AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been two and a half years since the pandemic began. And while Texans are still testing positive for COVID-19, the poll shows the virus is not a top concern for voters. Therefore, candidates avoid this topic in the election campaign.
“If the candidates don’t feel that the issue will help them win over voters or mobilize their base, they’re not going to discuss it,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “Their goal is to win the election, not engage in an education campaign.”
Governor Greg Abbott is betting big on the border and the economy. His Democratic challenger, Beth O’Rourke, is more focused on abortion and guns. Neither candidate made the pandemic the centerpiece of their campaign.
O’Rourke didn’t even mention the virus when he announced his candidacy for governor last year. Instead, he focused on the electrical grid.
“Democrats and Republicans want to return to essentially their pre-Covid lives. So raising the specter of COVID and focusing on the negative will only create problems for you. That’s not going to get you many votes,” Jones said. “For people who are stressed and very concerned about COVID-19 and its threat to public health, they are already voting for Democrats. So Democrats don’t have to do much to mobilize them. But if they focus too much on COVID, they will be seen as people who are focusing on issues that are not a priority for a large portion of the electorate…focusing on an issue that is more negative than positive.”
According to a University of Texas and Texas Policy Project poll from August, only 1% of Texans see COVID as the state’s most important issue. In October, the same group released a new set of data showing that only 21% of Texans consider COVID a “significant crisis.”
But since 2020, COVID has killed nearly 90,000 Texans, with 40,000 of those people dying after the vaccine became available, according to state data.
“This is the biggest tragedy to hit the state of Texas. The next closest thing is the more than 20,000 Texans who gave their lives in World War II,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Vaccine Development Center at Texas Children’s Hospital. He is also dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
“We’re talking about something of an extraordinary scale,” Dr. Hotez continued. “It is very sad and heartbreaking, especially for those who needlessly lost loved ones, as their lives could have been saved if they had agreed to the vaccination.”
Dr. Hotez blames anti-vaccine activism, which he calls “anti-science aggression.”
“This shows a new political commitment and affiliation to the anti-vaccine movement,” Dr. Hotez said. “Over the last seven or eight years, the anti-vaccination movement has evolved from being against Clinton — the false claims about autism — into a more political movement, into this banner of health freedom, medical freedom. That’s what has really intensified during the pandemic. And that’s why he’s completely entrenched in far-right politics in America.”
Dr. Hotez said that COVID might be worth talking about on the campaign trail, especially to promote revaccinations.
“If we’re desperate for Americans to get their booster … we need to talk about COVID,” Dr. Hotez said. “You have to remind people that this is still with us and with this new option there could be some choppy waters ahead. So there’s more to talk about. While it may not make sense politically, if you’re really committed to saving lives, it’s important.”
The governor recently reinstated Texas’ COVID disaster declaration, even as he downplayed the severity of the pandemic. Jones said the governor may have done this to prepare resources for another outbreak. But more realistically, Jones said he’s using it to gain power over agencies and budgets he wouldn’t normally have access to.
Although both gubernatorial candidates tested positive for the coronavirus last year, they are not going to address the issue of COVID so close to Election Day, which is Nov. 8. Texans have until Nov. 4 to vote early.
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