In Episode 8, President Iuliano and Bruce Larson, chair and professor of political science at the College, make sense of how the COVID-19 outbreak has and will continue to impact ongoing primary elections across the country, how the current administration’s response to the health crisis today may affect the presidential election in November, and more.
In Episode 8 of Conversations Beneath the Cupola, podcast host, Gettysburg College President Robert W. Iuliano is joined by Chair and Prof. of Political Science Bruce Larson. Iuliano and Larson discuss how the COVID-19 outbreak has and will continue to impact ongoing primary elections across the country, how the administration’s response to the health crisis today may affect the presidential election in November, and more.
The episode begins with Larson making sense of the current health situation from a political angle, particularly looking back over time. During the ongoing primary elections, it is a health risk to show up at the polls, and he says the uncertainty about how long the virus and subsequent closures will last, make this context fairly unique in American political history. He shares that the closest event in history to what the country is experiencing now, was the flu pandemic of 1918.
The conversation continues as Iuliano asks Larson about the practicality of the government, in short notice, introducing a new means of voting that would still be fair and that wouldn’t undermine legitimacy. Larson notes that several states are currently implementing mail-in voting, and looking at the scenario from an observer’s point of view, he says Democrats typically favor and benefit from mail-in balloting. Beyond the effects of mail-in voting positively affecting one political party over the other, Larson shares that he doesn’t think that the COVID-19 situation will help people with differing views find common ground, though he wishes it would.
Looking forward to the November presidential election, Larson says its uncharted territory. On the day the podcast conversation took place, it was 209 days until election day, and Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race. What’s in store in the months to come is uncertain, but Larson predicts that it may be another close election.
The episode concludes with an anecdotal “Slice of Life” told through the president’s perspective. Iuliano spotlights biology major Julia Palmucci ’18, who read about an older couple who was anxious about visiting the grocery store amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and she saw an opportunity to help. She and a team of friends have since joined together to help at-risk populations by picking up their groceries or running other essential errands.
Guests featured in this episode
Bruce Larson, Chairperson and Prof. of Political Science.
Bruce Larson: I keep thinking that Alexander Hamilton would be saying, “Let’s go. Let’s move along here. Let’s use everything we can to break this virus.”
President Bob Iuliano: Hi, and welcome to Conversations Beneath the Cupola, a Gettysburg College podcast. I’m Bob Iuliano, President at the College and your host. As the global outbreak of COVID-19 continues to progress, we are all trying to make sense of the significant changes that have been made to the way we live. During this time, we are using this podcast to explore the uncertainty that surrounds some of these changes with the guidance and expertise of Gettysburg faculty. Today we are joined by Bruce Larson, Chair and Professor of Political Science at the College. A specialist in American political institutions and processes, he teaches and conducts research on a variety of topics including the US Congress, political parties and elections. Bruce will use this background to help us make sense of how the COVID-19 outbreak has and will continue to impact ongoing primary elections across the country, how the administration’s response to the healthcare crisis today may affect the presidential election in November, and so much more.
President Bob Iuliano: Bruce, over the past couple of weeks, I’ve really had the privilege of interviewing a couple of your and my colleagues on the faculty. How do you evaluate this in the political side? Is there any analog to this that we should be having in mind, any lessons that we ought to be taking from this? I’m mindful of yesterday’s events in Wisconsin where people had to choose between voting and their wellbeing. How do we make sense of this from a political angle, looking back over time?
Bruce Larson: Well, I think, Bob, the combination here of several things, of severe economic fallout, of an ongoing presidential campaign, in which, as you point out, it’s a health risk to show up at the polls, and the uncertainty about how long the closures will last, make this context fairly unique in American political history. I was thinking about history a little bit, and we’ll have to get some historians in on this, but maybe the closest historical analog, at least absent the economic fallout, was the flu pandemic of 1918 in the United States, which by the way, killed 675,000 Americans.
President Bob Iuliano: Which is staggering when you think about that as a percentage of the population.
Bruce Larson: Absolutely, which was much smaller then. State and local governments still managed to coordinate and hold the 1918 midterm elections. It was the midterm elections. Some states did some innovative things. Nebraska, for example, lifted the statewide ban on public gatherings five days before the elections so candidates could go out and campaign. My understanding was there was some negative health consequences of that as well. Turnout was really low in 1918 though, even for a midterm election. I’ll note then, the stakes were high, right? World War I was winding down. Woodrow Wilson’s Democrats were trying to fight to hold onto their majorities in Congress. By the way, they failed. Republicans ended up winning control of both chambers back for the first time in a decade.
