It’s August – marking about five months that the United States has been trudging through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Here at Javelina, we’ve written about leading a team during challenging times, reframing the importance of your work, and effectively fundraising and storytelling amidst crisis.
Now, we’re looking down the pipeline toward November’s general election, undoubtedly one of the most pivotal of our lifetimes. But how can we have any idea what to expect? How can the election cycles we’ve lived through prepare us for a year wherein almost five million Americans have fallen ill, vote-by-mail will be utilized in many states for the first time, and many candidates have resorted to campaigning from their living rooms? (or basements, in the case of the Democratic Presidential nominee).
There is a way. It just requires us to look backward about a hundred years. After all, this isn’t the first pandemic the United States has faced. Just as we faced the first wave of COVID-19 in March of 2020, the first wave of the Spanish Flu swept the nation in March of 1918.
The More Things Change…
The similarities between Americans’ response to the two diseases, over a century apart, are striking. People argued about where the illness had originated, whether it was indeed Spanish, or Chinese, or American, or even a chemical weapon from the German war machine (it’s important to note that the Spanish Flu struck in the final months of World War I, but persisted for over two years). As we see today, symptomatology fluctuated. Some cases generated mild symptoms while others caused violent reactions or death. Theaters and schools closed in early social distancing protocols, and many Americans wore face masks. There were even anti-maskers back then, the most famous of which being the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco.
There were also two nationwide elections: in 1918, eight months into the pandemic, and in 1920, in its immediate aftermath. They were not kind to incumbents.
From 1964 to 2018, only three Presidents lost their reelection bids. United States Senators were reelected at a rate of 83% — House members at 93%. Even in 2018, a year which marked great political upheaval and a surge of new, diverse candidates, those numbers were pretty stagnant, at 84.4% and 91% respectively.
Heading into 1918, the Democratic Party controlled the Senate, Presidency, and had only a slim disadvantage in the House. That year, reelection rates, when accounting for retirements from public life, plummeted to 79% in the House and 74% in the Senate. Republicans took a majority in the Senate and expanded their control of the House by 48 seats. This was especially notable as it all took place amidst extremely low voter turnout, at 40%.
In 1920, the backlash against the party that oversaw the pandemic was much broader. Democrats refused to renominate their incumbent President, Woodrow Wilson, instead nominating James Cox of Ohio. You don’t recognize his name because he was annihilated in November – losing by 26% of the popular vote and 277 electoral votes. For comparison, Donald Trump won in 2016 by only 77 electoral votes. Victorious Republican Warren Harding ran on a “return to normalcy” message – reminiscent of the general character of Joe Biden’s campaign today.
Congressional reelection rates dropped further, down to 75 percent in the House and 70 percent in the Senate, with Democratic areas of the country voting Republican for the first time in decades. The entire legislative and executive power structure of the United States had been flipped on its head.
What it Means for November
While re-election rates gradually rose between the time of the Spanish Flu and post-Kennedy-America, the obvious retaliation of voters in 1918 and 1920 is still compelling. Voters who had once supported the President and sitting elected officials roared into a powerful wave of opposition – and amidst deaths, retirements, and electoral losses, the government that oversaw recovery was almost unrecognizable from the government that oversaw the pandemic.
Today, Americans are angry. Unemployment rates are higher than they were during the Great Recession, homelessness is on the rise, and COVID-19 does not appear to be going away anytime soon. The President and Republicans in Congress have been ineffectual, to put it charitably. We know what happened last time the party in control failed to manage a pandemic response effectively; it would not be surprising to see voters choose a different path once again.
What do you think? Will we experience an acute case of history repeating itself, or is this century’s political landscape just fundamentally different? Drop us a line at email@example.com – we’d love to hear your thoughts.