Washington Wednesday – Stay-at-home campaigning

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 15th of April, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: campaigning for president during a national health crisis.

Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic primary, making Joe Biden the party’s presumptive nominee. At any other time, that would have been big news. But amid the wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage, it barely rated a mention.

BROWN: Right, while Biden is stuck at home like everyone else, he’s still trying to campaign—virtually. He’s reportedly done more than 40 remote interviews in the last month. And he’s speaking directly to voters through livestreams and even a new podcast.

And like the rest of the country, he’s focused on the coronavirus and the country’s eventual economic recovery. Here he is speaking in a video message posted on April 2nd.

BIDEN: I’ve done this work before. I can tell you it takes more than tweets and press conferences. It’s hard. It’s painstaking work. This is when leaders have to lead and governments have to work.

EICHER: Well, it’s Washington Wednesday. And joining us now to talk about the effect the pandemic is having on presidential politics is Kyle Kondik. He’s with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Good morning!

KYLE KONDIK, GUEST: Good morning!

EICHER: The 2020 presidential race—just like everything else—has been frozen for the last five weeks or so, at least the public piece of it. But surely they’re not sitting still. I imagine the candidates using the down time to—what? Build war chests? Work on grassroots? What are you hearing? 

KONDIK: Well, I think part of what at least the Biden campaign has been up to is bringing the primary essentially to a formal close, but of course, the president’s just going to get way more attention because he’s the commander in chief in the midst of a crisis. And so he’s been giving these long briefing updates basically every day. Now, what we have seen in the numbers is that people’s approval of the president’s handling of COVID-19 generally went up a little bit and now maybe it’s more reflective of his normal approval rating, which is somewhere around low 40s, 45 percent or so, disapproval over 50 percent. 

But also, we have seen some outside Democratic groups running ads criticizing the president on COVID-19 and the Republicans thus far have not really been running advertisements on television. Maybe that will end up changing here. And, of course, the president is kind of omnipresent anyway. So, in terms of media, the candidates are still out there to a great degree, but certainly for someone like the president particular who really thrives on having these big campaign events and filled arenas and things like that, those are things he can’t really be doing at this point.

EICHER: So, the president is able to show himself in charge and Biden’s just running. But there are other kind of smaller commanders on the scene. I’m thinking of state governors and local officials also getting some time in the national spotlight. Is any of that having an impact on the VP short list, to your mind? 

KONDIK: Well, you know, Joe Biden has indicated that he’s going to select a woman to be his vice president. And historically the Democrats really seem to favor U.S. senators when they pick vice presidents. Fifteen of the last 18 vice presidential selections on the Democratic side have been senators and yet it’s impossible not to notice the rise of some women governors who could be playing themselves into the VP sweepstakes. I think most notably you’d look at Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan. And Michigan, of course, is a very important presidential state although typically candidates are not chosen for their ability to help in a given state but rather for sort of bigger governance and optics reasons. But certainly I think Whitmer has become a contender for vice president, although there are many women in the U.S. Senate who are probably contenders as well. I’d say namely Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris in the Senate. And then also you’ve seen a number of governors on both sides of the political aisle I think essentially acquit themselves very well during this crisis. Thinking of folks like Mike DeWine, Republican in Ohio. Larry Hogan, Republican in Maryland. Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom. Democratic Governor Jay Inslee of Washington. Certainly Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, has become a much more visible, national figure throughout this crisis.

EICHER: I was thinking of something as you were talking there, Kyle, about how I wonder if Joe Biden is not feeling like, man, I boxed myself in. Newsom’s looking pretty good. Inslee’s looking pretty good. Cuomo. And they’re off the drawing board because of the promise he made.

KONDIK: Yeah, that’s right. And I don’t think that Biden can reverse himself on this. And it’s not like he doesn’t have qualified women to choose from, it’s just that many of them are in the Senate. And also, if you do select a senator and you end up winning the presidency, that senator obviously has to resign and become vice president and then that seat will be filled temporarily by a gubernatorial appointment in most places, but then there will be typically a special election. And if the senator chosen is from a competitive state, that could imperil a Democratic Senate seat and there’s no risk, obviously, to a Senate seat if you select a governor.

