With Joe Biden’s convincing wins in last week’s three primaries, he now commands a lead of about three hundred in the delegate count (Green Papers says 1,209 to 907). That’s not mathematically insurmountable, but for all practical purposes it might as well be. Various media outlets have started, reasonably enough, to call him the “presumptive nominee”.
Bernie Sanders remains in the race, for now. But the only other even semi-serious candidate, Tulsi Gabbard, officially withdrew on Friday and endorsed Biden – despite having herself been a Sanders supporter in 2016.
Due to Covid-19, however, there will be no more primaries for some time. Puerto Rico (which is not a state, but elects a not-insignificant 51 delegates) was scheduled for next Sunday, but has postponed it for four weeks, joining a long list.
The next votes actually planned are on Saturday 4 April, in three small western states: Alaska, Hawai’i and Wyoming. These are all party-run as distinct from state-run – what are sometimes called “firehouse caucuses”, but not requiring the same prolonged participation as actual caucuses. Wyoming’s has already been changed to mail-only; it’s not clear whether the others will follow suit, or if they will go ahead at all.
After that, there’s nothing before late April except the Wisconsin primary, scheduled for Tuesday 7 April. No-one knows if that will happen either: governor Tony Evers has argued strongly for persevering, but the case for postponement is starting to look overwhelming.
Of course, it’s impossible to say whether or not things will be any better come May or June. But at least authorities will have time to put procedures in place to try to minimise the health risk.
In terms of the presidential nomination, it probably doesn’t matter much. Most states are more concerned about primaries for state or congressional positions. The delays do, however, give Sanders an excuse for staying in longer if that’s what he wants to do.
They may also mean that he is doing less damage by doing so: with public attention focused on the health crisis, Biden is not getting much coverage anyway (nor are Sanders’s criticisms of him). On the other hand, that could also make the Democrats more desperate to utilise whatever meagre attention there is.
For a couple of weeks, Donald Trump’s inept response to the crisis seemed to be boosting Biden’s chances for November. It may still have that effect, but there’s a contrary tendency for citizens in times of trouble to rally round their leadership, however inadequate it might be. Recall how George W Bush saw his approval ratings climb after the attacks of 11 September 2001.
For the moment, Biden and Trump are neck-and-neck in the betting market, although the latest polls of Trump’s approval rating show a slight uptick. Historically, one would say that times like these make such things highly volatile and unpredictable, but American voter behavior has become so polarised that it’s not at all certain that will hold. In any case, there’s no sign of it so far.
I suspect that most of those who think of Trump as a visionary leader are going to continue thinking it regardless of the evidence. And very few of those with the opposite view are likely to swing over even under the pressure of the coronavirus.
As to what Sanders might do, have a read of Perry Bacon at FiveThirtyEight on the varying degrees to which the Biden campaign might try to appease him and his supporters. He says, correctly, that “It will take some time to assess what concessions Sanders and the people who support him come away with.”
But it also needs to be stressed that Sanders, his activist supporters and his voters are three quite different things, which may not all go in the same direction or respond to the same incentives. Biden will try to get all of them on board as much as possible, but that isn’t going to be easy.