Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Apr 09, 2020
Challenges mount for Joe Biden as the Democratic National Convention gets postponed due to the COVID19 pandemic and Trump sowed discord amongst Democrats over Bernie Sanders’ belated exit
COVID19 delays and Bernie Sanders’ belated exit riddle Joe Biden’s campaign With over 400,000 active cases, the United States has surpassed China and Italy as the most affected by the novel coronavirus. Recently, the US Surgeon General Jerome Adams even deemed expected casualties at the hands of the pandemic to rival the death toll during the terror attacks on September 11, 2001 and the attack on Pearl Harbour naval base in 1941. The evolving crisis has also impacted the calendar of the 2020 presidential elections. For instance, to avoid mass gatherings of people, states like Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania have postponed their primaries to either late May or early/mid-June. Some states like Alaska, Hawaii, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wyoming have opted for vote-by-mail processes with extended deadlines for voters to submit their mail-in ballots. These developments have put the Democratic Party’s nomination process in a state of limbo. The same stands in stark contrast to the situation from barely a fortnight ago — when former Vice President Joe Biden gathered enough momentum that pundits hailed his stride as ‘Joementum’. 

Biden, the comeback kid

After poor shows in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, the Biden campaign sputtered into the South Carolina primary hoping the state’s African-American community would present a turn-around for the former vice-president. Riding high on a timely endorsement by Rep. Jim Clyburn — the highest-ranking African-American in Congress and an influential figure in South Carolina, the southern state did deliver for Biden. Two days before Super Tuesday, which encompassed primaries in 14 states with 1,357 delegates up for grabs, Biden’s win in South Carolina gave him the fighting chance against Sen. Bernie Sanders’ lead. While Sanders bagged Super Tuesday’s biggest prize (California), Biden racked up wins in 10 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Biden’s 100,000 vote margin win in the Texas primary underscored his capability to bag traditional Red states in the general election. Since Jimmy Carter’s run in 1976, Democrats have never bagged the Lone Star state in a presidential election. Minnesota was another significant win, and was largely attributed to Biden securing a timely endorsement from fellow moderate and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Further, by winning Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s home-state of Massachusetts, Biden effectively narrowed the race down to a two-way contest between Sen. Sanders and himself. Finally, with a clean sweep across the South propelling Biden to victories in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee, the former vice-president’s call for a centrist vision over Sanders’ progressive agenda stood vindicated. Although Bernie Sanders has now dropped out of the race, his belated exit permitted fissures in the Democratic Party to fester — all to Donald Trump’s advantage.

Belated exit, fractured consensus? 

At first, it made sense that Bernie Sanders decided to stay in the race, as Biden’s wins on Super Tuesday lent him an indecisive lead of about 90 delegates. Hence, at the following week’s mini-Super Tuesday, Sanders and Biden faced off for another 6 states. But once again, Biden dominated with wins in 5 states — Michigan, Washington, Missouri, Mississippi and Idaho, to leave Sanders with just North Dakota — one of the US’s least populous states. Thereafter, even as Biden pitched for unity between the moderate and progressive factions of the Democratic Party ("We've got to bring everybody along”), Sanders cried foul. Much like his 2016 tirade against the Democratic Party tipping the scales in favor of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sanders alleged "the establishment" to have forced former presidential candidates Sen. Klobuchar and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to ensure that voters "coalesced" around Joe Biden in order to defeat him. In a speech, he even implied that younger voters were with him, and that the “Democratic establishment” needs “to win the voters who represent the future of our country” and thus “cannot simply be satisfied by winning the votes of people who are older.” However, until then, the Sanders campaign’s central narrative had not been the capture of young voters, but his guarantee to peel away states of the industrial Mid-West from the Trump 2016 electoral coalition. And at mini-Super Tuesday, that centre-piece of the Sanders campaign crumbled with Biden’s decisive win in Michigan by a margin of 53-36. Subsequently, Biden dashed another Sanders campaign centrepiece on delivering the young Latino voter. In the primaries in Florida and Arizona — two states with a sizeable Latino electorate, Biden established a commanding lead. The independent senator from Vermont however, continued to stay in the race probably in view of a pattern unique to the Democratic Party. In the past 50 years, whenever the party has bet on an “outsider” as its presidential candidate, Democrats have won the White House. For instance, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were successful in their presidential runs. Whereas, when the nominee is a “safe, established, been-here-for-a-long-time kind of figure”, Democrats have lost. For instance, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton all lost in their respective bids. Regardless of whether that pattern turns into a prophecy for 2020, in the short term, Sanders’ belated exit has accorded Trump the perfect tool to now sow discord amongst Democrats. In 2016, Trump sought to capitalise on disgruntled Sanders supporters by alleging that the Democratic Party had rigged the system in favor of Hillary Clinton. Similarly, after Sanders ended his campaign this week, Trump was quick to tweet: “This ended just like the Democrats & the DNC wanted, same as the crooked Hillary fiasco. The Bernie people should come to the Republican Party”. All this stands compounded by the spread of the novel coronavirus presenting an advantage to President Donald Trump’s reelection bid.

Pandemic favours the incumbent

After initially designating Vice President Mike Pence as the lead of the Coronavirus Task Force, President Trump himself assumed centre-stage at its daily briefings. At first it seemed like this was Trump’s Harry Truman moment — the 33rd US president was known to keep a sign on his desk that read: “The buck stops here.” That supposition however, stood undercut when Trump passed the buck to his predecessor on the reported slow-rate of coronavirus testing in the US. Trump notably said, “No, I don’t take responsibility at all. Because we were given a set of circumstances, and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time. It wasn’t meant for this kind of an event with the kind of numbers that we’re talking about.” Thus, as the pandemic has denied Trump his usual appearances at MAGA rallies and “chopper talk” (his momentary squabble with reporters before boarding Marine One on the White House lawn), the daily Coronavirus Task Force briefings have turned into his rallying time. As one report put it, “With hundreds of millions of people justifiably freaked out and cooped up, cable news networks’ ratings are rising. Some polls say Trump’s approval ratings are doing the same. And these new daily doses of Trump keep getting longer. Slowly but surely, they’re tending toward later in the day, too, edging into prime time, reportedly no accident.” On the other hand, Joe Biden has been reduced to a live-stream, holding “virtual town-halls” replete with technical glitches. Moreover, the pandemic also accords Trump the advantage of upsetting his challenger’s campaign timeline. For instance, in wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the Democratic National Committee recently announced the postponement of the Democratic National Convention i.e. the culmination of its presidential nomination process, to the third week of August 2020. This hands Biden a mere eight weeks to fully pivot to a nation-wide campaign while Trump gets to hone a national message all through this time; and go toe-to-toe with Trump in three televised debates before the election. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had accepted the nomination at the convention on 28 July, engaged in three debates by 19 October  — well before election day on 8 November . Biden’s 2020 timeline by comparison is tighter with the convention ending on 20 August and the final debate on 22 October — a mere 10 days before Americans vote on 03 November. Hence, there’s still many a slip between the cup and the lip for Joe Biden — as the Democratic National Convention gets postponed due to the COVID19 pandemic and Trump seeks to sow discord amongst Democrats over Bernie Sanders’ belated exit.
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Kashish Parpiani

Kashish Parpiani

Kashish Parpiani was Fellow at ORFs Mumbai centre. His interests include US-India bilateral ties US grand strategy and US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.

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