View Original Notice ? Politicians use COVID-19 to raise cash. Is that healthy?
Democracy. Global warming. Race.
If you’re trying to guess the hottest issue in American political fundraising – and you picked the pandemic and the health measures aimed at vanquishing it – you’re probably right. While nobody tracks how much money any one topic can raise for any one candidate, a quick scan of recent solicitations from nationally known Republicans and Democrats shows many seem to see COVID-19 as the cash cow of the 2022 election cycle.
“… And now Dr. Fauci says he supports new vaccine mandates and other onerous COVID-19 restrictions on our freedoms – such as showing proof of vaccination to get on an airplane… ” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, wrote in a Jan. 6 “Dear Patriot” letter seeking contributions.
“We need action… And that means requiring proof of vaccination for all domestic air travel now. If people are going to board a plane and sit less than six inches away from others and their families, they should be fully vaccinated against COVID-19,” California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat, wrote in a Jan. 5 email to his potential donors.
Cruz and Swalwell are just two voices in a pretty big chorus. This election cycle a lot of politicians want donors to give them cash based on how they feel about the rules surrounding COVID-19.
On the GOP side, the messages cast vaccine requirements 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 sides, the result is the same – easy money.
People who donate to candidates, on the right and the left, tend to be the most passionate members of their political tribes. And whether they keep up on details about the virus, or don’t, those hyper-passionate voters tend to finance the politicians most likely to carry their broad political beliefs into what they view as the key battle of the moment.
“Politically, (coronavirus) is virtue signaling; an avatar. Where you are on COVID just says a lot about your politics, generally,” said Matthew Lesenyie, an assistant professor of political science at Cal State Long Beach who teaches about American government and campaign money.
“That’s why it probably activates the most campaign donors.”
This year’s hammer
Some elements of this aren’t new. In politics, linking a big news story to a request for money has a long track record of success. What’s more, campaign experts say, the more emotional a news story is, the more likely it is to woo cash, and only a few news stories in recent American history have sparked as much emotion as the pandemic.
Still, even if they’re not surprised to see a disease that’s killed 850,000-plus Americans being used as a fundraising tool, campaign consultants and others do see a broader shift at play.
While previous American health emergencies – everything from Spanish flu to the polio epidemic to AIDS – became political over time, they initially were treated as questions of public health, not ATMs for politicians.
The coronavirus hasn’t played out like that. It was political even before it arrived in North America and, over the past 24 months, that political element has at least kept pace with the virus’ role in upending society.
If American politicians are using the pandemic to raise cash, experts say, it’s not the disease that’s different, it’s the Americans.
“This place where we are right now, as a country, it’s us vs. them, it’s tribalism … about everything,” said Adam Probolsky, an independent pollster in Irvine who previously has helped politicians raise money. “The vaccine debate – a fight, really – is a proxy for the place where we are in America.”
The push to churn COVID-19 into campaign dollars also is part of a long-term political trend. A few hot-button issues in this century – questions that in previous eras might have been non-partisan or simple matters of policy – have morphed into broad symbols of American ideals.
In recent years, that trend has shifted into overdrive.
“Coronavirus is political because it came into being when Donald Trump was president. And, in the age of Trump, everything was political,” said Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento-based campaign consultant.
“But, frankly, the decade before Trump was more political than anything before that. And so was the decade before that,” Stutzman added. “Trump didn’t invent this.”
Examples are easy to find.
Obamacare initially was a policy debate, but it also became a political litmus test. Whatever a politician’s stance on the public health plan became code for that politician’s overall worldview. Even the name – Obamacare – was a derisive label used by conservatives when polling suggested most Americans weren’t thrilled with it. These days, with polling showing Obamacare to be popular, it’s often referred to by its policy-centric name, the Affordable Care Act.
And, of course, before Obamacare, an even bigger political fight emerged in the wake of Sept. 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” – soon became a wedge for politicians of every political stripe. Conservative politicians were viewed as “hard” on terror and liberals were “soft,” and American citizens lined up in either camp. Soon, voters showed little patience for nuance or middle-ground thinking.
That same dynamic is shaping the political response to coronavirus.
“The trust gap, with government, has become more stark during this century. And that’s certainly been true of the pandemic,” Stutzman said.
“If you’re an individualist, you don’t think about the broad community health perspective when you think about 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 bigger government.
“It feels like the disease presents a real opportunity to take away individual rights.”
Those big picture feelings about government, he added, become buttons for politicians to push as they leverage the coronavirus in their request for money.
“In that sense, it fits the moment.”
Money vs. health
The idea of using COVID-19 to raise campaign cash isn’t just a question of taste or political trends. Experts say it also shapes government’s ability to respond to the crisis.
And, by “shapes,” they add, they mean that money is screwing things up.
The reason is clear. Political leaders who have asked supporters to literally invest in their stance on various coronavirus-related health measures have little wiggle room to change that position even if new information might prompt a rethink.
Did Cruz, who inveighed against vaccines as potentially unhealthy before they arrived, change his stance when they generated few problems after a real-world test run of more than 6 billion shots? He did not.
Or, conversely, did politicians who support tough virus rules and social distancing act swiftly to open schools when it became clear that the problems of distance learning were on par with the health risks? Not many did.
But that doesn’t have to continue. Some campaign experts even suggest there are already signs that politicians will shift their stance based on new science – and polling.
For proof, they say, look no further than Trump himself.
Earlier this month, the man who turned the coronavirus into a political debate – who initially pooh-poohed it as a non-event, who would not wear masks because he didn’t like the way they looked – called out Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for not being loud enough about his own vaccination status.
“You gotta say it. Whether you had it or not, say it,” Trump said in a Jan. 11 interview with the conservative One America News Network.
Trump went on to describe leaders who downplay their vaccination status – something Trump himself did in the last weeks of his presidency, though he told a booing Dallas crowd in December that he received his booster – as “gutless.”
Still, campaign experts suggest this new tone from Trump might create a window for other politicians to shift toward science.
“Look, everybody has equivocated on this. Even (Dr. Anthony) Fauci has changed his position, based on new information. And to find any answer on the (Centers for Disease Control) web page is to see change happening all the time,” said Irvine pollster Probolsky. “I do think there’s a possibility for politicians to change their position on COVID.”
There’s just one big hurdle – voters. After two years of telling their supporters that vaccines are good or bad, and that the coronavirus is either a big deal or a nothingburger, politicians might find it tough to get money from donors by singing a new tune about the pandemic.
“At this point, I don’t think Americans are in a place to accept a new story. The people who are anti-vax are not going to change what they think. And the people on the other side just want validation,” Probolsky said.
That, in turn, might prompt politicians to simply turn the channel. If the omicron surge wanes, and the pandemic shifts to something closer to an endemic – like the seasonal flu – the next batch of campaign fundraiser flyers might not mention COVID-19 at all.
But they might be just as angry.
“Don’t think the next nonsensical thing won’t be the dividing line tomorrow,” said Probolsky. “It’s all about the fight, whatever that fight might be.”