Coronavirus turns US 2020 election into a virtual one

The new coronavirus is posing an unprecedented election year challenge to candidates running for president.

US voting coronavrirus
Voter filling out his ballot during the primary election while wearing a face mask in Ottawa, Illinois, US [Daniel Acker/Reuters]

Broadcasting from the basement of his Delaware home, former Vice President and presidential candidate Joe Biden is hoping to transform his campaign, which, like much of public and professional life in the United States, has been upended by the spread of the coronavirus.

In an effort to reclaim some visibility and propel his campaign into the virtual world, Biden, the Democratic frontrunner, on Monday launched a new podcast entitled, “Here’s the Deal”.

“Why am I doing this?” Biden said at the start of the first episode. “Well, first, so we can keep talking with each other. We can’t hold rallies any more, but we’re not gathering in large public spaces. We’re living in a new normal.”

The podcast episode, the first in what the campaign said will be a series of discussions on pressing topics, addressed Biden’s vision on how to deal with the pandemic – including building more field hospitals, producing more ventilators and protective medical equipment, boosting social security benefits, forgiving some student loan debt, and expanding family and medical leave during the crisis.

The move, observers say, highlights the efforts of the Biden campaign to reclaim relevance as the coronavirus developments have eclipsed public interest in the 2020 presidential campaigns. It is a challenge facing campaigns of all kinds, from local to national, as they scramble to rethink their strategies and draw up new playbooks for an election cycle unlike any other in US history.

At least 14 Democratic primaries have been delayed because of the pandemic, essentially freezing the process of nominating a candidate to take on President Donald Trump in the November election. Rallies, town hall meetings and public events have been cancelled, too.

Biden and Sanders
Democratic US presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders do an elbow bump in place of a handshake as they greet other before the start of the 11th Democratic candidates’ debate held in CNN’s studio without an audience because of the global coronavirus pandemic, in Washington, US [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist based in Washington, DC, said the process of picking a Democratic nominee has been turned entirely on its head.

“The expectation is that we are going to have to invent a whole new kind of politics around not being able to knock on doors, going to rallies and coffee shops,” Rosenberg told Al Jazeera.

“Biden is doing what he has to do, but there’s a limit to what he can do right now,” he said. “He will have to reassert himself in the national psyche.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, who is also vying for the Democratic nomination but is trailing Biden, has signalled that he has no plans of dropping out anytime soon. With his strong following among young voters, Sanders has also adapted, turning to live speeches and events on Facebook, and virtual roundtables and town halls.

The new coronavirus is posing an unprecedented election year challenge for the Trump campaign, too, which, in the past, has relied on large boisterous rallies to generate more support. His campaign has also shifted online in recent weeks, hosting dozens of virtual events, putting out weekly podcasts, and drawing millions of viewers to its YouTube channel.

Trump enjoys multiple advantages over his opponents in this brave new world. In addition to the massive audiences for his daily White House coronavirus news briefings, he has more than 75 million followers on Twitter, a platform he uses at all hours of the day to promote his ideas and disparage his critics.

Trump briefing
Reporters sitting at a distance from each other listening to US President Donald Trump as he addresses the daily coronavirus response briefing in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, US [Tom Brenner/Reuters]

On the sidelines

On Saturday, the governor of New York announced a delay of that state’s presidential primary, which was due to be held on April 28, until June 23. Other states have postponed election dates to June 2 and expanded vote by mail, citing the difficulty of holding elections during the outbreak.

Observers note that by July, when the Democratic Party is due to hold its convention, and by Election Day on November 3, the US may still find itself needing to maintain social distancing and other preventive measures.

Kyle Kondik, elections analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the voting delays in the primary calendar will not necessarily benefit Sanders’ campaign, who remains unlikely to be able to catch up to Biden and amass the number of delegates needed. But the road ahead for Biden remains a challenge.

Trump briefing
US President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, US [Al Drago/Reuters]

“Biden is the likeliest person to become the Democratic nominee,” Kondik told Al Jazeera. “The president is ultimately going to have much more of a platform in this process than his rivals.”

“The Biden campaign is looking for ways to increase their candidate’s visibility, it’s just hard when he is stuck in his own home and not involved in the response,” Kondik says. “He is on the sidelines.”

Meanwhile, Biden, in his 20-minute episode recorded last Tuesday, added his voice to the chorus of accusations that the Trump administration downplayed the threat of the crisis, delayed the response and rattled public confidence.

“I’m recording this podcast to connect with all of you instead of travelling across the country as I’ve been doing for most of last year,” he said. “And we aren’t hosting any large events. Matter of fact, we’re not really hosting any events or rallies, as we have been, I’m staying home.”

Source: Al Jazeera