What if? How politics in 2020 might have looked if the pandemic had never happened

·9 min read

Imagine this: in the early morning hours of Nov. 4, Joe Biden climbs onto the stage inside the crowded Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware. His forced smile can't hide the months of strain and the crushing disappointment he feels. After thanking Americans for their votes, the former vice president pauses.

"I just got off the phone with President Trump and congratulated him on his victory."

Those last words are drowned out by a chorus of boos from the mass of shocked supporters in front of him. For them, it's just sinking in: the Trump era isn't over ...

That didn't happen, of course. Weakened by his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump lost his re-election bid. In a few weeks, Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.

But the U.S. election was just one of the political events that might have played out quite differently had the pandemic not upended the course of history in 2020.

To hypothesize on the impact this global upheaval has had on the past year in politics, let's look through the portal at some alternative political scenarios — things that might have happened if the pandemic had not happened.

Scenario one: New Brunswick's revolving-door politics keeps spinning

When the Liberals, Greens and Independent MLA Robert Gauvin voted against the budget brought forward by New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative government in March, it was clear the election was going to be closely fought. Less than two years earlier, Blaine Higgs and the PCs had secured only one seat more than the incumbent Liberals.

It was enough to give Higgs a minority government in 2018. In this no-pandemic alternate history, it's not enough to make his government last past 2020.

This counterfactual campaign sees the PCs going to voters boasting of a second consecutive balanced budget and the Liberals' Kevin Vickers warning that cuts to the province's emergency room services — from which the PCs backed down in February after an outcry — would go ahead if the PCs were re-elected. The Greens, meanwhile, argue that keeping the PCs to a minority would be the only way to ensure these cuts would not go ahead.

We can imagine a close race under these circumstances, with neither the PCs nor the Liberals making deep inroads, the Greens rising in public support and the small People's Alliance putting itself back into contention in a few seats.

Stephen MacGillivray / Canadian Press
Stephen MacGillivray / Canadian Press

More deadlock would be a likely consequence, with the PCs and Liberals emerging from the election with the same number of seats and the Greens making a gain of one. That puts the Greens in the driver's seat; when the legislature re-convenes, they swing their support to Vickers and the Liberals and defeat the PCs — the fourth consecutive election to see New Brunswick's incumbent government go down to defeat.

By the end of 2020, with fissures widening between the Liberals and the Greens over the government's support for small modular nuclear reactors, pundits start speculating about a third provincial election in less than three years.

(In reality, Higgs was able to co-operate with the opposition parties to quickly pass the budget and shut down the legislature. Buoyed by strong poll numbers in August, Higgs pulled the plug on his minority government and secured a majority in September's election.)

Scenario two: Biden's drawn-out victory over Sanders for the Democratic nomination

In this no-pandemic alternate universe, we can still envision Biden's comeback in the race for the Democratic primary starting on Super Tuesday; that's when (in the real world) he beat expectations, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, in a number of states.

From that point on in this scenario, he's the front runner again. But there is still a lot of race left to run.

In 2016, Sanders continued to contest states long after Hillary Clinton's nomination was all but mathematically clinched. He does the same thing in 2020, despite calls for Sanders to unite behind Biden to take down Trump.

A rough debate performance for Biden in April doesn't improve the math for Sanders — but it does result in a slide in Biden's head-to-head polling with the Republican incumbent.

Evan Vucci / Associated Press
Evan Vucci / Associated Press

The crowds are still energized and enthusiastic at the Democratic national convention that officially nominates Biden as the party's presidential candidate. There's no pro-Sanders demonstration on the convention floor, as there was in 2016 — but few believe that the rifts within the party have been healed.

(Reality check: as the pandemic spread throughout the U.S. in March, Biden racked up big wins in the primaries that were still being held. Sanders withdrew from the campaign in early April, saying that as he saw "the crisis gripping the nation, exacerbated by President Trump," he could not "in good conscience continue to mount a campaign that cannot win.")

Scenario three: Peter MacKay wins the Conservative leadership race

Unlike the Democratic primaries, the race for the Conservative leadership turned out to be a lot closer than most observers expected. In our alternate universe, Peter MacKay — the man who began the contest as the front runner — ends up winning it when Conservative members choose their new leader in June.