President Bob Iuliano: You note that Wilson didn’t succeed. That bears on a question that’s been on my mind, and that is, how do we think about the legitimacy of a democratic process when events like this take place and necessarily circumscribe even now the capacity of candidates to have the attention that they would otherwise have to talk to the American public about their ideas?
Bruce Larson: My assumption is that higher voter turnout leads to more democratic legitimacy. You want public engagement in these big questions. It becomes, at least for me, problematic when people do need to make a choice between risking their health and showing up at the polls. I think there are some questions of legitimacy here. Let me point out too that, and this of course isn’t because of politics, but so far the pandemic seems to have had a greater effect on blue states, not because they’re blue states, but because blue states tend to be more urban and densely populated. That also can play into some of these questions of legitimacy as well. We’ll have to see. I mean, it’s not something we want to play with, right? People want to feel like an election is won on an even playing field and fairly and squarely. If people don’t feel like they can come out to vote without risking health, that I think poses problems.
President Bob Iuliano: You mentioned that Nebraska opened five days early to let candidates campaign, but it had negative health consequences. You’ve seen states today react in very different ways to the challenges associated with running elections. Some states have deferred. Wisconsin went ahead. The governor was trying to think about whether there were alternative means of conducting an election. Have you seen examples of alternative means other than in-person voting happen on a large scale? Another way perhaps of asking this question is, how practical is it that the government in short notice could stand up a new means of conducting an election that would still be fair and that wouldn’t have problems of fraud or other voter issues that may have the same effect of undermining legitimacy?
Bruce Larson: Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, let me say first, there are indeed effective alternatives to in-person voting and mainly that’s mail-in balloting. Currently, there are actually three states, Oregon and Washington state and Colorado, where voting is conducted exclusively by mail. That’s the way it occurs. Actually for most of California, most precincts in California, that is true as well. This already exists. Actually, my understanding of Oregon is that it has been using mail-in balloting since 1998. It’s not even necessarily a new thing.
President Bob Iuliano: I confess, I did not know that. That’s a really interesting fact.
Bruce Larson: Yeah, but as you point out, there are logistical and actually political difficulties for many states to implement mail-in voting by 2020 and in a relatively short time. Let’s start with logistical, right? Many states are just overwhelmed right now, trying to contain the spread of COVID-19. Many states are also facing staggering losses of budget revenues. Governor Hogan in Maryland, Bob Hogan for example, estimated the state would probably lose 20 to 30% of its budget revenues. There are those difficulties. Now of course Congress could help pay for some of these if it wanted to do that.
Bruce Larson: I think this, to some extent, is where partisan politics comes into play. There’s a strong sense that, and I say this as an observer, not as a partisan, there’s a strong sense among both Democrats and Republicans that mail-in balloting benefits Democrats. That makes sense, right? Democrats tend to have a more, at least to some extent, lower-income constituency, not completely. The barriers on low income people are higher for voting already. When you lower the barriers, it tends to help people that tend to, but not always, vote for Democrats. Not surprisingly, Democrats favor mail-in balloting far more than Republicans do. We saw that happen. We saw this play out in Wisconsin for the past couple of days, right?
President Bob Iuliano: In Wisconsin [crosstalk 00:08:34].
Bruce Larson: There’s a bunch of bills floating around right now in Congress. For example, there’s a bill by Amy Klobuchar, Senator from Minnesota, and Ron Wyden from Oregon, that would mandate that states provide voters with so-called no excuse necessary absentee ballots and/or printable ballots, the latter of which are reserved exclusively right now for overseas and military voters. The bill authorizes Congress to pay states for the cost of implementing it. There are a couple of bills in place. I looked at that legislation, so far it has 24 co-sponsors, all of whom are Democrats, not surprisingly.
President Bob Iuliano: Democrats, well, again, for the reasons you said.
Bruce Larson: That’s a signal to me that this is not going to go anywhere, at least not now and at least not in its current form.
President Bob Iuliano: Well, this may then raise the question of, we have seen in the primaries, the states, and to some extent the parties, control the rules for voting. As you know, I was a government major in my college. You think I would know the answer to this, but I don’t. Who controls the rules and access to the ballot box in the national election, in the presidential election? Are those rules still set by states or is it set by the United States government?
