But this is 2020, and everything is different. All of the usual activity that makes up the longest and most expensive political race in the world—campaign staffers and reporters criss-crossing the country on flights and buses, diner visits, town halls, massive rallies—have been (mostly) wiped from the schedule. (President Donald Trump is still holding outdoor rallies, albeit far fewer than he did in 2016.) Campaign events—at least, on one side—are muffled by masks, or shifted to Zoom, or suddenly canceled when somebody has to quarantine. A presidential debate was canceled three weeks before Election Day, and what people felt most was relief. On Monday, Joe Biden called a lid on all campaign events until after the debate with Trump Thursday night—throwing away full four days of the campaign two weeks before Election Day. The conventions took place in a digital void, with awkward speeches delivered in empty rooms, to no applause.
The events that usually mark the beginning, middle and end of the election season have been overshadowed by crises, or pushed into cyberspace, and people are disoriented. “A Big 2020 Campaign Question: Wait, What Day Is It?” asked a New York Times headline in September. “Does it feel to anyone else like we are completely stuck in time and no longer getting closer to an Election Day that may never actually come?” POLITICO reporter Ben White recently asked on Twitter, drawing agreement from across the country. One grandmother from Kansas summed up the reaction: “Groundhog Day. Or Constantly On A Hamster Wheel.”
One reason the campaign feels so unchanging is the sense that no one has anything left to decide. The polls are largely stagnant, and who trusts polls? Four years ago at this time, they showed Hillary Clinton with a double-digit lead. Americans are isolated in their homes, glued to partisan bubbles on Twitter and cable news, having even fewer conversations with people with opposing views.
And so we have something like a war of attrition: Two sides dug in at their homes, leaving only for grocery runs, not changing their opinion as a result of any new developments. Now, we just wait until it all passes. The pandemic worsened the trend, but it’s what our culture of pitched partisanship has been leading to for decades: an election where no one changes their mind, and the campaign itself slowly disappears. The worst part? This year, no one knows when it will end.
It’s the rituals that Brad Woodhouse misses most. The Democratic operative has been in the thick of presidential politics for years—working for the Democratic National Committee in 2008 and 2012, running a super PAC for Clinton in 2016. And there’s something about that final-stretch energy that keeps a staff charged, even when they’re running on fumes. “You’re trying to win the day, and it’s kinetic,” he says of a typical campaign. There are six packs shared on bus tours at the end of long days, moments huddled around a video screen, high-fives in the war room when a piece of oppo research lands. “Sometime about 100 days out,” he says, “you tell the most junior person on the totem pole, ‘Go get a big notebook and count the days down from 100.’” A hundred pieces of paper get tacked on the wall, and one gets ripped off and crumbled each day, a countdown to glory or defeat.
This year, Woodhouse runs Protect Our Care, a 501(c)4 in support of the Affordable Care Act. The war room they had fashioned at a WeWork shut down in the spring, a casualty of the pandemic. Now, there are no wall displays, no huddles—just lonely operatives on separate screens, sending digital high-fives via emoji. “It makes the whole thing a little surreal,” Woodhouse says. “Wow, we’re two weeks away? I’m not knocking on doors, I’m not standing up at a podium in front of a bus, I’m not sending someone out with a per diem to get that electoral vote in Maine.” It’s hard to be a political hand without a physical operation.
From a voter’s perspective, the attention from operatives like Woodhouse is as unforgiving as it would be in any election year. But it feels especially unyielding and repetitive—and none of it is persuasive.
All of those the faux-friendly texts or social media reminders aren’t changing Kristian Chyrssofos’ opinion. She favored Bernie Sanders in the primary, and will vote for Biden because he isn’t Trump: “Is there someone better? Yeah, there probably was, but if this is what I have, this is what I have.”
The rest of her family won’t change, either. They’re from southern West Virginia and support Trump, through and through. They say he speaks the truth. They’re appalled by people who cross the border illegally or loot in cities. Chryssofos’ father refuses to wear a mask. When he visits her in Pittsburgh, where masks are mandatory in stores, he won’t go outside. “Whatever he needs,” she says wryly, “he’ll just give you a list.” Chryssofos has learned not to talk politics with relatives, for the sake of peace.
In Boston, Mishka Char, 40, has made the same calculation. He grew up in Colorado, works for a municipal government and thus didn’t want to tell me who he supports in the presidential race. But he would say that his cousins halfway across the country feel differently. “I know who they’re voting for, and they know who I voted for,” he says. In the biweekly check-in calls they’ve held since the start of the pandemic, politics are not discussed.
The candidates themselves can’t even be forced to talk civilly. In the first debate, two 70-somethings—men who have sat in rooms at the highest levels of power—argued like a pair of fifth-grade boys as moderator Chris Wallace played the part of an impotent guidance counselor. Trump kept interrupting Biden, which kept derailing any point Biden was trying to make; Biden eventually devolved into insulting Trump and asking him to “shut up.” Biden kept gazing directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall, as if looking for an escape. It was so far from politics as usual that voters didn’t seem to know what to make of it: When CBS News polled viewers afterward, only 17 percent said they felt “informed” by the debate; 31 percent said they felt “entertained.” Fully 69 percent said they were “annoyed.”
