Understanding the Defining Issues of the 2020 Election

Joshua Brown and Ethan Qin

It is only fitting that we have a presidential election in this chaotic year of 2020. And this election is far from normal, with two polarizing candidates and a pandemic leading Americans to cast more mail-in ballots than ever before. Former Vice President Joe Biden and current California Senator Kamala Harris top the Democratic ticket, and incumbents Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence represent the Republican Party. Although this season has made some great material for Saturday Night Live, the election is no joke; this could be one of the most consequential elections in recent memory. The next term holder will have an unprecedented impact on climate change and Second Amendment and LGBTQ+ rights, just to name a few. But because each party’s stance has been long established on these issues, it is unlikely that they will swing many undecided voters in this specific cycle. However, COVID-19, the Supreme Court, and voter suppression are all the rapidly-changing and relevant issues that will ultimately define this election.


From late January, when President Trump was reportedly first briefed on the dangers of COVID-19, to today, when 230,000 Americans have fallen victim to the virus and an outbreak in the White House has resulted in Trump contracting the virus, COVID-19 has only intensified the chaos in Washington during this unprecedented and unpredictable election year.

The political headlines on COVID-19 have been dominated by Trump and his administration’s handling of the outbreak. Many experts have spoken out about the lack of testing and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for frontline workers, as well as the open criticism by White House officials, including Trump himself, towards Dr. Anthony Fauci, longtime Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and Dr. Robert Redfield, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

COVID-19 has negatively affected Trump’s support in two different ways: Polling among older voters and the perception of the current economy by the American people. 

Beginning with the latter, Trump, a businessman himself, has touted the economy as his main calling card to reelection, citing record high stock market numbers and low unemployment rates. COVID-19 threw that into turmoil, as the unemployment rate spiked and the stock market plummeted. While the stock market has recovered close to pre-pandemic levels and the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.9% at the end of September, it is important to note that these may not be good indicators of economic prosperity. Only 55% of Americans own stock, and the unemployment rate does not account for the people that left the workforce as a result of COVID-19. In order for Trump to win, he has to convince the American people that the economy is recovering, that a vaccine is coming soon, and that his administration can continue to help the economy thrive in his second term.

In 2016, Trump was aided by the strong support of white voters aged 55 and above, winning the group over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by 13 percentage points. Today, given the fact that senior citizens are more likely to experience serious COVID-19 symptoms and that many virus outbreaks have ravaged nursing homes and senior living communities, Trump’s widely criticized handling of the pandemic has caused his polling among this group to tumble. A recent Reuters/Ipsos survey revealed that Biden leads Trump by 1 percentage point among older white voters, which could be costly for Trump in crucial states such as Florida and Pennsylvania.

In mid-March, when the COVID-19 shutdown began, Biden was running away with the Democratic nomination in a stunning turn of events that began with a landslide victory in the South Carolina primary. During the first couple months of the pandemic, Biden said he was not trying to politicize this situation, but instead focus on supporting the families who have had loved ones fall victim to the virus. Even today, he continues to attack this politicization.

“Let’s end the politics and follow the science,” Biden said at a campaign speech in Gettysburg, PA. “Wearing a mask is not a political statement. It’s a scientific recommendation. Social distancing isn’t a political statement. It’s a scientific recommendation.”

However, Biden has launched blistering attacks on Trump’s handling of COVID-19, often saying that he does not understand that containing the virus first will allow the economy to reopen. Biden has also outlined a detailed plan to control the outbreak of COVID-19 when he enters office that includes increasing testing, giving health care workers the PPE they need, hiring contact tracers and safely producing and distributing a vaccine to the American people. Among his other plans for post-COVID-19 recovery is his “Build Back Better” plan, which stresses rebuilding the economy for families, prioritizing education and sustainability, and working to achieve racial justice in America

One attack Trump and Pence have used in their respective debates so far is on Biden’s handling of H1-N1 (Swine Flu) when he served as Vice President under Barack Obama. Yet, comparing these two is like comparing apples and oranges. Although H1-N1 infected more people in the U.S. than COVID-19 so far, it was much less deadly, with a fatality rate of 0.02% and a U.S. death toll of approximately 12,500 deaths, according to the CDC. If it had been more serious, it is impossible to predict how many more fatalities there would have been, especially considering that the response would likely have been much different.

The difference in how each candidate has handled campaign events during the pandemic could not be any more stark. Biden has taken a very conservative approach, with all events having social distancing measures in place. His campaign has had drive-in rallies, with people watching them from their own cars, and his town halls and speeches have all been subdued to meet CDC guidelines. Internally, the campaign has also taken this very seriously, as anyone flying with Biden or Harris has to test negative for COVID-19 before travelling with them. Trump, on the other hand, has held large-scale rallies, some of them indoors, with packed crowds, few masks and no social distancing whatsoever. 