Bruce Larson: It’s a mix. It’s a mix. Campaign finance laws, for example, for federal elections are all set at the national level by Congress, but state voting rules are set by states, for the most part. It’s a mix though, because there are various constitutional amendments saying what states can’t do in terms of voting requirements. It’s a real mix of both state law ... By state law I mean, are we going to have early voting? Are we going to have a week earlier than the election to allow people to come to the voting booth? Are we going to have mail-in balloting? Those questions are state questions. Questions about who has the right to vote and preventing discrimination at the state level have been federal questions, and campaign finance as well.
President Bob Iuliano: Could the federal government, if it wanted to, come in and preempt the field and say, “In light of the circumstances, unusual as they are this year, we’re going to impose a uniform set of rules on the way in which this election takes place?”
Bruce Larson: Sure. I mean, Congress can do anything. I mean, it has broad powers. Now, that probably wouldn’t happen because there is a lot of opposition to it in the Senate.
President Bob Iuliano: There’s a divided House in the Senate and ... Yes.
Bruce Larson: Yeah. We have a more conservative court right now that would very likely consider that an over-reach of congressional power that Congress should not be exercising. This is something like, for example, under the Warren court that might’ve happened, but not now. An example of this, and I’m not sure that people know this, part of the Wisconsin law, and that was a push by a lower federal court I think, to expand, and I don’t know exactly what the details are, was to expand the postmark date for absentee ballots past the election day. I believe a federal court upheld that and the Supreme Court turned it down.
President Bob Iuliano: Just the other day.
Bruce Larson: ... and said that federal courts ought not to be in the business of changing election laws so close to election day. There’s an incredible amount of conflict in this area. Of course, let me say one last thing on that too, Bob, partly because of the court’s decision in Shelby County versus Holder in 2013, where the court gutted Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, states have had more latitude now on the extent to which they can pass things like voter ID laws, because these states don’t need federal pre-clearance anymore as they used to need.
President Bob Iuliano: It is interesting. I have not read the Supreme Court’s decision, but obviously it didn’t seem to take cognizance of the fact that this was an unusual moment in time, and it applied its prior precedent somewhat automatically rather than, and I don’t mean this as a criticism as much as I do as an observation, rather than really diving into the unusual moment and whether that might justify a different way of looking at the precedent that was established. Again, not as a criticism, really just more as an observation.
Bruce Larson: Yeah, absolutely.
President Bob Iuliano: One of the things that you and I have spent time in my short time on this campus talking about is the regrettable rise of polarization in all aspects of American life, but particularly in American political life. It has often been said that nothing like a good crisis to find common ground. Do you see any signs that this crisis is beginning to create the possibility of more common ground, particularly in Washington? If you’re not seeing it now, do you see the possibility from it that it is coming down the road?
Bruce Larson: I want to see it, but I don’t, actually. At least maybe at the community and state and local level we’ll see more unity as communities rally around and gather around each other to help people, but I have to say, I think at the national level in particular, I think the country will remain fairly divided. I think that for several reasons. I’ve been thinking a lot about this this year and have been reading a lot about it. Here’s the way I’m thinking about this. Most people just don’t pay that much attention to politics, right? You and I are fascinated by this and we could talk about it endlessly and we want everyone to share our passion, but they don’t, right? They’re busy. They have a multitude of different interests. There are a lot of things, more than ever in fact now, competing for their attention, right?
Bruce Larson: The result is that people rely on cognitive shortcuts, in particular now, their political and social identities in interpreting politics and in making their vote choices as well. In the last two decades, we’ve seen an increase in the effect of party identification, in other words, the attachment one has to a party. It’s become almost inseparable from someone’s social identity now. That’s loomed large as a lens through which people interpret and absorb political events right now. Key to this way of thinking about it is that a lot of people now surround themselves with friends and inhabit media echo chambers that reinforce their existing political and partisan beliefs.
Bruce Larson: Here’s a great example. Pew Center for the People & the Press has done some great survey work on this. I love Pew because they put their data online for number crunchers like me to download and then use in my classes and things. They put a survey in the field at the end of March asking respondents how much confidence they had in President Trump’s handling of the crisis. Actually, the results are really instructive. Among Republican respondents, 90% said they were somewhat or very confident in the President’s ability to handle the crisis. In contrast, among Democratic respondents, that number was 13%. 68% of Democrats said they had no confidence at all. At 38%, independents, which there are fewer now, we’re somewhere in between. They were looking a bit more like Democrats.
Bruce Larson: People are looking even at this event, it’s the same event for everybody, but we’re looking at it through a partisan lens. Reinforcing all of this is that there’s a presidential campaign going on right now. Campaigns are inherently divisive, right? The aim for each side in any campaign is to distinguish themselves from the other side. That’s going to reinforce, I think, this divide. You’re going to see it pop up on voting, on mail-in balloting and so on.
