US 2020 election: coronavirus and the battleground states
In the first episode of a new series on the US election, the FT's Peter Spiegel and Rana Foroohar examine how the global pandemic might affect the outcome – especially in the key swing states of Arizona, Texas and Florida, which are among the states worst hit by Covid-19
Executive Producer: Vanessa Kortekaas. Editor: Gregory Bobillot. Graphics Designer: Russell Birkett. Producer: Ben Marino. Camera Operators: Donell Newkirk and Oluwakemi Aladesuyi. Data Analysis: Christine Zhang.
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All right, Rana, I want to start our tour of the swing states with what I think is most important swing state, because I'm from Arizona. This is sunbelt. So Arizona, Texas and Florida. Now what do these states have in common other than beautiful weather? It is all three of them, well, two things. All three of them went through really bad upticks in coronavirus in the summer.
Which I think is going to have some impact.
And all three of them also have big Hispanic populations that have grown significantly over the last four years. Let's start about those two things. Now the other thing about Arizona, Texas and Florida is they all have rather Trumpy governors. So we have Ducey in Arizona, Abbott in Texas, DeSantis in Florida.
All three of them opened up really quickly, we saw those spikes through the summer. And you've seen I guess the Republican brand and brand Trump really take a hit.
So you have economy issues, travel and tourism in Arizona, travel and tourism in Florida, oil and gas, the Permian Basin here in Texas, really been, the shale industry really been devastated. So you have a jobs issue, you have old people.
So Arizona, Florida, they're afraid now. And you also have the Hispanic issue. So why don't we start with economic issue, because we've talked about this before, you really think the job losses in these industries are going to have a real impact in November.
I do. And I think that what you've just sketched in these three states, older people, public health crisis, but job losses, younger people feeling really beleaguered. That's the big story here. So coronavirus, the crisis is a public health crisis and an economic crisis. And the question is which one is going to impact November the most? So you can look at these three states and say, all right, they've got their Trumpy governors, they've got older people, maybe more conservative, maybe they might be more likely to vote for Trump, but if grandma is passing away, what does that mean? That's not going to look good.
So I have, just to, I have in South Florida, in the family.
Oh, my gosh.
Retirees. They haven't been sick but they were Trump voters four years ago. And they're going to vote Biden this time because they're afraid.
They're afraid. They think he mishandled the coronavirus crisis.
That's right. And Biden, the whole thing about Biden's messaging right now is he has to push it all the way back always to Covid. . It's about the handling of Covid.
He's done that.
And he's been able to do that. I would say that the one, the one caveat is when you started to see in Oregon certain kinds, Chicago, urban crises, then Trump is able to pull back the narrative and make it about.
Law and order.
You know, law and order, the whole the kind of Nixonian thing. I think Biden has done a pretty good job, and will continue to stay on message about that. No,w I think what's going to happen as we head into November, we've had this pretty nice summer where people are getting back to work, they're getting back to school. We'll see how that goes. It's a whole other conversation. We've both got kids, kids dealing with this.
But I think that what we're going to see now is, OK, the weather is getting colder. A lot of places are going to start going inside. Then do you see an uptick? In New York, for example, you've got a 1 per cent infection rate. If it goes to 3 per cent the whole economy shuts down. Some of these states that we're talking about are in the thick of it right now.
Absolutely. And also, they all have industries that even if coronavirus gets better, marginally better, you're not going to see, again, I mean, I'm very scared. By the way, these are the electoral votes.
Texas is number two in the entire country. Texas is still pretty - Trump is still ahead here. We got Biden pretty definitely ahead in Arizona. Also a Senate race there, important Senate race. McSally, the incumbent, really far down. The Democrat likely to win there. And Trump, Biden, Biden I think, probably marginally ahead in Florida still, thought it's narrowing.
But I think the industries that are the hardest hit have been in these three states. So I guess my question for you, and I think you and I slightly disagree on this, is to what extent the joblessness and the economy will affect people's voting opinions in November?