“Biden has been doing his civic duty of wearing a mask and ensuring social distancing, something that we know Trump has not,” Victoria Eachus (‘22) said. “Trump has had events classified as ‘superspreaders’ and created dangerous situations for many, including putting his own health at risk.”

How Americans feel about the state of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., economic recovery and approaches/proposed approaches of controlling the virus and trusting science are set to be some of the key factors as undecided voters choose who to vote for in this presidential election.

Supreme Court:

Following the tragic passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18, President Donald Trump announced the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the position of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States on Sept. 26. Barrett’s previous position was a Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. On Oct. 26, Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court, handing President Trump a victory ahead of the election, and a guarantee of the Supreme Court swinging to the right for many years to come. With only 8 days to the 2020 election, this confirmation marks the shortest interval between a confirmation to the Supreme Court and an election in U.S. history.

As Barrett describes it herself, she is the intellectual heir to the late Justice Antonio Scalia. Like Scalia, Barrett practices originalism, which interprets the Constitution according to what adherents claim is the framers’ intent. She also supports textualism, which interprets laws based on the meaning of words rather than the intentions of the legislators.

In her three years on the U.S Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Barrett grappled with several hot-button political issues. She demonstrated a willingness to curtail the rights held in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. She advocates for a rigid interpretation of the Second Amendment, voted to uphold Trump’s “public charge” rule, which makes it more challenging for immigrants seeking green cards if they rely on public benefits, and wrote an influential decision that granted students accused of sexual assault the ability to sue their schools over the handling of their cases. Prior to becoming a judge, Barrett criticized the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act.

“Many people, including myself, are worried Barrett will reverse RBG’s legacy. Although for many topics she refuses to state her stance on, such as climate change, it is very obvious what her opinions are,” Candace May (‘22) said. “She is very pro-life (even said some abortions should be punishable by death) and also anti LGBTQ+ rights. Her approval poses a huge threat to both women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights.”

This confirmation marks a momentous change in the dynamic of the court. Under the previous 5-4 conservative majority, the conservative swing vote, held by Chief Justice John Roberts, amassed extensive influence. With Barrett’s confirmation, the Supreme Court is now a 6-3 conservative majority, which could have lasting implications on liberal interests into the foreseeable future. This confirmation makes this Supreme Court the most conservative court since the mid-1900s.

The vote was 52-48, with all Democrats voting “no” with only one Republican joining them. Barrett, who was confirmed just 30 days after Trump announced her nomination, is the first nominee in the modern era to be confirmed with no “yes” votes from the opposition party. The White House held a swearing-in ceremony that night.

“I really struggle with the Senate’s choice to push Barrett in, especially since the election is already in motion. Looking back at Obama’s last year, the Republican Senate dragged their feet to prevent the president’s pick to be confirmed,” Eachus said. “They contradict what they said before, that you shouldn’t allow judges to be confirmed in an election year, with their actions this year. It is very unfair and extremely hypocritical.”

Bitter over what they see as Republicans’ hypocrisy in refusing to hold hearings for former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016 but pushed Barrett through on an even faster timeline, Democrats are threatening court packing. Court packing refers to adding more justices to the Supreme Court, going from nine justices to as many as 15 justices.

“It’s extremely frustrating that most judges on the Supreme Court have been appointed by Republican presidents, especially because they blocked many of Obama’s judicial appointments when he was in office,” May said. “While I think balancing the courts would be great, since it would better represent the majority of our nation’s values, I also think it would make Democrats look bad, so there’s pros and cons.”

As for the two candidates’ positions on court packing, Trump is vigorously opposed to it. As he describes it, packing the Supreme Court would ‘permanently destroy the Court’. However, Biden is a more interesting case. Over the course of his campaign, Biden has refused to provide his opinion on court packing— an issue that has become increasingly prevalent in the upcoming election. Despite the constant badgering by moderators, interviewers, and journalists alike, Biden has consistently danced around the issue, not giving a direct opinion on the expanding of the Supreme Court. This is most likely a result of Biden trying not to dissuade any swing voters for whom the integrity of a nine-justice Supreme Court is crucial.

While over 75 million Americans have already voted, this confirmation and the issues that surround it have given many swing voters much to think about. On one hand, voters could see Biden’s refusal to give his opinion on court packing as an open avenue to expanding the court if Biden is elected. 68% of Americans are opposed to court packing. Biden’s continued silence on court packing may prove to backfire, with his refusal to give his opinion on court packing most likely an effort to try not to dissuade swing voters who are opposed to court packing. On the other hand, many voters are opposed to Barrett’s confirmation, with 57% of Americans in favor of letting next year’s president and Senate appoint and confirm Ginsburg’s replacement. Regardless of what views and perspectives a voter has, the confirmation of Barrett has given them much to think about and the outcome of this election will see an influence from the confirmation.