President Bob Iuliano: You know that one of my themes has been figuring out how we can reinforce this college’s orientation towards creating people who are engaged in the world, who build bridges, build coalitions to reach across difference effectively. All of these impulses are pushing in different directions. By the way, it’s not quite the same as saying we want to graduate centrists.
Bruce Larson: No, not at all.
President Bob Iuliano: That’s not the proposition. Rather, the proposition is we want to graduate people with capacious minds, the ability to hear and listen, absorb, take in argument, evaluate their own position openly, and with some honesty behind that.
Bruce Larson: Yes.
President Bob Iuliano: All of these impulses that you’ve identified strike me as pushing against that direction. I guess my question is this, if a moment like this doesn’t begin to cause those sinews to loosen a little bit, what will? That is, are we in this trend of hyper polarization indefinitely in your view?
Bruce Larson: No, I think, and I’m going to be optimistic here, but I’m also, in being optimistic, attribute a role to ourselves. I think we can maybe grow out of it. By grow out of it I mean, we demonstrate for students how problematic this is. We can say to students, and I’ve been trying to think about how to say this, and it is consistent with what you’re saying, we don’t need to graduate centrists. Is there something called a good partisanship? I think there is, right? I think a good partisan is someone who stands for principle or for something publicly, but to recognize that he or she does not see the whole of things and to be intensely curious about those things you don’t see yet.
President Bob Iuliano: I like that. I would add one other thing, and to recognize that particularly in the world of governance, there is a responsibility to govern the polity as a whole, and it’s not just a winner take all system, and that sometime compromise, which right now in Washington seems unpopular, has a value because it broadens legitimacy across the entire political spectrum. We all have a stake in a government that is understood to be legitimate. That’s my own personal view, for whatever it’s worth.
Bruce Larson: I love that.
President Bob Iuliano: You probably occasionally ask your students to engage in acts of conjecture, so I will ask you to do so as well. How do you see the virus and the economic social dislocation that we have experienced? What do you see its impact being on the general election in the fall? You can answer that either substantively in outcomes or process-based, however you imagine it.
Bruce Larson: Well, it’s the big question, right? It’s one of the big questions. I’m going to preface my answer with a caveat, that there’s so much uncertainty right now, but I will say this, and again, given that people absorb political information now through a highly partisan lens and that campaigns are designed to reinforce and activate that partisanship, remind voters of it, I think this could be another close election. I don’t think it’s like 1932 where voters deserted Hoover in droves and went to FDR, because this is not the same kind of political and media environment then as it is now. It could even be a replay of 2016 where Democrats win the popular vote but Trump wins the electoral college vote. We don’t know.
Bruce Larson: I think it’s really difficult to move voters out of their political silos. There are independents of course, but it’s a shrinking number. They tend to be closet partisans who typically vote one way most of the time, but they call themselves independents. Campaigns can sometimes move the needle, right? Elections are won at the margins. I mean, I think about this, a shift of about 70,000 voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would have put Clinton in the White House in 2016. It’s possible that events combined with an effective Democratic campaign would give Democrats a victory in 2020, but it’s so uncertain right now.
Bruce Larson: I want to stress that uncertainty in a couple of ways. I think we’re really in uncharted territory, at least right now, politically speaking, right? There are, I counted, 209 days to go before the election, right? Things are fluid. In fact, as we were planning this conversation, Bernie Sanders completely changed the dynamics by dropping out of the race. I’m wondering what will be different when we stop talking and we go check the news again, right? What other ...
President Bob Iuliano: Sure. Yeah, sure.
Bruce Larson: I think a lot can happen in 209 days. I’m hesitant to make any sweeping predictions. I’ve certainly got in trouble for that in the past, but I will say that I think it really depends on how long this goes and in how much people continue to look at the event and the response to it in the economic fallout through a fairly intensely partisan lens.
President Bob Iuliano: Let me just pull on one little string on that, and that is that ... Geez, why am I forgetting which of the politicians said the economy’s stupid?
Bruce Larson: Bill Clinton.
President Bob Iuliano: Bill Clinton. The economy is not in very good shape at the moment.
Bruce Larson: No.
President Bob Iuliano: In ordinary times, wouldn’t that, and maybe this is the point you were making, in ordinary times that would augur poorly for the incumbents?
