The coronavirus has broken containment in the United States. This past weekend saw 236 more confirmed cases, bringing the total to at least 730 across 30 states as of Tuesday morning. The epidemic has even reached the White House’s doorstep. An attendee of the Conservative Political Action Conference, held in Washington last month, tested positive for the virus and may have infected many others. President Donald Trump is said to have attended the conference around the same time as the infected attendee, though there is no indication they had personal contact during that time. Meanwhile, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, who recently mocked fears of the coronavirus outbreak by wearing a gas mask on the House floor, went into self-quarantine mere hours after flying with Trump on Air Force One.
The coronavirus is set to dramatically alter American life, and the Democratic primary is no exception. In short order, rope lines, meet-and-greets, and campaign rallies may go by the boards, forcing Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to adapt to a strange new world where the need for social distancing overrules the intimacy both men would prefer to forge with voters. It certainly does not help that the two candidates find themselves in a high-risk category for the virus, by dint of their ages (77 and 78, respectively).
But this nervy moment also presents an opportunity for the candidates, as the president has responded to this crisis as he has all others: lashing out on Twitter and golfing with famous people. While there are broad limitations on what Biden and Sanders can do to address the crisis, there’s a leadership vacuum waiting to be filled. There will be no better chance this year for the candidates to provide a necessary contrast between themselves and the president—and between one another—by assuaging the fears of a worried nation.
According to extant polling from the Super Tuesday states, Biden has been the overwhelming choice of voters who are worried about the epidemic. As NPR’s Domenico Montenaro reported on Monday, voters in four Super Tuesday states were asked about whether the coronavirus outbreak was an important factor in their voting decisions. “On average,” Montenaro tweeted, “55 percent said it was an important factor, and those voters broke 50–24 percent for Biden over Sanders.” Biden’s advantage was impressively wide, 60–19 percent, in Virginia, a state in which the former vice president barely campaigned. Double-digit gaps in this voter trait in California and Texas likely played a role in minimizing Sanders’s delegate haul from two states in which he was heavily favored.
What makes this all the more impressive is that while Biden has not ignored the crisis, he hasn’t made it central to his campaign. Those large spreads in the exit polls are more likely a knock-on effect of the masterful way his campaign turned the Democratic Party’s consolidation behind his candidacy into a stage-managed, made-for-television event. NBC News reporter Alex Seitz-Wald has theorized that in that moment, “voters were just so scared and tired of politics that as soon as they got the memo that Biden is The Guy, they felt relieved to hit the kill switch on the primary.” The looming disruptions portended by the coronavirus crisis may lead voters in future primaries to opt to put the stressful Democratic race in the rearview mirror.
These psychic advantages are probably magnified by remembrances of Biden’s role in a White House that coolly contended with an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. as political opponents and cable news hosts lost their minds. It’s also possible that Democratic voters recall the last time a massive exogenous event intruded on a presidential race in such dramatic fashion: the 2008 financial meltdown. While Obama and Biden appeared calm and in control, Republican nominee John McCain decided to temporarily suspend his campaign just weeks before the general election, which struck many observers as an overreaction in light of McCain’s practical limitations as a senator.
Given the fact that he is, at the moment, passively profiting from voters’ fears, Biden might be loath to interrupt a trend that’s paying off. At a Monday campaign event at the Cherry Health community health center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he demurred from answering any coronavirus-related questions, saying only, “I’ll be happy to talk about that later.” Lagging Biden in delegates, Sanders doesn’t have the luxury of waiting until a later date. His challenge, if he survives Tuesday’s six-state primary, is to convince anxious voters that he is better suited for such crises than Biden—but to do so without losing the thread as badly as McCain did in 2008. Perhaps this is why Sanders convened a roundtable discussion on Monday with Detroit-based public health officials to discuss the outbreak.
Sanders has at least one baked-in advantage over Biden: He is not trapped into defending a health care status quo that is already proving to be insufficient to the task of a nationwide epidemic. Patients seeking care for coronavirus-related symptoms have been hit with surprise medical bills, which may make others reluctant to follow the government’s guidelines to limit the spread of the virus. Sanders might also be more comfortable making the case for better workplace protections and labor rights, such as guaranteeing paid sick leave, a policy that numerous studies contend would dramatically limit the scale of flulike outbreaks. As Emma Roller points out in her endorsement of Sanders in The Outline, the Vermont senator’s coalition includes workers on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis and inequalities in the health care and labor status quo: teachers, food industry workers, home health care providers, and nurses.
But Sanders cannot simply fall back on his stump speech and its paeans to Medicare for All; his big political ideas cannot be implemented in time to address the brewing crisis. Instead, he must direct his revolutionary zeal in a more pragmatic direction and promote the implementation of policies that are within reach today. The coronavirus is Sanders’s opportunity to do what my colleague Osita Nwanevu recommended last week: set aside his insurgent image and show some flair for “normie” politics, by working within legislative limits and plying for compromise. Sanders must, as Nwanevu put it, get “the Democratic rank and file to think differently about [him] as a political figure.” This isn’t Sanders’s brand, but desperate times—for his campaign as well as the nation—perhaps call for desperate politics.