WASHINGTON — The virus that has confined many Americans to their homes for much of 2020 trailed the economy as the leading issue for voters, who cast ballots in huge numbers by mail and in person, early exit polls showed Tuesday.
About 2 in 10 voters said the pandemic that has killed more than 232,000 Americans and upended life around the globe was the most important issue on their minds as they selected a president and other officials to lead the United States out of its more than nine-month public health crisis. About the same number cited racial inequality, according to the data collected by Edison Research, a consortium of television networks.
But about one-third said they were primarily motivated by the economy, including 6 in 10 of the voters who supported President Donald Trump.
A slight majority of voters said it is more important to contain the coronavirus now, even if the necessary measures hurt the economy. About 4 in 10 said the economy is more important, even if restoring the nation’s economic health impedes efforts to limit the spread of the virus.
Amid the resurgence of the coronavirus in much of the United States, preliminary exit polling showed that voters are closely divided on whether U.S. efforts to contain the virus are going “well” or “badly.” But roughly twice as many voters say efforts to control the pandemic have gone “very badly” than say they have gone “very well.”
Millions of voters who cast ballots in person Tuesday were braving the worst stretch of the pandemic to do so. Nearly 88,000 new infections were reported Tuesday, bringing the U.S. total to more than 9.3 million cases. The virus continued its surge through the Midwest and Plains states. Seven states set records for hospitalizations of patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, including Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Control of the White House and the Senate was up for grabs Tuesday, circumstances not lost on voters whose families and finances have been battered by the coronavirus.
“It’s very personal to me, because it’s right in my immediate family,” said Betty Sullivan, 59, as she stood in line to vote in Jackson, Miss., on Tuesday morning.
Two of Sullivan’s sons and three of her grandchildren have contracted the coronavirus. Her oldest son, who is 36 and lives in Atlanta, tested positive after going to a bar. Her youngest son, 32, apparently was infected by a co-worker. Her grandchildren, ages 6, 8 and 14, contracted the virus after being in day care and school in the past three weeks, she said.
“I think in the past, we’ve not really thought too much about voting; we’ve kind of been really, really casual about it sometimes, but, just with everything with the virus, with the pandemic, with the political climate, everybody now really realizes how important it is to get out, to come out and vote,” Sullivan said.
Regardless of the election outcome, the recent staggering increase in coronavirus cases has set the country on a difficult course for the next several weeks. A sharp rise in hospitalizations, already underway, follows the jump in infections, and a subsequent surge in deaths is expected in the weeks after that.
“The trajectory that we’re on is one that we should expect to be on for the coming weeks,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “We should expect to be hunkered down for the coming weeks.”
Stopping a surge in the pandemic, experts said, is extremely difficult.
“The virus doesn’t know elections, doesn’t know borders, doesn’t know demographics,” said Ali Mokdad, a University of Washington epidemiologist. “Unfortunately, the virus is taking its course irrespective of what happens today.
“The election is not going to change the virus,” Mokdad added. “Our behavior, our response to the virus, hopefully will change.”
Barring a major change in behavior, meaning much more widespread adoption of masks, social distancing and other mitigation measures, Mokdad said “some states, a large number of states, will have to do a hard stop, lockdown” by December or January.
Although mortality rates have improved thanks to better medical techniques and drugs, the key driver of the pandemic is rampant community spread in much the country.
“Even a vaccine won’t flick any switch. There will be the hard work of actually vaccinating people,” William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in an email Tuesday.
Columbia University epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman said part of the problem is that human behavior is not easily changed. There is “huge inertia,” he said, and that will make it difficult for officials to slow outbreaks in many parts of the country.
And if the United States follows Europe and enters a new phase of restrictions, there probably will be growing pressure for another large relief package, something Congress has been unable to agree on since the first one expired.
“There’s growing evidence about the need for providing resources to help people comply with public health recommendations,” Nuzzo said. “I fear we have focused on increasing number and type of tests, but have not eliminated the disincentives that people may experience about getting tested. Lost income, in particular.”
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said he hopes that after the election “we can come together as a country and collectively fight the virus and not each other. There are no longer red and blue states, counties or cities. They are all COVID-colored.”
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The Washington Post’s Sarah Fowler in Jackson, Miss., and Scott Clement and Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.