Biden, Sanders go virtual as virus freezes US Democratic race

30 March, 2020 12:00 AM printer

WASHINGTON: Three weeks ago, Joe Biden and rival Bernie Sanders were hosting rallies that attracted thousands. The pair often visited two states a day in their fierce and spirited battle for votes, reports AFP.

Today, they appear online as lonely candidates hunkered down in their homes, forced off the trail and into campaign reinvention mode as the intensifying coronavirus pandemic upends the Democratic presidential primaries along with every other aspect of American life.

Biden, the 77-year-old frontrunner, and Sanders, the 78-year-old underdog, have paused all in-person campaigning. Live town halls are no more.

Several states have postponed their primaries on coronavirus fears—New York was the latest to do so on Saturday—and another debate between the two candidates is unlikely.

The dozens of reporters who followed the two candidates for months have peeled away. Even the Democratic National Convention set for mid-July, when the party officially nominates their candidate to challenge President Donald Trump in November, is at risk.

“We’re doing a virtual campaign, if you like,” Sanders said Thursday on National Public Radio.

While the Democrats are reduced to basement livestreaming, Trump, also deprived of hosting his raucous rallies, is monopolizing the spotlight.

The daily, nationally televised White House coronavirus task force briefings often stretch on for more than 90 minutes, with Trump sometimes taking up an entire hour at the podium.

The Republican incumbent’s handling of the crisis has earned mixed reviews, but his job approval rating has ticked up—and he is front and center every day.

Desperate to stay relevant, Biden and Sanders are participating in multiple webcasts, including roundtables with their respective health advisor on the latest coronavirus developments.

The events are largely somber, like a CNN virtual town hall Friday on COVID-19, at which the former vice president answered questions from voters in virus hotspots like New York.

But the former vice president also held a “virtual happy hour” Wednesday in a bid to attract young voters.

No matter what the format, Trump’s rivals are gaining little national attention.

“For the time being, there is no real way for Biden or Sanders to break through,” University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, an expert on US politics, told AFP. “The pandemic is the only story that matters.”

The Biden and Sanders campaigns were radically altered on March 10, when they both canceled election night rallies in Ohio on advice of local officials keen to avoid spreading the virus.