Opinion | The Covid-19 Election

Election workers process mail-in and absentee ballots in West Chester, Pa., Nov. 4.


Matt Slocum/Associated Press

If you visit the websites of the

New York Times

or the Washington Post to look at the results of the exit polling conducted Tuesday by Edison Research, you will find questions related to race, sex, inequality, ethnic heritage, health care and the economy. You won’t find this question: How important to your vote was the impeachment of President Trump?

Nor will you find any questions about Russian collusion, the Steele dossier, the Mueller investigation or Ukraine. Which is odd, insofar as battalions of reporters from those newspapers and the rest of the media pushed such “narratives” nonstop for more than three years to defeat this presidency. Sure would be nice to know how many people bought them.

From the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, critical perspective and analysis on developments from Washington

After all that, the 2020 presidential election comes down to a photo-finish, though the horses’ noses are frozen a foot from the finish line as we await a final call from various secretaries of state, litigants and likely the Supreme Court.

We are in this mess for one reason: the Covid-19 pandemic.

If it hadn’t been for Covid, this would have been a normal election, with Donald Trump’s policy record producing a second term and rioting in the streets. Some may say political rioting isn’t normal, but it has become routine for progressive Democrats since Mr. Trump won four years ago.

The coronavirus produced the two things that are the cause of the mess we’re in this week: a Trump vulnerability for Joe Biden to run on, and the mail-in voting fiasco.

Mr. Biden seized on the main political anomaly of the past seven months: While governors from both parties got positive ratings for their handling of the virus, President Trump did not. And for just one reason: Their pandemic press conferences were about the virus. His were about him, causing an avoidable erosion of public support.

Absent this self-inflicted wound, Mr. Biden would have had to run on his only other issue, Mr. Trump’s personality and character. Not implausible, but a harder sell. But then the mass adoption of mail-in voting made Mr. Biden’s job easier. This pandemic-driven novelty is an experiment we should never repeat.

According to the NBC News exit poll, people who voted in the final week selected Mr. Trump over Mr. Biden by 54% to 36%. Feel free to call this sour grapes, but allowing such ludicrously early mail-in voting could as easily damage a future Democratic president. This is an election, not a preset Apple Wallet payment.

For months, Mr. Biden ran a rope-a-dope campaign, showing next to nothing about the party policy issues developed by his famous trainer, Bernie Sanders—until the last debate and “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes.”

That may have been a tactical error, but it was a fact relevant to voters’ calculations about their economic future in states such as Pennsylvania and Texas. That Mr. Biden couldn’t duck it through Election Day is, well, the reason we have campaigns.

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Coronavirus infections surged in some states in the election’s final two weeks. Possibly that lent support to Mr. Biden’s criticism of the president’s virus management. On the other hand, voters absorbing the case surge, such as Nevada casino workers, also had to consider the personal economic costs of reimposed business shutdowns, as was being reported in Europe. They had reason to believe Mr. Biden would support resumed shutdowns.

Allowing people to vote so many weeks before a campaign ends produces a politics defined by robotic partisanship rather than a focused judgment about the consequences of one’s vote.

We all keep talking about the awful uniqueness of 2020, and with the year ending, it’s time to consider the lessons of how poorly prepared the American system was for two major predictable events like the pandemic and the voting challenge.

Amid AIDS, SARS, MERS, Zika and Ebola, virologists have warned for decades about a rampant viral pandemic. It came, and we just let it roll over us, with experts such as Anthony Fauci falling back on quarantine strategies barely upgraded from 100 years ago.

Even now, despite a lost school year and historic economic ruin, the presumably best minds here and in Europe haven’t produced anything resembling a plausible risk-benefit strategy between closings and openings or fatalities and others’ survival. Now we are about to drag a presidential election through a legal swamp because of an experimental mail-in voting system whose weaknesses were predicted, not least by the postal service itself.

Just as human nature reimposed itself when people resisted overly broad mask mandates, don’t feign shock when human nature suspects that ineptitude or fraud has been committed beneath this election’s collapsing avalanche of mailed ballots. The Trump campaign filed a lawsuit in Michigan Wednesday to let it observe the opening of mailed-in ballots. At the least.

By the way, looking at the excitement of this year’s historic voter turnout, remind me again why the U.S. should abolish the Electoral College. It’s a proven system of deep political engagement and America’s great quadrennial pageant. If, in 2020, we don’t debauch it forever.

Write henninger@wsj.com.

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Appeared in the November 5, 2020, print edition.