The virus that has upended everything from sports to dining out is about to wreak its havoc in politics. As we enter the crucial weeks of electioneering ahead of the September primaries and the November general election, uncertainty reigns.

The coronavirus will affect everything from door-to-door stumping to the national party conventions and the way millions cast ballots.

In our corner of New England, Rhode Island has local primaries for General Assembly and town and city offices, and in Massachusetts the marquee race is the primary joust between Sen. Ed Markey and Congressman Joe Kennedy III. Kennedy started off with an advantage, but recent polls show Markey has closed the gap. The two liberals don’t disagree on anything meaningful, so this one will come down to how much resonance Kennedy’s surname still carries in the state that forged the family dynasty.

The biggest unknown in the primaries is who will turnout. Conventional wisdom is that the changes wrought by the virus will favor incumbents, says Joe Fleming, veteran polster for WPRI-TV. The difficulty in raising money and building momentum through personal organizing will force challengers to climb a steep hill.

This is particularly the case in cities. The traditional means of connecting with voters are out of bounds. There won’t be the spaghetti suppers and hand-shaking at the elderly high-rises. No gatherings at the Portuguese clubs and diners across the region. Pumping hands at church feasts is just so 2018.

In rural areas, candidates are still pursuing door knocking, wearing masks and taking precautions, says Republican State Rep. Brian Newberry of North Smithfield. One advantage is that everyone is home, he says.

Longtime Rhode Island political consultant Bill Fischer says direct mail appeals and Facebook ads will replace face-to-face encounters.

Then there is how we cast ballots. Both Massachusetts and Rhode Island have put into effect early voting and have eased access to mail ballots. Republicans and some Democrats are battling in Rhode Island over how easy this should be. A federal judge approved scuttling the requirement for witnessed and notarized mail ballots, but the Republican National Committee has appealed the ruling.

Those televised pep rallies known as national conventions are gone too. The conventions long ago lost their status as decision makers; presidential candidates are picked these days in the primaries. This is likely to hurt Democrat Joe Biden more than Republican Donald Trump. The out party generally gains a bounce from these confabs. 

This time, Biden will be forced to give the most consequential speech of his long career from his home in Delaware. No cheering delegates and no balloon drops will greet his acceptance address. Trump says he may give his acceptance from the White House, the ultimate incumbency prop.

With 1,000 Americans dying every day and unemployment at more than ten percent, COVID-19 will obviously be a huge topic across the nation. 

Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C. are struggling to forge a compromise on the next round of virus aid. The test here could boil down to how voters view the role of government. Has the pandemic exposed fault lines that have been simmering for years, such as racial and economic inequality, the broken health care system and the growing power of huge corporations? Democrats hope that’s in the forefront, while Republicans fear too much reliance on government and trust market forces to restore the economy and develop a vaccine.

There is, of course, a nightmare scenario: a close election where millions of mail ballots clog the tally. That could mean a legal and public meltdown that would dwarf the Florida 2000 fiasco. The last thing we need in a pandemic is a Constitutional crisis.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:45 and 8:45 in the morning and 5:44 in the afternoon.