2020 Primary and Election: Has the Coronavirus Postponed It All?

There is a rhythm to it all, in happier times, a procession of dates and checkpoints to spread the politics and patriotism neatly across the calendar.

The presidential primaries tick past, Tuesday by Tuesday, through the spring. Former rivals hug it out at their party conventions in the summer. The Olympics bring the sides together, briefly, in merry distraction and shared cause before the fall. And then comes November, when half of the country is disappointed again.

So, what happens when immovable dates become negotiable — when everything does — in the throes of a pandemic? What must hold firm when nothing seems to?

Primaries are postponed. Hugs are postponed. The Olympics are postponed.

The November election, everyone appears to agree, cannot be.

“We voted in the middle of a Civil War,” Joseph R. Biden Jr., the heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination, told supporters at a tele-fund-raiser on Sunday. “We voted in the middle of World War I and II. And so, the idea of postponing the electoral process is just — seems to me, out of the question.”

And yet for weeks, the moment has delivered one reminder after the next of all that the crisis has made wobbly, all that seemed certain before certainty went into quarantine.

Dates exist in stone until they don’t. Younger people are spared the worst of the virus’s ravages until they aren’t. American ideals, in 2020, leave no room for the concession of mass death, surely. But then here is a White House now suggesting that the cure (stifling business for a period to encourage social distancing) cannot become worse than the disease (the disease).

The result is as disorienting as the messaging. What does progress look like when the healthiest course is collective stasis? What is there to drive toward, to look forward to, when the common benchmarks of the year — weddings, athletic seasons, state elections — seem to be punted further from reach?

“We’re not that familiar with a sense of tribulation as a part of daily life,” said Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard University and author of “These Truths: A History of the United States.” “The basic American middle-class is not used to the idea that time could be moving backwards. And at the moment, what it feels like for most people is almost that time is standing still.”

Already, meaningful electoral proceedings have been delayed or recast. Many states have pushed their primaries into June in the hopes of waiting out the worst of the virus. Pennsylvania, slated for April 28, is likely to be next. Senator Bernie Sanders, Mr. Biden’s chief rival, has effectively converted his campaign into a pandemic policy shop and vessel for progressive activism as he confronts a significant delegate deficit. Planners for the Democratic National Convention said this week that they were assessing “contingency options” in case the July gathering cannot go on as planned.

But the general election is another matter. No one in a position of relevant authority has proposed moving it, though the subject has instantly become a cause of angst for President Trump’s critics. These fears seem to owe more to Mr. Trump’s attacks on democratic norms and institutions during his time in office than anything the president has said of late.

So far, Mr. Trump has appeared inclined to defy the guidance of public health experts by suggesting Americans return to their workplaces and public engagements well before the coronavirus has been tamed.

Even if he wished to delay the November election, the decision would appear to be out of his hands. Any change to the date would require federal legislation, passed by Congress, to say nothing of challenges in the court system.

The prospect of that kind of bipartisan collaboration on an issue of this magnitude is exceedingly slim.

Still, some academics have processed the official coronavirus response with alarm, warning that the present blend of institutional distrust and health-minded limits on personal liberties could prove dangerous.

“In the next months, defenders of democracy need to sustain this very careful balancing act between overreacting to justified emergency measures on the one side and not easily going along with real attacks on our democratic institutions on the other,” said Yascha Mounk, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University who has written extensively about threats to liberal democracy. “That’s going to be incredibly difficult.”

Of heightened concern to some Democrats is the specter of state leaders citing the virus to impose voting constraints that might disproportionately affect left-leaning cities. “They will find a way to make it hard,” said Amanda Litman, the executive director of Run for Something, an organization that helps Democrats run for local office. “And we have to find a way to mitigate that as much as possible — at home, without a lot of funds.”

Even absent any cynical application of voting restrictions, some lawmakers worry that lingering civic confusion and uncertainty might hamper turnout with key constituencies.

On Tuesday, a group of House Democrats addressed a letter to the White House requesting a shelter-in-place order of at least two weeks for the entire country, arguing that such an approach made sense on both public safety and long-term economic grounds.

The note’s lead author, Representative Ro Khanna of California, said that part of the urgency flowed from a need to head off as many disruptions and complications as possible before November.

“Getting a shelter-in-place now for two to three weeks would mitigate the risk of having a catastrophe or re-emergence closer to November,” Mr. Khanna, a national campaign co-chair for Mr. Sanders, said in an interview.

He added that officials should be exploring alternatives to traditional voting like vote-by-mail wherever possible.

In the interim, Ms. Lepore, the historian, said it was dislocating enough merely fumbling through the unknown. “We keep saying around here in my household: ‘If we knew it was two weeks, we could pace ourselves,’” she said. “‘If we knew it was a month, we could pace ourselves.’”

But then, what about six months?

What about November?