I think it's going to be huge. I'll tell you, I had, in Texas, I had a very interesting conversation this summer with the head of the Dallas Fed, who said, look, it's all about jobs. People are dying to go to work. I mean, pardon the pun, but they really want to go. I like your little oil well.
That's an oil derrick, yeah.
We won't get into the like...
Should I put a palm tree for Arizona?
Actually, yeah. No, is that palm or yeah, OK.
There are palm trees in my parents' front yard.
Do a pool and a garden using too much water.
That's my parents, yes.
And immigrant labour.
OK. No, but Rob Kaplan was telling me, look, it's all about jobs. And he and many other business leaders have said, look, the president should have been on this right away getting high-speed testing. In a place like Texas, where people want to go back to work, if you had testing, spot testing in every movie theatre, in every shopping mall, you could have had a very different scenario right now. That's the kind of thing that Biden's going to be messaging. And frankly, a lot of conservatives are going to agree with that.
Let me talk very quickly about Florida, because of these three states, Florida obviously, the swingiest of all. Everyone always watches this. And Texas has pretty much been solid Republican for a generation. Arizona goes back and forth, voted for Clinton in '92, but again, pretty solid Republican. Biden ahead. Also, the John McCain factor in Arizona. I think people are very angry about the way Trump has treated John McCain. Florida is that swingiest of swing states. You have again Orlando in the sort of I-4 corridor, Tampa. That's kind of the swingiest of the area. And that industry, very travel tourism based, is not going to recover.
It's not going to recover. I mean, and I think that, that's something that's hard to message away.
I mean this is an industry, this is an industry that's been wiped out not just for now, but probably for the next few years. And I think that that's something that you're going to start to really feel. When we've been in, we've had, the second-quarter GDP numbers were the worst on record. These are Great Depression figures. It hasn't felt like that because we've had fiscal stimulus. That's all running out now. You're probably not going to get another package through, that's clear. So we're not going to get more aid through November. So that's when all these losses are really going to be felt at a ground level.
Let me press you on that, because clearly you have written about this, but there is a flip side of this, where you see a lot of economists who argue that we keep waiting for the economy to crack.
We keep saying, see this has now been over for almost a month. There is no crack in the economy yet. You're pretty convinced that it's going to take a couple months to sort of filter through the system and then boom, late October, November, yeah.
I think so. I think so, and just anecdotally in my reporting, I'm starting to hear that it is cracking. Commercial real estate, for example. You're starting to hear landlords cutting all kinds of deals that they wouldn't have dreamed about before. I hear retail, in fact, I was on the phone with a CEO of an apparel company in California recently that said his landlord, his commercial landlord is now willing to offer him a floating deal in which he would take a percentage of losses. I mean, not even something fixed.
I'm hearing that in a number of states where these people are desperate for tenants. So you're going to start to see that cascading bankruptcies, corporate bankruptcies. There's already a record, as we've reported in the FT, there's a record number of zombie corporations out there. If interest rates were to change they can't even pay their, yeah, they can't finance, they can't pay their daily business. That's all going to start filtering in. And I think it might actually be a perfect storm by about November, in which you will feel something that really suddenly feels like a deep recession.
If so, that hurts Trump. Let's just very briefly go back to the Hispanic vote because I think that's really important to focus on. You and I again have talked about this. Coming from Arizona, this has always been a bit of a dog that never barked. We always kept thinking, particularly in Texas, but also in Arizona, that we'd suddenly see the Hispanic vote really sort of stand up and make itself, its presence known, and shift these states very blue. They did in California. Remember Pete Wilson back in the '80s.
But they haven't really have been a force yet. One of the things that I notice is during the primaries, Bernie Sanders was really good at organising Hispanics.
And that was sort of young people, right?
The first, second generation getting their parents out to vote. Let's start in Florida, because obviously the story about Florida has always been Cuban-Americans.
Traditionally Republican. But we've seen a real influx of Puerto Ricans who are American citizens. Shall I do a Puerto Rican map? It's down here somewhere.
