The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has derailed the Democratic primary season, forcing seven US states to postpone elections. The contest fielded the largest group of primary contenders in decades, but on the eve of Super Tuesday, it was whittled down to just two: former President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I–Vt.
Although Biden recently assumed a commanding 1,201 to 896-delegate lead over Sanders and has victory all but assured, the Covid-19 crisis has given the Democratic Party new reason to worry. Whereas before Super Tuesday its greatest fear was a Sanders presidency, it now must contend with the reality that Covid-19 threatens its anti-Trump efforts.
President Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, Sanders stand to benefit from the delays, however. For the senator, the fight to secure the Democratic nomination took a bad turn on Super Tuesday from what was an otherwise well-run pursuit up to that point. Biden had come off weak in debates, uttered some gaffes that became Internet jokes, and failed to win early states.
Split Focus Diverts Biden’s Efforts
Sanders can use the time to mount a comeback, even if that possibility is remote. As long as he remains a contender, Biden must devote attention to him, a focus that could otherwise be on Trump. More pertinently, Biden must focus on winning over Sanders voters rather than attacking his opponent who by most accounts has already lost. At this point, Biden must woo them instead of going for the jugular.
“In theory, the Biden campaign could spend the next seven months with a singular focus instead of keeping one eye on a primary opponent whose chances of victory are virtually zero,” said Addisu Demissie, campaign manager for Sen. Cory Booker’s failed Democratic bid.
If Biden fails to continue smooth-talking Sanders’ progressive base, he risks alienating them, Demissie said. And if he strikes too hard, he will engender anger that could provoke people to stay home from the polls in November.
“So it’s forcing the Biden team to walk a tightrope across a canyon when the bridge is right there.”
The longer the Democrats remain divided, the more time Trump has reestablish himself with voters.
“For practical reasons, Democrats would like to get on with the business of uniting behind a candidate to streamline fundraising and grassroots operations and create a big tent message that allows the best opportunity to beat Donald Trump in November,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne.
Had the primaries not been delayed, Biden may have been able to deliver a knock-out blow to Sanders. Georgia moved its primary to May 19 and a handful of states—Connecticut, Indiana, and Maryland—chose June 2 as their makeup date. Ohio is also considering June 2, which is a week before the June 9 deadline set by the party.
Louisiana moved its contest to June 20 and Kentucky chose June 23, which falls past the cutoff. As a result, the party could penalize the states by revoking half of their delegates.
Battle for Airtime
Meanwhile, as the Democrats scramble to conclude an already-lengthy nominating season, Trump is focused on fighting Covid-19. Although it may seem that holding campaign rallies and targeting Biden would give the president a larger boost in the run-up to the election, the truth is he has been campaigning since he took office. His entire first term has been filled with rallies and he has never missed an opportunity to assail opponents and critics.
By contrast, Covid-19 presents Trump in another light, as a leader during the crisis. While the White House mishandled the beginning of the pandemic, Biden doesn’t get his chance to make that point right now because the entire nation is effectively shut down. Trump, however, is afforded ample free media time to promote his administration’s response while making a case for his reelection. And if he bungled the beginning, he has the rest of the year to make up for it.
On Monday, Biden said he would start airing briefings from his home in an effort to keep his face circulating. His campaign will also start to vet running mates, which would offer some noteworthy news he could share in the coming months. He repeated his pledge to choose a woman as his vice president, and that alone will draw considerable attention, even if it’s not the first time (the late Sen. John McCain chose former Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008).
There are few options left for Biden to negate the effects of Covid-19. At this point, his campaign will struggle with keeping him relevant. Even Sanders has a role in the crisis as a sitting senator, while Biden is left stuck at home and largely powerless.