In this edition: Sanders and Biden settle in for primary limbo, states debate how to conduct pandemic-era elections, and new polling shows who voters don’t want to give crisis bailouts to.
As I did last week, I’m asking for questions anyone might have about the election and the primary as the coronavirus crisis bears down. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, and put TRAILER in the headline somewhere; last week’s and this week’s questions will be answered Sunday.
I wonder whether the spam callers are still going to bait people with free cruises, and this is The Trailer.
The plan for Joe Biden this week was simple: Do plenty of TV from his new home studio and bring him back into the coronavirus conversation. On Tuesday, Biden beamed into three daytime news talk shows, urging Americans to “listen to the doctors” and rattling off resources that the president should mobilize. In a talk with MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace, Biden started to talk about the bravery of people confronting the virus, then stopped himself.
“I’m so darn proud, and those poor people who have lost …” Biden trailed off, choking up. “Anyway.”
As he often did on the stump, Biden had caught himself getting emotional and awkwardly changed the subject. A Los Angeles-based artist made a short clip of the Biden-Wallace moment with the sarcastic caption “killin it,” and got 2.1 million views. Another MSNBC clip was featured on Rising, the Hill’s populism-branded morning show, in a segment titled “Biden CRASHES AND BURNS in multiple TV appearances.”
“Just ask yourself, is that the man you want leading this crisis right now?” asked the show’s left-leaning co-host, Krystal Ball.
Biden has amassed the biggest delegate lead in a Democratic presidential primary since 2004, with landslides in the Midwest and South putting him far ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Three make-or-break moments for Sanders have come and gone: Super Tuesday, the Michigan primary and a debate where Biden dashed left-wing hopes of a weak performance. But the senator from Vermont is staying in the race, arguing that the coronavirus crisis proves the need for a New Deal-style presidency, with every canceled health plan and every story of a sick patient worried about medical bills making his point.
“We need to guarantee human rights to all of our people and end this unfettered capitalism and this survival of the fittest,” Sanders said in a Wednesday night broadcast.
Some supporters are going further, looking for a Biden gaffe or scandal that would raise enough doubts about his candidacy to hand Sanders the nomination. The Republican Party and conservative media infrastructure are united behind the president, while his likely opponent continues to take friendly fire and could keep taking it for months. Videos from the GOP’s rapid response team, cut to show Biden at his worst, are often quickly amplified by Sanders supporters who warn that worse would come in a general election.
“The GOP is not going to put on kid gloves to handle Biden,” said Jack Allison, a 33-year-old comedian and podcaster whose videos about Biden’s verbal stumbles get hundreds of thousands of views. “Trump’s doing these briefings where he’s side by side with generals, and Biden stumbles over his words and gets facts wrong. It kind of undercuts the ‘electability’ argument that’s been the most compelling rationale for Biden.”
The primary campaign is now in a kind of limbo, with no campaigning and little voting until the end of May. There’s more time between now and the final scheduled primary (89 days) than time that has passed since the Iowa caucuses (52 days). Primaries that looked particularly promising for Biden, like the Georgia contest that had been scheduled for March 24, have been pushed down the calendar. Instead of having the chance to hit the 1,991 delegate win threshold next month, Biden cannot get a clear majority of delegates until June.
As the pandemic scrambles the primary, as it replaces in-person campaigning with digital town halls, Biden is continuing to fight a two-front battle against Republicans and Sanders. The former vice president has been largely polite and dismissive about Sanders.
In the 11 days since adviser Anita Dunn described Sanders as acting like a “protester” onstage, the campaign has not attacked him. In a Wednesday briefing with reporters, Biden shrugged off a question about Sanders wanting a 12th primary debate to be held in April.
“I think we’ve had enough debates,” Biden said. “I think we should get on with this.”
Sanders, in turn, has largely ignored Biden and focused on his own coronavirus response. The senator from Vermont’s campaign has halted anti-Biden advertising and has done no fundraising, though about 260,000 supporters have signed up for recurring donations. even its campaign newsletter, which often tested out arguments against Biden, has been quiet since March 17. And it’s not clear any political maneuvering is breaking through the busy news cycle.
“Doesn’t matter,” said former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who in 2016 skillfully used left-wing anger at Hillary Clinton to help Republicans. “It’s all about the pandemic.”
On Wednesday night, Sanders and Biden ended up agreeing on the coronavirus rescue package, with Sanders voting for it and giving a floor speech attacking the Republicans who opposed a temporary surge in the size of unemployment benefits. (Republicans did not have the votes to strike that part of the bill.) His campaign has pointed to the crisis, and Sanders’s near-nightly town halls about it, to argue that one candidate has a comprehensive economic agenda, and the other does not.