They're up, Cubans I think about 1.5m Cubans in Florida, and about a million now Puerto Ricans. So it's the second largest Hispanic group in Florida. Talk a bit about that, and to what extent. The other thing I know that the Biden people are worried about is actual turnout in Miami-Dade. Hillary did pretty well amongst Hispanics in Miami-Dade and the polling amongst Hispanics in the Miami area right now it's not as strong as Hillary was. And there's a lot of disinformation we've been seeing.
Yeah. Talk a bit about that.
I mean, like this is, first of all, hanging chad. Anybody remember that?
Yeah, yeah, I was there.
I mean, this is, were you? That's so interesting. Can we draw a hanging chad? I don't even know what that looks like. But, oh my gosh, you know what a hanging chad...
On a ballot it looks like this. And then like I punched the thing in the chad.
Oh, my god, I love it. So when I think about the Hispanic vote, I think about a couple things. Culture and demographics. So culture, you're right. Traditionally, this has been a community that is a little more socially conservative. Pro-life, perhaps. Maybe more inclined to go with that conservative vote. But I think now, just to go back to where we started in this episode, demographics. You've got the boomers that might have been a little more conservative than the Hispanic communities socially. You've got the millennials, they're worried about work.
I mean, think about it. These kids are coming out into a job market the likes of which we haven't seen in our lifetime. So probably never going to see again. So I think it's all going to be about jobs. But you're also making the point that's very important. Florida is a place where the base gets really galvanised. I mean, this is, I think that you're not going to see folks that are with Trump and have always been with Trump, I don't think you're going to see them swinging. So I think it's going to be a lot about turnout. Will these millennials show up to the polls?
The other thing which we didn't mention is, again, should I dare draw it. A border wall. Immigration policy, I mean
This is what doomed Pete Wilson in California and really turned the Hispanic vote against the Republican Party in California. Is that going to motivate Hispanics in Texas and Arizona? The child separation stuff.
Again, as you said, I mean, Karl Rove I remember back during George W. Bush, he actively courted the Hispanic vote because he thought largely Catholic, largly culturally conservative on choice, on gay rights. Natural, he thought, Republican voters. But on immigration, which Trump his whole thing is, he's pushed, that's where it could break for the Democrats. I wonder if the immigration issue will trump, for lack of a better word, some of the social issues where the Hispanic vote has shown up in decent numbers. Certainly more than African-American voters or Jewish votes has voted Republican. We've seen them turn out Republicans more than some of these other minority groups.
Well, 100 per cent. It's interesting, and it's making me think there is a new generation of Hispanic politician. I mean, think about someone like AOC, who's going to be all over the border wall, and all over jobs. And P.S., it's worth saying, you talked earlier about the devastation of travel and tourism in places like Arizona and places like Florida, it's worth noting that in the last couple of decades the number of manufacturing jobs that we have lost in this country have been replaced by restaurant jobs. Guess what's being lost right now?
That's a very good point.
Guess what's been devastated?
Travel and tourism, restaurants, services. And that, there are a lot of people in the Hispanic community working in those jobs.
One last one on this, because again, I think it comes down to in many ways, organisation. And I think part of the reason we haven't seen the Hispanic vote mobilise and turn into a voting bloc that can really sway some of these states, is they just haven't been organised. Do you think this time is different? Again, you mentioned the restaurant jobs. Nevada in the primary, we saw the restaurant and hotel unions really begin to activate Hispanic voters and turn them out.
Again, Bernie Sanders is a really good example. I was somewhat surprised, but a lot of reporting about how Sanders was really good at getting those children of the immigrants to sort of get their parents to the polls. Are you seeing, do you predict, you think that this time now the dog will bark this time, and that again Texas probably not, but maybe turning purple because of this?
