The After-Bern: How the Election is Evolving in the Age of Coronavirus

Before COVID-19 reached our shores and fully consumed and transformed our daily lives, the running joke was that the pandemic was brought to us by our house pets who conspired to get more quality time with their families. And while dogs and cats were probably split down the middle regarding their choice of Democratic candidates, the one contender most adversely impacted by their conspiracy and whose momentum came to a near standstill following the South Carolina and Michigan primaries, was Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Compounded by the snowball effect of endorsements for former Vice President Joe Biden, stay-at-home orders (moreover, the inability to hold mass rallies) and postponed primaries, the writing was on the wall for the two-time Democratic presidential primary candidate.

Even so, did most of us expect that Sanders would continue to the bitter end? Absolutely. Will he get credit for doing the right thing by getting out? Certainly. Was it a mistake for him to exit the race but initially announce that he would remain on the ballot in all the upcoming primaries? One hundred percent. Did he realize this mistake, leading to today’s endorsement of Biden during a choreographed live stream with their respective supporters? Hopefully. The endorsement certainly provides hope that Sanders and his delegates will not repeat what was, in effect, an attempted hijacking of the 2016 convention and the drafting process of the party platform.

On several levels 2020 will not mirror 2016. First, and perhaps the biggest difference between Sanders’ 2016 primary defeat and this year’s drop-out and eventual endorsement, is that it came faster, allowing donors to focus their resources on Biden sooner rather than later – with some exceptions of course. In turn, Biden will be able to direct his fire power at President Trump instead of fighting a two-front war leading up to the convention. Even if Sanders ends up with a delegate count approaching that of 2016, his leverage is very different this go around. In fact, Biden has now openly invited him into the fold by creating joint task forces on the most urgent policy priorities. Biden stated during the live stream endorsement that, “I’m going to need you. Not just to win the campaign, but to govern.” If that didn’t appeal to Sanders voters, nothing ever will. Biden’s words were both gracious and wise, akin to the famous proverb of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. Clearly these are very different atmospherics to 2016 when Democrats had to hold their breath to the bitter end, leaving the party far from unified going into the convention and preventing Hillary Clinton from singularly focusing her fundraising and messaging on the general election.

Second, what Sanders was able to do in 2016 was introduce ideas previously considered radical, such as the $15 minimum wage, tuition-free public colleges and legalizing marijuana. In 2016, his impact was felt immediately by his insistence to include these and many other issues in the platform. Fast forward to 2020 and many of those ideas have become mainstream in the Democratic party and will no longer require a Democratic Socialist to find acceptance among a broader, more moderate Democratic audience.

Finally, and most importantly, given the alarming news of a second wave of the coronavirus hitting Singapore, it is hard to imagine that there will be a physical, in-person convention this year, regardless of its postponement. Best case scenario, a decision will be made to have a different kind of convention that may only include delegates and not the many party supporters, former elected officials, activists and corporate interests that traditionally gather for this quadrennial affair. Rather, it will be a sea of face masks at a socially, safe distance. Picture the CARES Act final vote in the House with members of Congress seated six feet apart on the House floor and in the galleries. The equivalent could be delegates at the convention, spread across the floor and into the 17,500 seats of the cavernous Fiserv Forum. Even so, that seems like a stretch right now as it would still require airports, hotels, public transit, food service providers and so many other logistical necessities to operate.

Regardless of your allegiance to the party, few will risk attending the Democratic convention this summer if conditions don’t improve quickly. To put this in historic perspective, a Democratic convention has never been canceled, going back to the very first one held in 1832. Neither World Wars nor the last pandemic to hit the United States (the Spanish Flu) led to cancelations. Fortunately, we live in a digital world and party leaders are currently preparing for the possibility of a virtual convention, especially if the nominee suggests, as Biden has, that this may be in the party’s best interest. The president may be wise to encourage Republican leaders to put contingencies in place for his party’s convention.

Look no further than the Wisconsin primary fiasco as proof of how things can go very wrong – and quickly. The governor’s instincts were correct all along: holding a primary during a pandemic was a reckless decision. The images of people in long lines, not standing six feet apart, in masks, waiting in front of the limited number of polling places (five out of 180 in Milwaukee!) was not a good look for the state, its Republican legislature and the court system which ultimately allowed the primary to proceed. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial accurately described the primary as, “the most undemocratic in the state’s history” and a headline in The New York Times piled on by stating the obvious, “Voters Forced to Choose Between Their Health and Civic Duty.”

The choice, of course, was a false one. Even the remaining states that have postponed their primaries to June or July – not to mention the general election in November – must address how to provide a safe environment for poll workers and voters alike. Wisconsin was but a precursor of what is to come. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, “only five states are currently all or mostly vote-by-mail, meaning that to meet the expected surge in mail voting, states and local jurisdictions would encounter a costly overhaul of their existing operations.” Democrats insist that additional funding for elections is essential for the next stimulus package in order to address the dangers voters face going to the polls amid a pandemic. The initial $400 million in emergency election grants passed in the CARES Act was a band-aid on a bullet wound – more is desperately needed to avoid disenfranchising a large segment of the voting population.

For now, as the country lives in a quasi-state of suspended animation, Democrats have their presumptive nominee – bolstered by Sanders’ endorsement – who assumes the mantle as a counterbalance to the “war-time” president he will be facing in the fall.

Managing Director Andrew Kauders is a lead Democratic strategist at Cogent Strategies. Andrew’s expertise spans both the executive and legislative branches where he served as a political appointee in the Clinton Administration and was a veteran leadership staffer in both the US House and Senate. For Andrew’s complete bio, click here.