“One of the things that I think the people want, especially in this unprecedented crisis in modern American history, is to hear the ideas of candidates as to how we got into this disaster,” Sanders told CNN on Wednesday night.
It was a softer tone than Sanders had used in 2016, when he unsuccessfully lobbied Clinton to debate him before that year’s California primary. But Sanders is in a much weaker position than he was then, or than Clinton was in 2008. Both were frequently asked when they might run out of options and concede; both suggested that their luck could change if they closed strongly.
“My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June,” Clinton told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader in May 2008, pointing to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy as an example of how campaigns had been thrown by events, a comment for which she later expressed regret.
Eight years later, when under pressure to quit, the Sanders campaign pointed to Clinton’s own resilience against Barack Obama. Asked about Sanders’s path to victory, they argued that Clinton would not hit that year’s nominating threshold with pledged delegates alone; therefore, either candidate could made the case to “superdelegates,” whose votes were not bound to primary results.
“She will need superdelegates to take her over the top at the convention in Philadelphia,” Sanders said of Clinton in a May 2016 speech at the National Press Club. “It will be a contested convention.”
That argument no longer flies in 2020, thanks in large part to rules changes favored by Sanders. This year, superdelegates are forbidden from having a say on the first ballot, meaning that a majority of pledged delegates would secure the nomination. And just a few weeks ago, when he was confident that he would get the most delegates in a divided field, Sanders argued repeatedly that whoever led with pledged delegates had earned the nomination.
“I see Joe Biden with a 300-delegate lead and a campaign that’s basically frozen,” said Mark Longabaugh, a 2016 Sanders strategist who worked for Andrew Yang this cycle. “There does not seem to be a way for Bernie Sanders to turn this around. So the question becomes, if you’re not going to be the nominee, why are you staying in the race?”
To pass Biden, Sanders would need to win a supermajority of all outstanding delegates in a combination of states that he lost overall four years ago. And to many Sanders supporters, confident that the senator would win a general election and nervous that Biden would blow it, that has raised the salience of anything that could knock Biden out of the race.
There’s some precedent for this. In 2016, some Clinton opponents hoped that the FBI’s probe of her use of a private email server would persuade superdelegates to switch to Sanders. The agency closed the investigation in early July, before the convention. In 2008, many Clinton supporters argued that Obama had electability issues that would take the whole party down, with some on the fringes speculating that Republicans had a tape of Michelle Obama using a racial slur. (No such tape existed.)
The last-ditch argument against Biden is different, based on his own perceived vulnerabilities. There’s the constant watch for televised gaffes and stumbles, and the week of speculation that he was in hiding, both seen as evidence that Democratic voters needed to reset the primary. There even has been baseless speculation that the party’s establishment is letting Biden accrue delegates ahead of the convention so that it could swap him for another nominee, such as New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. (Sanders has won 2.5 million fewer votes than Biden, so only in a scenario like this would denying Sanders nullify the popular vote.)
All that’s lacking is a shared reality, in which Biden voters and Sanders voters would be consuming the same information. Online, Biden’s interview with Nicolle Wallace was about a five-second brain freeze. In MSNBC’s own promotions, the emphasis was on Biden speaking to “loved ones of coronavirus victims.” ABC’s own coverage of Biden’s segment on “The View” focused on the candidate telling Americans to “listen to the doctors,” while online chatter focused on Biden mixing up his words and saying “we have to take care of the cure, that will make the problem worse.”
The online version of events created a negative feedback loop, with one news cycle about what Biden had said and a separate, more selective news cycle about Biden’s slip-ups. With most of the country locked inside, and much of it online, this could be what a primary in limbo looks like for two and a half more months.
“I don’t even think there’s substantial damage being done to Biden at this point,” Longabaugh said. “The online vitriol isn’t nearly what it was last time. There’s no campaigning going on, so the air could come out of the balloon, and that would be a very, very good thing for Biden. Once Bernie Sanders sends a signal to his supporters, I think a lot of this will tamp down.”
Why a long, long play for South Carolina failed, and what happened next.
Unions want the primary over.
“Live from his basement, Joe Biden pushes for visibility as Democrats worry,” by Matt Viser and Annie Linskey
The home studio is live, but not every problem has been fixed.
Won’t somebody think of the real victims?
“Senate stimulus package includes $400 million to help run elections amid the pandemic,” by Amy Gardner and Mike DeBonis
Good news, we still get to vote.
