nationwide audience and we have come to expect them as part of the end game of a presidential campaign. Generally the incumbent has less to gain than the challenger–or, putting it another way, the person in office has more to lose. That’s why President Carter felt confident in bowing out of his first scheduled debate against Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Carter did not want to share the stage with the third-party candidate, John Anderson, who was an Independent scheduled to join the debate with Carter and Reagan. The second debate was cancelled. The third debate of 1980 was held with both major-party candidates and watched by 80 million people. Major issues included the Iran hostage crisis, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and inflation. Reagan won in a landslide.
1992 brought the first “town hall” debate. This time Reform Party candidate Ross Perot shared the stage with George H. W. Bush (R, incumbent) and Bill Clinton (D). Bush did not drop out of the debate. Major issues were the environment and the economic recession, with Clinton arguing that sacrificing the environment to get more jobs was a “false choice.” (NYT, Oct. 13, 1992). Clinton won against the incumbent.
Different challenges require different tools. This year the pandemic has encouraged us to find virtual ways to stage campaign events. But when all is said and done, it is just another campaign. We’ve argued–often violently–over women’s suffrage, Prohibition, civil rights, Vietnam, and two world wars. And that’s just in the last century. We argue, we hope, we despair. But as long as we can return to the table we will carry on.
Today’s Notable Headlines
“Famous protests in US history and their impacts,” Princeton Daily Clarion, Oct. 21, 2020. https://www.pdclarion.com/news/national/famous-protests-in-us-history-and-their-impacts/collection_fd7f7c16-a8a4-5e35-9e4f-f67a6f9b5818.html#1
“Debate Commission To Mute Candidates’ Mics At Start Of Each Segment,” NPR, Oct. 19, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/10/19/925605044/candidates-will-have-some-uninterrupted-time-in-final-presidential-debate
“Timeline / what a normal US election looks like and what might happen in 2020,” The Guardian, Oct. 16, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2020/oct/16/us-presidential-election-scenarios-timeline
“Three presidential debates that changed history,” Yahoo News, Sept. 29, 2020. https://news.yahoo.com/three-presidential-debates-that-changed-history-090007607.html
“Trump has been attacking the presidential debate commission. What is it and how did it come about?” Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-10-21/la-na-pol-2020-commission-presidential-debates
“THE 1992 CAMPAIGN: Issues — The Environment; Clinton and Bush Show Contradictions in Balancing Jobs and Conservation,” New York Times, Oct. 13, 1992. https://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/13/us/1992-campaign-issues-environment-clinton-bush-show-contradictions-balancing-jobs.html
Historical Presidential Elections: https://www.270towin.com/historical-presidential-elections/
Why am I doing this?
The coronavirus pandemic will be indelibly written on our memories just as the Great Depression or the Battle of Britain left their mark on past generations. It is my intention to journal the pandemic experience from three perspectives: as a retired medical technologist, a historian (Ph.D., 2014), and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary crisis.
You are on History’s Edge.