In Daytona Beach, Florida, graduate student Gianna Schock was appalled. “Oh my god,” the 26-year-old remembers thinking. “They’re all just saying words and their words have no meaning to me. Do you hear yourselves? … Just watching those two interact just really made it clear that these two are terrible for us.” Like Chryssofos, Schock is unlucky enough to live in a swing state, so she’s been bombarded with texts and calls from the campaigns, which she deletes without reading. Lately, she’s also started muting terms on Twitter: “pandemic,” “coronavirus,” “covid19,” “election2020.” She’s investigating third-party candidates.
That sense of overload is one reason so few seemed to mind when Trump’s Covid-19 diagnoses led the next debate to be canceled. The replacement was, perhaps, an even better metaphor for the campaign overall: town halls that took place at exactly the same time, as if in parallel universes. Though Woodhouse would never abandon the Democrats, he flipped between the two, though stuck largely with Trump, whom he figured would have more fireworks. “How do you turn away from an accident?” he says.
Nobody seems to believe that anyone else is still making up their minds, either. The spectators in both town halls were supposedly undecided, but many weren’t buying it. Among Biden fans, there was snide speculation about the women who sat behind Trump and nodded vigorously at his answers. (“I don’t know who the nodding bobble head is behind Trump but someone on the Trump communications team finally earned their pay,” tweeted Tom Nichols, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans.) In the conservative press, stories circulated about how the voters at Biden’s event had been on record supporting the former vice president.
It’s clear that not all of them were enthusiastic Biden supporters—but these people, too, seemed to have already made up their mind on the former vice president. One young man asked a pointed question about the fate of Black Americans; Biden responded with an answer that dragged on for many minutes about opportunities to build wealth. When moderator George Stephanopoulos asked whether the questioner got what he needed, he answered, “I guess,” looking visibly unconvinced. In a campaign like this one, would a good answer have changed anything?
So around the country, people are reading tea leaves, trying to extrapolate from tiny anecdotes—one professor in Georgia told me she noticed one neighbor had scraped a Trump bumper sticker off his car a few weeks back. Schock notes that, since the spring, a cluster of Trump voters have held a DIY rally every Sunday outside the Walgreens where she works. Chryssofos sees Trump signs populate lawns in Pittsburgh and West Virginia: “No one I have spoken to or I know personally who voted for him in 2016,” she says, “thinks that he should change or he should do anything different.” Some partisans are making last-ditch grassroots efforts to affect the outcome, get out the vote, or at least feel like they’re doing something—sending hundreds of postcards to voters in swing states, the analog equivalent of the texts Schock and Chryssofos get every week.
And many voters are feeling like my friend Jen Kelly, a marketing executive outside Boston who rides the campaign like a roller coaster, her mood shifting with each new swipe of the social media scroll. The day early voting opened in her town, she posted pictures of herself, triumphant, on social media. A few days later, she was back to worrying that Trump will win; the good cheer, she told me wistfully, “was just my delusional voting high.” The next day, she called me from her drive in to work to say she’d just listened to Pod Save America, heard them talk about Biden spending money in swing states, and felt hopeful again.
What makes this state of campaign stasis so much worse is the fact that nobody really knows when it will end. American voters usually have a heated campaign season in which voters make up their minds, go to the polls and make a decision together—and we consider the big questions settled.
But there’s likely to be little firm resolution this year. Election Day might not yield any solid results. One new study suggests that, based on who votes in person and who votes by mail, Trump could be winning on election night but losing by week’s end.
And many fear that, if Trump loses, he’ll claim widespread election fraud and refuse to step down. “Never in my lifetime has a presidential candidate, let alone the incumbent, said ‘I may not accept the outcome of the election if I lose,” says Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. “It’s easy to dismiss that because, ‘Oh, that’s just Trump being Trump.’ My only point is that it raises the stakes for the implications of the survival of democratic norms. If the election only matters if you win, it’s not an election.”
So even the act of voting itself feels different this year, more fraught and fuzzy. Chystoffos and her best friend each received three mail-in ballots apiece, which gives her little faith in the integrity of the process. “Even if I send those in, who’s to say that those get counted?” she says. “At least I know, if I go in person, I know that my vote is counted.”
But sometimes, voting can be an antidote, too. In Boston, on a glorious October Sunday, Mishka Char left his house and went to Fenway Park, where the Boston Election Commission was running two days of early voting. The wait lasted well over an hour, a line of citizens wrapping down Lansdowne Street and through Gate A. It was civic duty mixed with a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Char says. Everyone was in a good mood.
Afterward, Char texted one of his cousins. Yes, we have different political views, he wrote, but I just want you to know that I voted at Fenway Park. The cousin responded: That’s pretty cool.
Char went home that day with a sense of relief. “It just feels good to get it done,” he says. He’s eager for an end—not just for himself, but for his family and friends, and for a country that hasn’t been able to move forward. “I kind of feel like the world is watching us, and seeing how we’re going to handle this, how we’re going to handle the election and how we’re going to handle the pandemic,” he says. “It would be nice if the world doesn’t have to watch us anymore.”
Now, he just has to mark the days off and wait.