Trump has already questioned the integrity of this year’s election, calling on the Supreme Court to adjudicate election-related questions and claiming that without evidence the election will be a “fraud”. Cases about changes to state election rules have already found their way to the Supreme Court. With hot-button issues like widespread mail-in voting, a potentially prolonged vote count, and an incumbent casting doubt on the results before the election has even happened, the Supreme Court will come into the spotlight more than ever in the next few months. And in this chaotic and unprecedented showdown to the Nov. 3 election, the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett could very much be the deciding factor of this polarizing election. She holds the power to affect the outcome of an acrimonious presidential election, issues like women’s reproductive rights, health care coverage, climate change, and the very fate of America’s future.

Voter Suppression:

Believe it or not, voter suppression is a partisan issue. Voter suppression is a tactic used to prevent or make it difficult for people to cast their ballots through many different means. These strategies have historically targeted African-Americans, who have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party in recent decades. Thus, recent trends show a correlation between high voter turnout, especially among minority voters, and Democratic victories, which has alarmed the Republican Party. As a result, numerous court battles and disputes between candidates have ensued across the country regarding voter registration and mail-in ballot deadlines, voter roll purges and poll watchers.

The greatest fights on these voting rights issues have been in crucial swing states. In Pennsylvania, a mid-September ruling by the state Supreme Court gave voters 3 days after Election Day to turn in their mail-in ballots, to which the Republican Party opposed and attempted to take the ruling to the national Supreme Court. Additionally, in mid-July, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld a Florida law that required felons to pay court fines in order to register to vote, which sparked a push by former New York City Mayor and presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg to raise over $16 million to pay off these fees and register numerous felons to vote.

However, as James Madison Young Democrats Club Co-President Adam Rizzoli (‘21) noted, voter suppression on the ground may be most visible in deep south states.

“In Texas, there are restrictions on who can cast an absentee ballot, rules so there is only one dropbox per county and no cure process for ballots with mistakes on them (which means the states can throw out ballots without an opportunity for voters to fix them,” Rizzoli said. “Here, I strongly suspect that this will reduce turnout in minority and urbanized areas to attempt to reduce the number of Biden votes. Now, this doesn’t make Texas a non-competitive state, it will probably be close, but if Trump wins by a tiny margin, he’ll probably have these voter restrictions to thank.”

Examples like these illustrate how much voting rights mean to each party in their hopes of winning national, state and local elections this fall.

With minority support appearing crucial to Biden’s victory, the Democratic Party has been ‘all hands on-deck’ in overcoming voter suppression, especially after African-American turnout fell 7% in the 2016 presidential election. At campaign events and on social media, Biden and Harris often promote the website iwillvote.com, a website created by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) which provides resources to register to vote, drop off your ballot, and vote by mail. This is just a small taste of their massive push to get out the vote.

“You will determine the outcome of this election,” Biden said at the first presidential debate on September 30. “Vote, vote, vote. If you’re able to vote early in your state, vote early. If you’re able to vote in person, vote in person – whatever way is the best way for you. Because [Trump] cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election.”

Many Democrat grassroots organizations have also worked to combat voter suppression to help Biden win. Groups such as Postcards to Voters and Postcards to Swing States allow people to send postcards to “targeted” voters across the country to get them to register to vote and support Democratic candidates up and down the ticket. The targets of these letters sent are often those of low-income or minority communities, and these efforts, according to Postcards to Swing States, make people 1.2 percent more likely to vote.

“As you can guess, I don’t have a lot of time, so postcard- and letter-writing were the easiest way to feel like I was getting involved in the process,” Vivian Chang, a 40-year-old Los Angeles resident interviewed by The Hill on postcard writing, said.

On the other hand, President Trump has attempted to suppress the vote by casting doubt about the legitimacy of the election, especially regarding mail-in voting. He has perpetuated false claims about ballots being thrown out or lost in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“When I see thousands of ballots dumped in a garbage can, and they happen to have my name on it, I’m not happy about that,” Trump said at an NBC town hall on October 15.

As town hall moderator Savannah Guthrie said, this claim has no evidence, and even FBI Director Christopher Wray said that there is no widespread evidence of mail-in voting fraud. Despite this, Trump has continued with this claim and has even encouraged his supporters to flood the polling locations and become poll watchers, who inspect people casting their ballots to try to ensure there is no fraud. What Trump is describing is an act of voter intimidation, which falls under the tree of voter suppression, and is a misrepresentation of what a poll watcher actually is. Poll watchers are limited to one person that represents each party, and they cannot approach or stop a voter from casting their ballot.

Trump’s own supporters have also taken matters into their own hands to try to stop people from casting their ballots. Most notably, at an early voting location at Fairfax County Government Center, they stood outside the venue and waved flags that said “Trump 2020.” Although election officials said that the group did not prevent anyone from voting, they conceded that some voters and staff felt intimidated.

This example alone shows the effects of Trump’s rhetoric on his supporters in relation to the legitimacy of the election. Trump’s repeated behavior questioning the legitimacy of the election is something to keep an eye out for if the Electoral College tally if he narrowly loses and tries to use his perceived voter suppression to leverage the legal system to support his reelection.