Bruce Larson: Yeah, absolutely. In most times, and this is the big ... You’re nailing here the $64 million question, Bob. Again, right, in 1932 there was 24% unemployment, right? Incumbents are not reelected when there’s 24% unemployment. Typically, this would be a death sentence. It depends on how people interpret or look at this economic news. If they hold the President responsible for it, including partisans, sure, that could undercut his reelection chances. If he is able to say, “Look, we were in good shape before this,” and deflect blame on this, and politicians are very good at deflecting blame, and if he’s successful to do that to an audience that’s already willing, it’s unclear.
President Bob Iuliano: That’s fair. Let me ask you one final question, Bruce, and that is, the American political system has long been built on federalism as an organizing principle, that is, the shared responsibility of governance between the federal government and the states. Powers have shifted over time much more federally than in the states, but states still have substantial rights. We talked a little bit about that in the organization of the election. How do you observe the phenomenon of federalism playing out as you interpret the response of the country to this pandemic?
Bruce Larson: Yeah, I think that’s a really important thing to think about here. In general, federalism ... We have a big country. It’s diverse socioeconomically and geographically and across so many variables. I think in general, federalism can offer real benefits in allowing states to set, in this case, policy responses that meet their needs, right? For example, like in the current crisis, you can make a good argument that Wyoming’s closures can perhaps be a bit different and less restrictive than, say, closures in more urban and densely populated areas. I think federalism serves us in that states can exercise policy responses that are tailored to their needs.
Bruce Larson: I’m going to say also on this, a lot of governors from both parties have really stepped up as superb leaders. I’m thinking here of a bunch of people, Hogan in Maryland, who’s a Republican, Gavin Newsom in California, DeWine in Ohio, and Cuomo in New York. It’s made me lament the fact that we haven’t seen a lot of presidential candidates who were governors in recent years, right? We had John Kasich there, but he went nowhere. Not that governors are always perfect presidents, but governors run programs. They balance budgets. They’ve got to make stuff work. They are really on the firing line right here. It’s been instructive to see them step up, but I also want to qualify that. Even with effective state governments and even with effective governors, we need an effective national government coordinating state responses and engaging in coordinating private industry, for example, to get medical supplies in production.
Bruce Larson: This is the thing, markets don’t magically work by themselves to produce these things. The national government can and should be coordinating and incentivizing these efforts. Pandemics don’t respect state boundaries either, which also of course makes a national response necessary to this. While I appreciate federalism and I appreciate these remarkable efforts by some of the governors, we need to continue to think about how to get a robust national response on this. I keep thinking that Alexander Hamilton would be saying, “Let’s go. Let’s move along here. Let’s use everything we can to break this virus.”
President Bob Iuliano: That is well said, and a good stopping point for this. Bruce, as you said, you and I could talk about this for hours. I’m not sure our audience wants to listen to us talk about this for hours. Let me conclude with an enormous thank you for helping illuminate for us some of the important political and governmental issues associated with this pandemic, and of course, thanking you for all that you’re doing for our students as they, we, all of us adjust to new ways of learning and living. Thank you, Bruce.
Bruce Larson: Thank you, Bob. Thanks for having me. Thank you for all you’re doing for the college right now, and for all of the employees. I’m thinking about people in the registrar’s office, in IT. This is a good place.
President Bob Iuliano: It really is.
President Bob Iuliano: Let me conclude with a slice of life from Gettysburg College. Just yesterday, the college marked Founder’s Day, 188th anniversary of the establishment of what was originally known as Pennsylvania College. The college’s founder, Samuel Schmucker, believed that education was a vital social good, and as a noted abolitionist, he was also guided by principles and values rooted in looking out for some of society’s most vulnerable members. Nearly two centuries later, we continue to see Schmucker’s values realized through the thousands of actions by Gettysburgians near and far.
President Bob Iuliano: Recently, a 2018 Gettysburg College graduate was in the news for doing what members of our community do so well, seeing a problem and jumping in to fix it. After graduating from the college with a major in biology, Julia Palmucci is now a graduate student at Duke studying microbiology. She read a Twitter thread about an over 80 couple anxious to get groceries given the coronavirus and saw opportunity to help. She’s now created a team of friends that is reaching out to populations at particular risk from COVID-19 and is offering to help get their groceries or run other essential errands. I can only imagine the huge burden that has lifted from scores of Durham, North Carolina residents. Bravo, Julia. You have modeled what it means to be a true Gettysburgian.
President Bob Iuliano: Thanks for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this conversation and want to be notified of future episodes, please subscribe to Conversations Beneath the Cupola by visiting Gettysburg.edu or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have a topic or suggestion for a future podcast, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you, and until next time.