You have likely never heard of Danny Vanden Boom. But the 22-year-old college junior, who just a few weeks ago was the 4th-string quarterback for the University of Wisconsin football team, could have an outsized impact on the outcome of next week’s presidential election.
Many of us know the critical role that Wisconsin played in electing President Donald Trump four years ago, and the state is considered to be one of the most closely contested in this year’s election as well. The added complication for Trump is that the Badger state is suffering from one of the worst outbreaks of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the country right now, while the president is attempting to minimize the pandemic, telling voters that “we are rounding the corner” and that the danger will have soon passed.
But even as the president was campaigning in the western part of the state on Tuesday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services confirmed more than 5,000 news cases and 64 deaths as a result of the coronavirus that day, by far the highest totals that the state has experienced as COVID-19's impact on the state continues to worsen.
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The disparity between the message the president is delivering and the reality of what Wisconsin voters are experiencing is immense. But we know that many Americans who live in small towns and rural communities can be more dismissive of the disease if it is not impacting their own lives.
Here’s where Danny Vanden Boom comes in. The University of Wisconsin football team is one of the best in the nation, and Saturday afternoons in the fall are set aside throughout the state for Wisconsin Badger football games. Trump himself understands the important cultural impact that college football possesses in this part of the country: that’s why he lobbied so hard to convince Big Ten conference officials to allow their games to be played this season. The president knew that football would be a powerful sign that the country was returning to normal and that the pandemic was soon to be a thing of the past.
A few weeks ago, Wisconsin's starting quarterback suffered a foot injury that would prevent him from playing in the team’s first several games. This past Saturday, the substitute quarterback played one of the best games in school history, throwing five touchdown passes and setting several records as the Badgers routed rival Illinois. But on Monday, the new star quarterback was diagnosed with COVID-19, and so was his replacement the next day. This leaves young Mr. Vanden Boom, who has thrown one single pass in his college career to date, as the new starter.
Badger football has attained near-religious status in Wisconsin over the years, and for the large numbers of state residents who have not been personally impacted by the virus, a damaging blow to their favorite team’s season would have exactly the type of disruptive impact on their lives that Trump is working so hard to convince them is now past. If Danny Vanden Boom, the erstwhile 4th-stringer, leads Wisconsin to victory, then the resulting celebration could put the state in a positive and optimistic mood heading into Tuesday’s vote. This is the type of atmosphere that typically bodes well for an incumbent, but even more so for one who has been arguing that the pandemic should not require dramatic changes in our lives.
But if Wisconsin’s beloved Badgers lose this weekend because of COVID-19's impact on their star players, the state will be in a much more dour frame of mind when it comes time to cast their ballots. They will blame the disease for their team’s defeat. They could also be more likely to blame the president who didn’t protect them from it.
UPDATE 10/28/20 at 3:15 p.m. ET: On Wednesday afternoon, the Wisconsin-Nebraska football game scheduled for Saturday was cancelled after twelve members of Wisconsin's program tested positive for COVID-19. Earlier, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Biden leading Trump by a margin of 57-40 percent. Last month, the same poll showed Biden with a six point lead.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.
This piece was reviewed by AllSides Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter. He has a Center bias.
Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his weekly webinar “Politics In The Time of Coronavirus” on Thursday mornings at 11 AM PST. You can register for it here. https://www.lawac.org/EventDetail/eventid/30784. Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.