Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden cancel campaign events as coronavirus fears upend Democratic primary

The disruption to traditional campaigning was the first powerful sign that the virus is changing American politics, coming at the height of a primary season as Senator Bernie Sanders and former vice-president Joe Biden battle for the Democratic nomination

The New York Times March 11, 2020 08:54:08 IST
Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden cancel campaign events as coronavirus fears upend Democratic primary

The US presidential race entered an unpredictable new phase on Tuesday after the two leading Democratic candidates canceled big primary-night campaign events because of worries about the coronavirus, and Vice-President Mike Pence said that the future of President Donald Trump’s signature rallies would be decided on a “a day-to-day basis.”

The disruption to traditional campaigning was the first powerful sign that the virus is changing American politics, coming at the height of a primary season as Senator Bernie Sanders and former vice-president Joe Biden battle for the Democratic nomination. Sanders especially relies on huge rallies to energise his base of younger voters — the kind of barnstorming he needs to halt Biden’s growing momentum in the race.

Sanders, quickly followed by Biden, called off events scheduled for Ohio just hours before they were set to begin and as the candidates awaited the results of voting in six other states. Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio, a Republican, had asked earlier Tuesday for all major indoor events to be cancelled. The Sanders and Biden campaigns indicated they would evaluate future events; the Biden campaign added one for Tuesday night in Philadelphia.

As the anxiety built, the Democratic National Committee announced Tuesday night that there would be no live audience at the party’s presidential debate on Sunday in Phoenix.

The new uncertainty about political rallies and face-to-face contact with voters has the potential to remake the entire presidential campaign. Not only will Democrats need mass rallies to help unite the party, after a bruising primary race, behind a nominee and a policy agenda. It is Trump, more than any American leader in modern politics, who has used megarallies to motivate his supporters, dominate cable news airwaves with coverage and feed his own ego and morale.

In recent days, Trump has complained to advisers about the toll the coronavirus is taking on his efforts to campaign publicly, and has continued to insist in private, as he has done in public, that worries about the virus are being overblown, according to two people familiar with his comments. Following his lead, the campaign has told reporters that all of the campaign’s activity was “proceeding as normal.”

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden cancel campaign events as coronavirus fears upend Democratic primary

File image of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. By Erin Schaff © 2020 The New York Times

But several people close to Trump have suggested to his campaign and White House officials that he not go ahead with rallies, a person close to Trump said. It was unclear how forceful any of them had been in pushing him away from them.

Since his 2016 campaign, Trump has left the glad-handing at diners and the roundtable discussions to surrogates, focusing on rallies to communicate his message to supporters. Any slowdown or suspension of rallies would deprive him of a major political weapon at a time when concerns about the virus — as well as the damage to a national economy that is Trump’s calling card in the 2020 race — could further alienate some disaffected Republicans and independents from the Trump camp.

For the first time in months, Trump has no rally scheduled for the coming weeks. His last campaign rally took place on 2 March in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the eve of Super Tuesday.

Campaign officials said on Monday that this would change, and that they would announce a new rally on Tuesday. But by 5 pm Eastern time (2.30 am on Wednesday IST), nothing had been announced.

Asked at a briefing on Tuesday evening whether the Trump campaign would continue to hold rallies, Pence said, “That’ll be a decision that’s made literally on a day-to-day basis.”

The cancellations by Biden and Sanders came on a critical day of voting, as Biden tried to cement his front-runner status with victories in the critical battleground state of Michigan and elsewhere and Sanders tried to recover from disappointing losses last week on Super Tuesday.

The one-two punch of the cancellations was not as unexpected as it was jarring. As the public has grown increasingly wary of the coronavirus outbreak, it has largely been business as usual for Sanders and Biden, who have continued shaking the hands of supporters.

But on Tuesday afternoon, that quickly changed.

“Out of concern for public health and safety, we are cancelling tonight’s rally in Cleveland,” said Mike Casca, a Sanders campaign spokesman. “We are heeding the public warnings from Ohio state officials, who have communicated concern about holding large, indoor events during the coronavirus outbreak. Sanders would like to express his regret to the thousands of Ohioans who had planned to attend the event tonight.”

Casca added, “All future Bernie 2020 events will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

Almost immediately, the Biden campaign said it, too, was cancelling its evening event in Cleveland.

“In accordance with guidance from public officials and out of an abundance of caution, our rally in Cleveland, Ohio tonight is canceled,” Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, said on Twitter. “We will continue to consult with public health officials and public health guidance and make announcements about future events in the coming days.”

Biden’s campaign later announced that he would deliver primary night remarks from Philadelphia, where his campaign is based.

Some of Biden’s allies believe this moment offers the chance to highlight his experience as a former vice president, and to cast him as a steady hand — in contrast to Trump, the thinking goes — at a deeply uncertain and high-stakes time.

Biden was slated to begin another intense stretch of campaigning starting on Thursday, with stops scheduled in delegate-heavy Florida, Illinois and Arizona before the 17 March contests in those states. The campaign said it was cancelling a planned rally on Thursday in Tampa, Florida, but the full fate of Biden’s swing was unclear on Tuesday.

There were some indications earlier on Tuesday that the coronavirus could begin to affect scheduled political events. In the afternoon, DeWine wrote on Twitter that he was asking for major indoor events in his state to be canceled.

Sanders had also told reporters outside a polling place in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, that he would abide by guidance from local public health officials when planning his campaign events.

“What we are doing wherever we go, whenever we do rallies, we consult with public health officials because the last thing we want to do is put anybody in danger,” Sanders said. “We will not do anything that public health officials do not think is right.”

Sanders also held a roundtable discussion on Monday at a hotel at the Detroit airport where he and public health experts talked about the coronavirus.

Until Tuesday, though, Sanders had continued to hold enormous rallies, a signature part of his campaign but one that was at odds with the quarantines and public directives from officials across the country to avoid large public events. Should Sanders be unable to stage rallies, it would drastically change how he campaigns at a critical juncture: After a lackluster Super Tuesday in which he won only four states, he now has limited time to regain his momentum.

It was Sanders himself who called off his Cleveland rally, his campaign said.

Any announcement from the Trump campaign about a rally would come less than 24 hours after a public health official on Trump’s coronavirus task force had hinted that there could be dangers to holding one. The rally the campaign had indicated it would announce on Tuesday was to take place in Florida at the end of the month, according to a person familiar with the planning. That rally is more than two weeks away, which could give officials a better chance to monitor the progression of the virus, while also allowing them to claim they are maintaining normal operations.

“If you want to talk about large gatherings in a place where you have community spread, I think that’s a judgment call,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, said at a briefing on Monday when asked specifically about whether presidential candidates should continue holding rallies. “And if someone decides they want to cancel it, I wouldn’t publicly criticise it.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Trump continued to play down the threat of the virus. “Be calm,” he told people. “It’s really working out.”

Sydney Ember, Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni c.2020 The New York Times Company

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