The Memorial Day activities of President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden signified more than their honoring of fallen soldiers. Their decisions to wear or not wear masks may foreshadow a looming battle line in the fall election: risk tolerance.

Biden’s mask was in line with his party’s clear preference for risk avoidance in the face of covid-19. Polls show that Democrats are opposed to opening nonessential businesses until the pandemic is contained, are more worried about personally experiencing covid-19 and believe that social distancing should be maintained until after Sept. 1. These findings add up to a strong desire among Democrats to pay large economic and social prices to mitigate covid-19 risk. These beliefs more than anything else explain why Biden wore a mask: His party base and political coalition would revolt if he did not.

These beliefs will further tailor Biden’s approach to the pandemic and economic reopening as the summer moves on. He cannot be seen as favoring the economy over perceived safety, so he will have to counsel caution and support lockdowns. If he does not, he will stoke divisions within his party that he does not need as he pivots to fight Trump. Biden, therefore, will be the candidate of safety over risk. Because that will entail much greater economic pain than the alternative, he will also continue to support multitrillion-dollar government economic support measures. Biden, the purported centrist, will thus become the candidate of a bigger government that controls when you go back to work and that more people will depend upon for survival.

Trump’s decision to go to Arlington National Cemetery unmasked sends the opposite signal. Trump has always been a risk-taker, and going maskless signifies that he believes it’s time to take some risks to get America’s economy moving again. His base is not yet as on board with that message as Democrats are with Biden’s, as those same polls show Republicans are divided on questions of whether it is safe to reopen the economy now or not. But Republicans are much more optimistic about the length of time it will take to contain covid-19, largely believing it will be contained by the end of summer if they do not already believe it has been contained. Trump is both leading his coalition toward embracing risk and following the large number of his voters who are already tired of the lockdowns.

Trump is essentially gambling that the public will be more supportive of risk-taking in the face of covid-19 by Labor Day than they are today. There’s a lot of reason to believe that might be true. States that have already started to reopen have not seen a large resurgence of the virus. If this continues, more people will surely begin to want to experience a more normal life and will feel it is safe to do so. Trump will already have established himself as the candidate of rebirth while Biden and his base will likely remain more scared of the future than the public as a whole. Advantage, Trump.

This will likely come to a head at the parties’ end-of-summer conventions. It’s hard to see how the Democrats hold an in-person convention, given their voters’ fears. And if they say in late July that it is now safe to act normally and hold a traditional convention, they will implicitly make the point that Trump has managed the crisis well enough that people can return to past behaviors. Even if Democrats denied such a concession, Trump would draw it for them. Thus, they will almost certainly hold a virtual convention, with delegates assembling online and the Democratic ticket addressing the nation without the massive crowds that normally attend such occasions.

Trump knows this, which is why he is pushing publicly for a full, traditional convention in North Carolina in late August. His weekend tweet that Roy Cooper, the state’s Democratic governor, is holding him back was calculated to create this contrast. He will certainly follow through with threats to move the convention to a Republican-held state if denied the in-person gathering he seeks. Again, Trump is gambling that the pandemic will fade enough by then that voters will have changed their minds about risk and see him as the leader they need going forward.

Voters today remain more scared than hopeful, so Biden’s ploy works for now. But don’t be surprised if the political tables turn in Trump’s favor on this crucial question by September.

Democratic Party strategist and lawyer Marc Elias says that flaws in ballot design are often overlooked but have huge repercussions on elections. (The Washington Post)

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