But now, with the election a little over seven months away, we aren’t sure if there will be any canvassing, or rallies, or even party conventions. There may barely be a campaign at all, at least as we’ve come to understand it.
And you know what? Maybe that’s fine.
I say this with some regret, as someone who usually looks forward to the intensity of the presidential campaign, with all its drama and urgency and profound questions about our past, future, and national identity.
But our modern presidential campaigns are also profoundly dysfunctional. So it’s possible that a situation in which the campaign is only the second-most important thing on our minds could make it somewhat less awful.
And it is awful. In fact, before the coronavirus hit, this campaign promised to be one of the most distressing and depressing ones we’ve seen in quite some time. President Trump was certain to pour his particular brand of culture-war poison across the whole country, loading us up with xenophobia and fear-mongering and resentment until we were all swimming in bile and keying each other’s cars.
Which of course he’ll still try to do. He has all the money he needs (despite having already spent over $150 million, his reelection campaign still has almost $80 million in the bank), and there will still be plenty of TV ads and Facebook rage-prods and misinformation flowing out from Trump headquarters.
But a campaign without campaigning sounds kind of nice, especially since not much that candidates do on the campaign trail actually shows you how they’ll perform in office. Presidents don’t have to debate the opposition party by taking 90-second turns while standing at a lectern. They don’t have to hold rallies (though they sometimes do, none more than this president), or crisscross a few battleground states while ignoring the rest of the country. They don’t have to have spontaneous heartwarming interactions with average Americans while the cameras click away to show how much they “connect.”
A campaign without campaigning would leave us in the media with much less to talk about, since so much of campaign news is taken up with whatever micro-controversy has gripped the race on a given day. Without all that ephemeral trivia to occupy us, we’d almost have no choice but to consider more substantive issues, things that really affect people’s lives instead of whether someone used the wrong email.
Or maybe we wouldn’t. I’m being optimistic here, perhaps too much so. Perhaps we’re so used to marinating in fake “issues” that we’d find a way to create them even if the candidates aren’t on the hustings every day.
As I spool out this thought experiment, I should say that things look very different in down-ballot races. Right now there are primary candidates running for Senate and House and state treasurer and every office down to dog catcher whose campaigns have been frozen, and who have almost no ability to talk to people and win their votes. It’s terrible for them.
But there’s a truth we don’t often acknowledge: All that time and energy and money campaigns spend is only because a small number of people either aren’t smart enough or don’t care enough to distinguish between two parties and candidates with drastically different ideas about what we as a country should do next.
If you’re reading this, you’re not among them, and the campaign couldn’t possibly affect you. No ominous 30-second ad, no inspiring speech, no candidate gaffe, no clever stratagem will switch your vote from Republican to Democrat or vice versa. You already know who you’re going to vote for in November, and your mind isn’t going to be changed.
So if the campaign just sort of ran in the background as we deal with a public health crisis and a recession, never so overwhelming that you couldn’t choose not to pay attention to it for a day or a week, would that be so bad?
It might not turn out that way, of course. If we get the coronavirus under control over the next few months and we’re able to resume normal social and economic activity, we’ll still be dealing with the aftereffects but we’ll have the cognitive and emotional space to get properly worked up about the election. Joe Biden will leave his house to start hugging people as he recites the folksy aphorisms his dad passed down to him, and Trump will assemble his supporters to jeer at journalists and cheer for his wall.
Perhaps at that point it will seem like a blessing.