We’re in the grips of a global pandemic. But does it even matter?

This is a question I first brought up a couple of weeks ago, with respect to the voting results from our primary election. Surprisingly — at least to me — the top COVID-denier candidates, those who had downplayed the coronavirus as a hyped-up sham no worse than the flu, all did terrific in our state legislative elections.

Well now there’s more evidence that the issue that was supposed to change everything has actually changed so little it has become just another partisan checkbox, like abortion or guns. In fact for Republicans, the pandemic is already less important than abortion or guns.

These are the findings of a broad ongoing survey of 11,000 Americans by Pew Research Center, in which they ask about important topics in U.S. society.

When they asked what matters to you in the upcoming presidential election, Democrats answered about how I would have expected. More than 80% picked health care and the coronavirus as the top two issues.

But for Trump voters, the coronavirus barely made the list. Only 39% say it matters much, trailing the economy and a host of others, such as crime, immigration, guns and abortion. Coronavirus finished ninth.


What’s interesting is the enormous gap between these two flip sides of our nation. Eighty-two percent of Democrats said the coronavirus is very important, while only 39% of Republicans agreed. That 43-percentage point chasm on what matters is similar to the gap for the issue of climate change (which is important to 68% of blue voters and only 11% of the red).

But climate change is nebulous and off in the future. COVID-19 just killed more than 178,000 Americans and rocked the economy. It’s closed schools, businesses, heck, even some major college football conferences. It’s doing all this right now. No matter what you think we should do about it, from another lockdown to holding a nationwide chicken pox-style party, it’s hard to argue it’s not a big deal — probably the biggest in a generation, since 9/11.

Yet here we are. Not only are we not tackling it as a nation, we’re not even talking about it as one nation.

The Wesleyan Media Project, which studies campaign ads, found this month that the two parties are broadcasting as if to different planets. Ads paid for by the Joe Biden campaign mentioned COVID-19, and what we should do about it, 69% of the time, out of 40,000 television spots aired this summer. But out of nearly 50,000 ad airings, the Trump campaign never mentioned COVID-19 at all (his top issue was crime, in 79% of his ads).

“The two campaigns are talking past each other,” noted the ad-monitoring project, which is co-directed by WSU political science professor Travis Ridout.

This same parallel universe phenomenon is happening in this state. Washington GOP governor candidate Loren Culp has an issues section on his web site that never mentions coronavirus or health care (his top issue also is crime, as well as homelessness). Meanwhile COVID-19 gets a red banner across the top of Gov. Jay Inslee’s campaign site (Inslee does have a vague issues section devoted to justice and safety, so there’s a glimmer of overlap there).


The reason all this matters is that if the campaigns aren’t discussing remotely the same topics, then really it’s barely a campaign at all. Actual issues cease to matter. The election becomes about nothing, besides personalities and partisan stripes.

This can be seen in how the national GOP decided not to make a party platform of ideas this year. Whatever Trump believes, they’re for it. And Trump himself has put out zero forward-looking policy papers this time around (in 2016 he had quite a few), Biden, kicking it old-school as usual, has put out … 46! (No, I haven’t read them all.)

I said up above that this election is about nothing, but that’s not precisely true either. While it hasn’t cohered around any common issues, the Pew survey did ask the 11,000 Americans what qualities they see in the two presidential candidates.

With Trump they like Trump, his image as a strong leader, his style. But for Biden, an overwhelming 56% of his supporters said they aren’t backing him for who he is, or what he stands for, and definitely not for his 46 position papers. It’s for one main thing: “He’s not Trump,” they said.

Election 2020: You’re either for Trump or against him. We should just start the voting and get it over with.