How the coronavirus pandemic may be helping Joe Biden lock down the Democratic nomination
Disclaimer: AlterNet does not endorse candidates but I personally support Sen. Bernie Sanders. The opinions expressed here are my own.
With a crucially important election underway, the COVID-19 outbreak seems poised to alter the process and may have a real impact on the outcome.
At present, the pandemic is probably benefiting former Vice President Joe Biden's primary campaign in a couple of ways.
First, it's pulling primary voters' attention away from the race just as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders needed to shake up its trajectory. Team Sanders had hoped that Monday's audience-free debate would offer an opportunity to do just that, yet the polling suggests it was basically a draw. It's unclear how many people followed it closely given the amount of media coverage being dedicated to the coronavirus. At least anecdotally, reactions on social media seemed more muted than after previous debates.
The crisis also plays into Biden's central campaign promise of a return to normalcy and steady, Obama-like governance. Throughout the campaign, surveys have found that voters tend to see Biden as the safe candidate, even if they don't feel passionate about him. That view served him well, given that most Dem voters prioritize choosing a candidate who they see as best positioned to beat Trump over one who aligns with them on policy or ideology. That desire for a safe harbor can only be strengthened by headlines about COVID-19's rapid spread and alarming estimates of the social and economic impacts to come. Reuters reported that exit polls from last Tuesday's contests, which added around 60 delegates to Biden's lead, "showed that voters trust Biden to most effectively handle the response to the virus over Sanders."
Finally, if Sanders doesn't pull off an unlikely comeback in the near future, the inherent public health risk in campaigning will have to factor into his thoughts about when to get out. Some of his critics believe that in 2016, Sanders stayed on the campaign trail long after it was clear Hillary Clinton would be the winner, and that it ultimately hurt her in November. But wherever one falls on that debate, it was widely assumed at the time that Clinton would beat Trump easily in the general election, which is not the case this time around. Sanders is no doubt sensitive to that criticism, and is likely aware of the research suggesting that drawn-out, contentious primaries hurt a party's chances in general elections. For these reasons, it was already unlikely that he would prosecute the case against Biden if he concluded that he had little chance of winning it. Still, it's in Biden's interest to have some external pressure other than the Democratic establishment nudging Sanders toward the exit, and concern over the health of his supporters and staff will probably play a role in that decision.