Covid defined the political landscape for 18 months, lifting Joe Biden to the White House and commanding the near-singular attention of the electorate.
But its political shelf life may be coming to an end.
While the pandemic is nowhere near over, Covid is fading as an issue that animates voters. It’s evident from recent polls in the off-year New Jersey and Virginia elections, where pre-pandemic concerns like taxes, the economy and schools now rank as the top voter priorities. Strategists of both parties are advising candidates to shift their focus ahead of the midterm elections in 2022. Already, political advertising related to the pandemic has fallen off sharply from earlier this year.
“Everybody’s just ready to move on,” said Julie Roginsky, a former top adviser to Gov. Phil Murphy, the New Jersey Democrat who is favored to win reelection on Tuesday. “It’s been 18 months, and whether the science merits it or not, the public’s ready to move on. … They’ve reverted back to the issues they’ve always cared about, which had been put on pause for the past 18 months.”
The demise of the Covid-centric campaign is, in part, a natural reaction to improving conditions surrounding the pandemic, with deaths declining, schools and businesses reopening and vaccines available in abundance.
But the political fallout may be severe, especially for Democrats who ran hard on the pandemic in 2020, capitalizing on public sentiment that largely favored their party’s management of the crisis. As interest in Covid fades, Democrats may lose one of their most compelling campaign planks a little more than a year before a critical midterm election in which the party is already facing headwinds.
“It takes away a great issue,” said Ben Tribbett, a longtime Democratic strategist based in Virginia.
The evidence of Covid fatigue is everywhere. In the closing days of a bitterly contested gubernatorial race in Virginia, 23 percent of voters ranked Covid as one of their top two voting issues, according to a recent Monmouth University poll. That’s down nearly 10 percentage points from the previous month. Just 11 percent of voters rank the pandemic as the most important issue in deciding their vote for governor — far behind jobs and the economy, as well as education and schools.
In New Jersey, where Murphy is facing a challenge from Republican Jack Ciattarelli, Covid has fallen behind jobs and the economy, taxes and education among voters’ lists of concerns.
Campaigns are rapidly adjusting to the new reality. In the final two weeks of October, coronavirus-related advertising accounted for less than 6 percent of total broadcast spending nationally. That’s a significant decline from the 20 percent of ad share that Covid-related spending accounted for in October 2020, when $245 million was spent on Covid-related political ads, according to data compiled for POLITICO by AdImpact, an ad tracking firm.
“The world is shifting,” said Danielle Cendejas, a Democratic mail strategist whose firm did campaign mail for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. “If you’re fine and you’ve gotten vaccinated, you’re kind of saying, ‘What are you doing for me next? ‘… That’s where voters are at, and as Democrats, we have to deliver.”
Perhaps nowhere has the sea change surrounding the pandemic been felt more acutely than in Virginia. As recently as September, Democrat Terry McAuliffe was savaging his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, for not supporting pandemic-related government mandates. But only a month later, while maintaining that pandemic-related hits on Youngkin had been “baked in,” a McAuliffe adviser acknowledged messaging surrounding the pandemic had “tapered off” as pandemic conditions improved. The campaign is instead pounding on abortion rights and tethering Youngkin to former President Donald Trump in an effort to turn out base voters.
It was no accident that Biden, appearing with McAuliffe in Arlington, Va., last week, mentioned “Trump” 24 times — nearly 20 more times than he mentioned the pandemic.
The imperative for McAuliffe to move away from Covid messaging is obvious. By a 10 percentage point margin, Virginia voters trust him to do a better job than Youngkin handling the pandemic, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll released Friday. But in part because the pandemic is less concerning overall to voters, the race is nevertheless nearly tied.
Youngkin’s campaign also finds little utility in Covid, with the campaign’s closing argument reverting to more traditional, pre-pandemic hits. “It’s better schools, safer streets, lower cost of living,” a Youngkin adviser said.
Between McAuliffe, Youngkin and candidates running in other elections in Virginia, according to AdImpact, Covid-related ad spending in the commonwealth fell to just below 7 percent of all broadcast spending in the final full two weeks of the campaign.
“It certainly doesn’t appear from being on the ground in Virginia that the public is really concerned about the Covid situation in any way like they were over the last 18 months,” Tribbett said.
Even if the public does rate McAuliffe relatively favorably on the pandemic, he said, “that doesn’t matter if people aren’t voting on that issue.”
One Democratic strategist who has worked on multiple state and presidential campaigns said that for Democrats in 2022, invoking Covid might be useful to paint Republicans as anti-vaccine extremists — as McAuliffe did again on Sunday, when he told NBC’s Chuck Todd that he still gets asked every day about Covid. Incumbent Democratic governors in states where Covid numbers have fallen may also use it as a means of highlighting a record of competent leadership.
However, he said, “The days of ‘I’m the hero on Covid’ are over. … I think everybody’s just really tired of talking about it, wearing masks, thinking about it. It’s just kind of faded.”
The relegation of Covid to a second-class issue is a conspicuous departure from the summer, when California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, campaigned heavily on his adoption of mask and vaccine mandates — and his main Republican opponent’s opposition to them — to put a recall campaign against him out of reach. The governor’s advisers heralded the aggressive posture on Covid as a model for the midterms, and just last week, Newsom was appealing to Democrats across the nation to recognize that “it’s Covid, stupid.”
Like other Democrats, Newsom predicted that Biden’s slumping public approval rating — a major concern to the party ahead of the midterms — would rebound if the president makes progress on his spending proposals and “as long as the focus reverts immediately back to the reason why he was elected in the first place, and that was to get Covid behind us.”
In fact, the pandemic is not even close to being finished. It’s still killing more than 1,000 people a day in the United States, and vaccines still aren’t available for young children — though they appear likely to be imminently, perhaps as soon as this week. The White House and many Democrats nationally have approached Covid as inseparable from Biden’s broader agenda, believing that stamping out the virus will allow for a fuller reopening and economic gains. If pandemic conditions continue to improve, infrastructure and social spending measures are passed and the economy reacts favorably, Democrats may benefit from an electorate in a better overall mood next year.
“I don’t think we need people to get sick to win an election,” said James Carville, the former Bill Clinton strategist who has been part of a furious effort to raise money for McAuliffe in recent weeks. Arguing that an improving economy and public health situation could lift the incumbent party next year, he said, “I don’t know how good this is for Democrats, but I can’t imagine that it’s bad.”
If Covid continues to lose salience politically, Republicans have something to lose, too. For more than a year, they have raised money and appealed to base voters by criticizing vaccine mandates and other broadly popular Covid-related restrictions. Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota have built entire profiles on their anti-restriction policies ahead of potential presidential runs in 2024. As Covid restrictions are relaxed, the intensity of Republican opposition to them will likely wane, as well.
Gregg Peppin, a Republican strategist in Minnesota, where the GOP has excoriated Democratic Gov. Tim Walz for Covid restrictions, said he has been advising Republicans in his state recently to find other issues to talk about. The pandemic, he said, is likely “not going to be a game changer” in 2022.
“I just don’t think you’re going to be able to ride Covid to the governor’s mansion,” he said. “Most people are over it.”