Yeah. I think so. I mean, I've been very impressed at the number of people and the breadth of folks in terms of ideology, that Biden has got under the tent. If you look at who's in his advisory committee, who's talking to him about economics, who's talking to him about demographics, they're from all over the spectrum. The Clintons, this was a big problem. They were very neo-liberal, they were very... there wasn't a lot of air in some ways between conservative economic policies and where the Clintons were. Biden's very different. He's got a broader base. Now we'll see, if he were to win the election will that narrow? How might that evolve? I don't know. But right now, I think it's looking pretty strong.
One last thing on that point, because you mentioned AOC and these younger voters who largely turn out and were energised for Sanders, for Warren. And there's always been this question, will they turn out for Biden?
He's a moderate, a bit old school. As you said, a little more Clintonian than perhaps than Warren or Sanders and to the party. Do you think that his issue now? Or are the Democrats so motivated this time because of Trump, is that no longer an issue?
It's a fascinating thing. I think they are motivated. I think that in some ways in the media we are worried about once bitten, twice shy. The last time around, many of us thought, oh, Trump's never going to... I actually did think. I'm from Indiana, which right here. I'll draw not a sunbelt, but can I draw a little corn? Because I want to be able to draw something. And also, I'm going to put a travel and tourism jobs ice cream cone right there.
There you go.
See, I got my two pictures in. Not as nice as yours, but no, I think that they are going to turn out. I think in some ways we might be portraying this as a little bit closer than it is, because we're worried about getting it wrong.
That's really possible. That's possible.
I think that these younger voters are pretty motivated.
All right, on that point, let's do a little predicting. I am going to say my home state of Arizona going Biden, probably not a particularly difficult call to make, as Arizona's been anywhere from 8 to 10 percentage point lead for Biden. Texas, I think still Trump, although again, we've seen statewide, Beto O'Rourke did very well against Ted Cruz two years ago.
Polls are pretty tight, but I still think this is a win for Trump. And Florida, I'm going to go with Biden because I think, as you said, the joblessness in that I-4 corridor plus the influx of Puerto Ricans, plus a motivated Democratic electorate, I think that turns it for Biden. And the other thing I will say on Florida is, Florida is one state that has done mail-in voting for generations.
They will count all their mail-in votes on the night, and if we get an early call for Biden in Florida all this worry about three days, three weeks of undecidedness, I think that is over in one night because Biden is likely to win that on the night.
Oh, how interesting. OK, I'm going to have to agree with you on Arizona and Florida, or sorry, on Texas and Arizona. I think that Texas is going to go red. I think that Arizona is going to go blue. I'm actually, I'm more sceptical. I mean, Florida is a tricky, tricky place. I mean, what if you see a contested election? I want to ask you a question. You were there with the hanging chads. Worst case scenario. This doesn't get decided in one night. What happens? What does that look like?
It depends state by state. Because Florida state law drove a lot of what happened in Florida. And we've done some stories about, Pennsylvania's one of those states. They count mail-in ballots way after election day. So there's this risk that on the day Pennsylvania's for Trump, and as they count and mail-in ballots, it goes for Biden. And then you have the governor is a Democrat and the state legislator's a Republican, and do they send different electors to Washington? There's a lot of scenarios here.
And again, because there is no national system, it varies what state becomes controversial. So that is, a lot of people are very worried about this, but I will just say, I again, I'm going to stick with my prediction. I think Biden wins reasonably easily in Florida on the night, because the Floridians count their mail-in ballots on the night. And a lot of these horrible scenarios go away.
I will also say, I am a little less concerned having lived through Florida. I was in South Florida during the recount. I went to Tallahassee during all the court cases. The American people know how the system works. I know it's complicated, partly for foreigners, they know their rules of the game, and the courts will decide. And even though Al Gore probably won Florida, and he certainly won the national vote, when the Supreme Court said, OK, George Bush is the president, everyone said, OK, George Bush is the president.
So I am less panicked about some of this stuff than some of my colleagues are.
Interesting. Well, scales of justice may end up deciding all that. Maybe I'll draw a little scale of justice. I don't, does that look like a scale?
That looks like a mask.
All right, well things will be interesting for us. We'll be watching Florida.
That's the sunbelt.