US politicians are using COVID-19 to raise funds. Is it healthy?
The democracy. Global warming. Race.
If you’re guessing the most burning issue in American political fundraising — and you’ve picked the pandemic and the health measures aimed at defeating it — you’re probably right. While no one tracks how much money a topic can make for a candidate, a quick scan of recent solicitations from nationally known Republicans and Democrats shows that many seem to see COVID-19 as the cash cow of the 2022 election cycle.
“…And now Dr. Fauci says he supports new vaccination mandates and other onerous COVID-19 restrictions on our freedoms — like showing proof of vaccination to get on a plane…” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz , a Republican, wrote in a Jan. 6 “Dear Patriot” letter soliciting contributions.
“We need action…And that means requiring proof of vaccination now for all domestic air travel. If people are going to board a plane and sit within six inches of others and their families, they should be fully vaccinated against COVID-19,” wrote California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat. , in a Jan. 5 email to his potential donors.
Cruz and Swalwell are only two voices in a fairly large choir. This election cycle, many politicians want donors to give them money based on how they feel about the rules surrounding COVID-19.
On the GOP side, the messages portray vaccine demands and related health efforts as government overreach or even a step toward tyranny. For Democrats, the messages emphasize science, social norms and, yes, Big Government.
But for both parties, the result is the same: easy money.
The people who donate to candidates, right and left, tend to be the most passionate members of their political tribes. And whether they keep up to date with details about the virus or not, these hyper-passionate voters tend to bankroll politicians most likely to carry their broad political beliefs into what they see as the key battle of the moment.
“Politically, (coronavirus) is a sign of virtue; an avatar. Where you are on COVID says a lot about your politics, in general,” said Matthew Lesenyie, assistant professor of political science at Cal State Long Beach, who teaches US government and campaign money.
“That’s why it probably activates the most campaign donors.”
This year’s hammer
Some elements are not new. In politics, tying big news to a demand for money has a long track record of success. Moreover, according to campaign experts, the more emotional a story, the more likely it is to court money, and only a few stories in recent American history have stirred as much emotion as the pandemic.
Yet while they’re not surprised to see a disease that has killed more than 850,000 Americans being used as a fundraising tool, campaign consultants and others see a broader shift at play.
While previous U.S. health emergencies — from the Spanish flu to the polio epidemic to AIDS — have become political over time, they were initially treated as public health issues, not as ATMs for politicians.
The coronavirus did not unfold like that. It was political even before it arrived in North America, and over the past 24 months that political element has at least followed the role of the virus in upending society.
If US politicians are using the pandemic to raise funds, experts say, it’s not the disease that’s different, it’s the Americans.
“This place where we are right now, as a country, is us versus them, it’s tribalism … about everything,” said Adam Probolsky, an independent pollster in Irvine who has helped politicians before. to raise funds. “The vaccine debate — a fight, really — is an indicator of where we stand in America.”
The drive to convert COVID-19 into campaign dollars is also part of a long-term political trend. A few burning questions of this century — questions that in earlier eras might have been nonpartisan or simply political questions — have turned into general symbols of American ideals.
In recent years, this trend has turned into overdrive.
“The coronavirus is political because it emerged when Donald Trump was president. And, in the era of Trump, everything was political,” said Sacramento-based campaign consultant Rob Stutzman.
“But, frankly, the decade before Trump was more political than anything that came before. And the previous decade too,” Stutzman added. “Trump didn’t make this up.”
Examples are easy to find.
Obamacare was initially a political debate, but it has also become a political litmus test. Whatever a politician’s public health stance has become the code for that politician’s overall worldview. Even the name – Obamacare – was a derisive label used by conservatives when polls suggested most Americans weren’t thrilled about it. These days, with polls showing Obamacare to be popular, it’s often referred to by its politically-centric name, the Affordable Care Act.
And, of course, before Obamacare, an even bigger political fight emerged in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Initially, the attacks were viewed by the public as an act of war and, briefly, above politics. But the domestic pushback — the “war on terror” — quickly became a corner for politicians of all political stripes. Conservative politicians were seen as “tough” on terrorism and liberals were “soft,” and American citizens lined up on one side or the other. Soon, voters showed little patience for nuance or in-between thinking.
This same dynamic is shaping the political response to the coronavirus.
“The trust gap with government has widened over the course of this century. And that has certainly been true for the pandemic,” Stutzman said.
“If you’re an individualist, you don’t think of the broad perspective of community health when you think of COVID, you see it as an opportunity for people in government to control your life,” he said.
Some liberals, he added, welcome the prospect of a larger government.
“It looks like the disease presents a real opportunity to suppress individual rights.”
These general feelings about government, he added, become buttons politicians can push as they leverage the coronavirus in their demand for money.
“In that sense, it matches the moment.”
money for health
The idea of using COVID-19 to raise campaign funds is not just a matter of taste or political leanings. Experts say it also shapes the government’s ability to respond to the crisis.
And, by “forms,” they add, they mean money screws things up.
The reason is clear. Political leaders who have asked their followers to literally invest in their stance on various coronavirus-related health measures have little leeway to change that stance, even if new information might prompt a rethink.
Cruz, who spoke out against vaccines as potentially unhealthy before they arrived, did he change his stance when they generated few problems after real-world testing of more than 6 billion vaccines? He does not have.
Or, conversely, did politicians who support strict virus and social distancing rules act quickly to open schools when it became clear that the problems of distance learning were on par with the risk for the health ? Few people did.
But this must not continue. Some campaign pundits even suggest there are already signs that politicians will change their stance based on new science – and polls.
For proof, they say, look no further than Trump himself.
Earlier this month, the man who turned the coronavirus into a political debate – who first called it a non-event, who wouldn’t wear masks because he didn’t like the way they looked – said called out Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for not being strong enough on his own vaccine status.
“You have to say it. Whether you got it or not, say so,” Trump said in a Jan. 11 interview with the conservative One America News Network.
Trump went on to describe leaders who downplay their vaccine status – something Trump himself did in the final weeks of his presidency, despite telling a booed Dallas crowd in December that he had received his recall – as “courageless”.
Still, campaign experts suggest this new tone from Trump could create a window for other politicians to turn to science.
“Look, everyone dithered on this. Even (Dr. Anthony) Fauci changed his position, based on new information. And to find an answer on the (Centers for Disease Control) webpage is to see changes happening all the time,” said Irvine pollster Probolsky. “I think there is an opportunity for politicians to change their stance on COVID.”
There is only one big obstacle: the voters. After two years of telling their supporters that vaccines are good or bad, and that the coronavirus is either a big deal or nothing, politicians may struggle to get donor money by singing a new tune on the pandemic.
“At this point, I don’t think the Americans are in a position to accept a new story. People who are anti-vax are not going to change what they think. And people on the other side just want validation,” Probolsky said.
This, in turn, could tempt politicians to simply turn the channel on. If the omicron push wanes and the pandemic turns into something closer to endemic – like seasonal flu – the next batch of fundraising campaign flyers might not mention COVID-19 at all.
But they could be just as angry.
“Don’t think the next absurd thing won’t be the dividing line tomorrow,” Probolsky said. “It’s all about the fight, whatever that fight is.”