In the states
The states that had yet to hold their primaries before the pandemic continue to shuffle the calendar and to debate how coronavirus-era elections should be held.
First, the calendar. There are no delegates left to be selected this month. There are no primaries at all until next Saturday’s contest in Hawaii, where in-person voting has been canceled and the entire election will be conducted by mail ballots. Voter registration has been reopened in Wisconsin until March 30, where Democrats and local leaders are urging voters to pick mail ballots but in-person voting is still set to proceed for the April 7 primary. On April 10 and April 17, Alaska and Wyoming Democrats, respectively, will be counting the ballots from their primaries. With New York and Pennsylvania in the process of moving their primaries to June, there will be just two more primaries scheduled for next month — the April 26 primary in Puerto Rico, and, if legislators have their way, a rescheduled Ohio primary April 28.
In other words, just 324 delegates would be picked in all of April, a month that the previous calendar had set up as the potential end of the primary. Under the old schedule, 87 percent of all delegates would have been selected by the end of that month. Under this schedule, the party won’t get to that point until June. Just 269 delegates will be selected in May, while if Pennsylvania moves to June 2, 686 delegates will be selected on that day alone, with seven more picked in the Virgin Islands the following weekend.
If New York moves to June 23, the day when the rest of its federal primaries were set to be held, that will mean that 382 of the party’s 3,981 delegates — slightly less than 10 percent — will be chosen past the party’s initial deadline. This is why allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders still see a path, albeit a narrow one, to a comeback and nomination. It’s also why allies of former vice president Joe Biden talk about the race like it’s over. According to the Associated Press, Biden has won 1,215 delegates, and candidates who’ve dropped out and endorsed him have won an additional 93. It would take 61 percent of the delegates elected by June 2 to clinch the nomination for Biden; Sanders would need to win 85 percent of that delegate pool to do so.
Meanwhile, most of the conversation has moved over to the processes states will use for handing out ballots. In Ohio, the legislature has gotten behind a plan to send every voter a notice about getting an absentee ballot, followed by a reasonable period to cast that ballot. But that’s more cumbersome than the vote-by-mail norm that has worked in states such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington, which now conduct elections entirely remotely.
Unite the Country, “Crisis Comes.” A week ago, Democrats were nervous that Joe Biden and his allies were being slow to craft a pandemic-era message. Biden’s chief super PAC has stepped up to portray the crisis as proof of President Trump’s failure to govern. “Donald Trump didn’t create the coronavirus,” a narrator says, “but he is the one who called, hoax.” (The awkward phrasing of that line comes from Trump’s use of the word “hoax,” which was a reference to media coverage, not the virus itself.) “Crisis comes to every president. This one failed.”
Priorities USA, “Better Prepared.” The longest-lasting Democratic super PAC, initially created to help Barack Obama in 2012, has gotten punchier with its own coronavirus messaging. One of its spots has been hit with a cease-and-desist letter from the Trump campaign, despite including no factual inaccuracies. This one is more about Biden, using clips from his initial coronavirus address, which because of the subsuming of all other news did not get as much play as Democrats wanted.
Do you support emergency government assistance for this group? (Washington Post/ABC News, 1,003 adults)
Small businesses: 90%
Americans making less than $100,000: 86%
Large corporations: 46%
The first large-scale study of voter worries about the pandemic finds a majority of Americans girding for a recession and most expecting someone they know personally to lose their job. The first read on the potential beneficiaries of a stimulus is more optimistic; a supermajority of Americans are comfortable with temporary assistance (here it’s means-tested to cover 90 percent of workers), and a supermajority are fine with bailouts for small businesses. The purpose of Democrats’ focus on the stimulus’s $500 billion business fund becomes a little clearer here: Bailing out corporate America is the least-popular part of the plan, by far.
With Joe Biden‘s home studio up and running, the campaign is still frozen, but we know what every candidate is doing. Biden will appear on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show tonight, while Bernie Sanders will return to Vermont from Washington after the final votes on the coronavirus stimulus package.
President Trump continues to hold no campaign events, but Women for Trump, one of the campaign’s many outreach groups, will hold its first live stream tonight. (A previously planned bus tour was canceled this month, one of the first campaign events to be scrapped because of the pandemic.)
… nine days until the Democratic primary in Hawaii
… 11 days until the Democratic primary in Wisconsin
… 73 days until the cutoff for picking Democratic delegates
… 109 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 151 days until the Republican National Convention
… 221 days until the general election