EICHER: OK. Well, let’s talk about the conventions for just a minute. The Democrats were planning mid-July in Milwaukee. That’s pushed back now a full month back to mid-August. I suppose it’s possible it would be canceled altogether. Nothing is for sure in these days. But how big a deal is the convention for Biden? And talk, too, about the Republicans.

KONDIK: Well, you know, historically, the conventions are an important kind of mile marker on the road to the general election in that often the parties will get a support bump in the polls immediately following the convention. Although it’s going to be a compressed effect this time if in fact the conventions are held back-to-back as they’re currently scheduled to be held over the course of two weeks in late August. 

There was in 2016 some agitation among supporters of Bernie Sanders at the convention that I think caused some headaches for the Hillary Clinton camp. Now that Sanders has already endorsed Biden and they seem to get along personally a bit better than Sanders and Clinton did in 2016, I wonder if those sorts of floor fights would be more muted in 2020, although, of course, if there’s a virtual convention, there’s no real opportunity for there to be a floor fight with the cameras spanning the crowd and showing protesters and that sort of thing. It would be just a different kind of effect. 

So, in some ways, it may be easier to project unity if there’s not an actual convention than if there is a physical convention. But this is all so much up in the air, we don’t know how long the social distancing requirements and suggestions will last. We’re all kind of flying blind here.

EICHER: Let me try to frame this up in the best way that I can. I’m reminded back before everything shut down, we had this sort of idea that there was a battle on for the soul of the Democratic party between the Bernie Sanders revolutionary wing and the Joe Biden sort of return-to-normalcy wing. So, the question I guess I have for you is did Joe Biden win the fight? Or did Joe Biden simply win the argument, “Hey, we don’t have time for this right now?”

KONDIK: I think in some ways the desire to beat Donald Trump kind of focused the Democrats on sort of the short term and thinking about who in this particular election was better equipped to defeat Trump and a majority of the electorate believe that Biden was that person. 

Also, Biden is taking some conspicuous steps to try to offer olive branches to the left, which isn’t usually what you do when you win a presidential nomination. Usually the so-called pivot to the center that you see mentioned in presidential fights. Biden seems concerned with his left flank at this point, which I wouldn’t say that that’s necessarily a sign of strength headed into a general election. And of course, the general election is still about a half a year away. So, in terms of the fight for the soul of the party, I guess you could say that the kind of more establishment’s maybe less liberal wing of the party won this time. But if Biden were to lose, I think that would tell a lot of people on the left that, hey, we went along with Clinton and Biden in 2016 and 2020 and they didn’t work. In 2024 we should nominate someone who’s clearly more liberal. So, there are fissures in both parties and I think those fissures have kind of been papered over for the time being. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist and that they won’t manifest themselves in the future.

EICHER: A long way to go until November, and before I go, Kyle, I want to talk to you just a bit about this. What are you hearing in terms of possible procedural changes on voting day? I mean, if the election results are close and we’ve had to change procedures in various states—key states—how likely are we to see legal challenges based on these adjustments? What are you hearing?

KONDIK: The closer the race is, the more open it is for there being not necessarily judicial interventions but appeals for judicial interventions. I do hope that these various states figure this out in advance of November because if there are people who feel like their vote, that they weren’t able to vote because they didn’t want to potentially risk getting the disease in order to go vote, I just think there’s going to be bad feelings about the election no matter what the result is. But you just hope that the results are as legitimate as they can be. And it seems like given the crisis that there has been an impetus to essentially give voters expanded options in order to make sure that they can vote.

EICHER: Kyle Kondik is an analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Thanks for joining us today.

KONDIK: Thanks, Nick.

(AP Photo, File) In this combination of file photos, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on March 12, 2020, left, and President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington on April 5, 2020. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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