Congratulations are due to President-elect Joe Biden. But in truth, the other real winner was … coronavirus.

For all the celebrating on the left, for all the finger-pointing on the right, here is what dominated the presidential election. It wasn’t the overthrow of American government, the Supreme Court, race relations, Hunter Biden, or any of the numerous issues we in the media so foolishly insisted would be “game changers.”

It was a tiny viral particle that spreads from one respiratory system to another. This invisible killer changed the way we viewed the two candidates, changed the way we voted, changed the campaigns, changed the turnout, even changed the counting.

Its footprint was so big, the election fit inside it.

Want proof? According to the Associated Press, 41% of the electorate said coronavirus  was the most important issue in their decision, by far the dominant motivator. Next closest, at 28%, was the economy and jobs.

That’s nearly 70% of the vote prioritizing essentially the same thing, since COVID-19 and the economy are inexorably connected. Do we shut down our economy to try and crush the virus? Do we keep our doors open and live with the shocking infection and death totals?

Either way, we are stymied by the same opponent.

The virus also wins.

COVID-19 underscores all

Next, consider how we voted. Thanks to COVID-19, tens of millions of people chose to vote by mail, a historic number. Thanks to COVID-19, millions more voted early. Thanks to COVID-19, lawmakers were emboldened to change the rules on who got ballots and how late they could return them. All these arguments still going on over which votes are valid and which are not? They can trace their roots to COVID-19.

Same goes for how the votes were counted. The distance poll workers had to sit from one another, the distance they had to keep from poll watchers, the amount of people allowed in one place, who touched what and where — it was all affected by one thing, and that one thing wasn’t red or blue. It was the empty color of airborne particles.

Next, consider the campaigns. Biden built much of his alleging Trump was irresponsible with COVID-19 and therefore responsible for hundreds of thousands of dead Americans. 

Meanwhile, Trump built his attack on making Biden a coronavirus bogeyman, warning everyone that, in fear of COVID-19, “Biden will shut us down!” 

Consider the debates. Trump, with a belligerent attack, turned off many of the 74 million who watched the first one. Then he got COVID-19, and the second one was pulled. By the time he changed his approach and the third one arrived, it was late in the game. Many had already made up their minds. Coronavirus strikes again.

And given how close the election wound up — and the fact that only once in the last 40 years has an incumbent president not won a second term — it’s hard to imagine if there was no COVID-19 — and the economy was humming like 2019 — that Trump, for all his faults, would not have been re-elected. 

Perhaps it’s true, what Jane Fonda said earlier this year, “COVID is God’s gift to the left.”

If so, the gift delivered.

The virus also wins.

Instability always spurs change

Now, no one should be shocked by this. It’s almost always one issue — usually the economy — that causes Americans to switch presidential horses midstream. Herbert Hoover lost his re-election because of the Great Depression. Jimmy Carter lost his due to rampant inflation (and a hostage crisis). George H.W. Bush lost because of a recession and a broken promise of “read my lips, no new taxes.

None of them had a pandemic to deal with. Trump did. It crippled his economy. It also fatally exposed his approach to dealing with problems. Remember, most presidential issues are solved behind closed doors. But Trump held nightly exhibitions of his coronavirus handling on TV, often praising himself and appearing tone-deaf to the nation’s suffering. That hurt him greatly, and gave his opponents ample ammunition in an election year.

So now Trump has been defeated. And seeing Biden and Kamala Harris wearing masks before addressing the nation reminds us immediately what this vote was most about.

The virus shadows everything.

But sadly, we already are drifting from that truth.

The virus also wins

I wrote last week that it won’t really matter who wins on Tuesday if we don’t change how we treat each other Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. But hopes for a national reconciliation may be threatened by new battle lines.

Trump is sending signals that he will never accept a loss. His supporters — not all, but many — echo his claim that Democrats “are trying to steal the election.” They warn that Biden is a strawman, that he’ll be steamrolled by the far left of his party.

Meanwhile, instead of seeing the close vote, the lack of a blue wave, minorities increasing their GOP support and Republican gains in the House as a need to govern from the center, Biden declared Friday night that he has been given “a mandate” from voters on “climate change and systemic racism” even though the AP poll showed only 7% considered race the top issue and only 4% climate change.

But at least Biden spoke of respecting those who opposed him. Other Democrats seem infuriated that Trump got any votes at all. California Rep. Maxine Waters said of African Americans who voted for the president, “I will never ever forgive them.” An MSNBC contributor labeled all 70 million Trump voters as “racists” and “tribalists.” All 70 million? Writer and commentator Toure tweeted, “If you’re a Trumper I hope the pain and anxiety you feel now is excruciating.”

What happened to the party of compassion?

Will we ever learn? Instead of accepting that good people can disagree, we excoriate anyone who doesn’t see it our way. We dismiss them as beneath us. The media continues to debase its actual purpose by acting as black-robed judges of what’s happening, instead of as observers.

Meanwhile, as we struggle, the other victor in this election is silently infecting over 100,000 Americans every day, and pulling 1,000 or more into the grave with every sunset.

To paraphrase James Carville, “It’s the virus, stupid.” And that virus will still be here when we stop arguing. Biden may have parlayed criticism of the White House to a victory, but come Jan. 20, the pandemic will be his problem, his albatross, his judge and his jury.

For now, coronavirus also wins the election. Only the person who defeats it will be considered America’s champion.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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