Ontario MP Erin O'Toole makes it a nail-biter, though. As social conservative candidates Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis drop off the ballot, O'Toole receives the vast majority of their votes. But MacKay's first ballot showing is too strong and O'Toole can't catch him.

Tijana Martin / Canadian Press
Tijana Martin / Canadian Press

A longer campaign might have benefited O'Toole, who gains momentum in the last weeks of the race, as does Lewis. (In the real world, a longer campaign did lift up both O'Toole and Lewis.) But in this scenario, the leads in endorsements, fundraising and support MacKay built up in the early days of the short contest prove decisive.

In his victory speech in a hot, crowded convention centre in Toronto, MacKay announces his first priority as leader: bringing down the Trudeau government.

(Meanwhile, in the real world: because of the pandemic, the Conservatives put their leadership race on hold at the end of March and postponed the vote to August, though MacKay argued for the vote to be moved up in the schedule. The longer campaign may have benefited the lesser-known O'Toole, who won with the backing of Lewis's voters on the final ballot. The Lewis campaign attracted more fundraising and interest in the later stages of the contest.)

Scenario four: Trudeau's Liberals hold on — barely

In our alternative universe, MacKay's leadership victory gives the Conservatives a small bump in the polls, particularly in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. The Bloc Québécois and the New Democrats, spotting an opportunity to take advantage of sagging Liberal numbers, join the Conservatives in bringing down the government as soon as the House returns in September.

This delays the scheduled provincial election in Saskatchewan until 2021. It also rules out an early election in British Columbia, where Premier John Horgan's New Democrats have only a precarious lead in the polls anyway.

The federal election is a bruising one for Justin Trudeau, as MacKay and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh team up against him in the English-language debate. But post-debate gains for the Conservatives turn out to be short-lived, as MacKay's French can't withstand grilling by Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet, who focuses his attacks on the Conservative leader as polls show the Tories making inroads in Quebec.

Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press

The results of the election leave the country in a state of political limbo. The Conservatives make significant gains in Atlantic Canada and flip a few seats in the Greater Toronto Area, but fail to win new seats in Quebec. The NDP picks up a few extra seats in B.C. but the Liberals still manage to come out narrowly ahead nationwide.

That keeps Trudeau in the prime minister's office with a reduced minority government that needs the support of two opposition parties, rather than one, to get legislation passed. With gains to point to, Blanchet, Singh and MacKay all stay on as leaders. So does Trudeau — but the chatter in Ottawa quickly turns to a potential Liberal leadership race in 2021.

(Reality check: when the pandemic began, the Liberals and Conservatives were tied in national polling. The government's handling of the pandemic boosted it in the polls and the Liberals have been ahead consistently since the spring. The ongoing pandemic and the limited electoral prospects for the opposition parties have combined to help forestall an early federal election.)

Donald Trump beats his polls (and the Democrats) again

In our no-pandemic timeline, Joe Biden has been leading in national polls against Trump since the moment he became the odds-on favourite to win the Democratic nomination. But his lead isn't much wider than the advantage the polls gave Hillary Clinton in 2016. Though Biden's favourables remain better than Trump's (or Clinton's, for that matter), the incumbent president still scores high on his handling of the economy.

It's difficult to unseat a U.S. president when the economy is doing well and unemployment is low — even a president as unpopular as Trump. But Biden's slender lead holds firm throughout the summer and fall, with pollsters insisting they've taken steps to avoid repeating the mistakes they made in 2016. Even though it's narrow, Biden's lead is seen as more trustworthy.

Evan Vucci/The Associated Press
Evan Vucci/The Associated Press

Election night comes as a shock for many Americans — though perhaps not nearly as surprising as the results were four years earlier. The networks are able to call the result shortly after midnight, when Pennsylvania goes to Trump. Though Trump loses the popular vote again (something he later claims without evidence was due to Republican mail-in ballots being thrown out), he also beats his polls again, and Biden succeeds only in flipping Michigan to the Democrats' column.

While Republicans celebrate the result, the divided Democratic Party begins asking itself hard questions about what went wrong.

(The reality: in February, Biden's lead over Trump was only about four percentage points. While Trump initially received a bump in support over his early handling of the pandemic, the pandemic seriously undermined his chances of winning as caseloads started to swell. Biden's lead grew to a little more than eight points by the end of the campaign. In the end, Trump did beat his polls by about four points nationwide. Had the race been closer, that might have been enough for him to win re-election.)