Inside how the coronavirus changed the final days of Joe Biden and Bernie Sandersâ€™ campaigns to win Illinois
March 16--Standing in front of an Illinois flag in Wilmington, Delaware, Joe Biden began the opening remarks during his virtual town hall ahead of Tuesdayâ€™s Illinois primary, but stopped mid-sentence when informed no one signed into the livestreaming event could hear him.
Biden continued after the audio improved some, but an even wider audience that the campaign advertised the event to on Facebook Live couldnâ€™t watch most of the 38-minute botched event. The final four minutes finally did air, with a partial answer from Biden on health care followed by another on endangered species, during which the former vice president walked off-screen as he talked into an iPhone.
â€œIâ€™m sorry this has been such a disjointed effort here, because of the connections,â€? Biden concluded with an â€œIllinois for Bidenâ€? logo showing on the screen instead of the candidate. â€œThereâ€™s a lot to say, but Iâ€™ve already probably said too much to you.â€?
Welcome to presidential campaigning in the era of the coronavirus, where Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have had to cancel rallies, close campaign offices and eliminate door-to-door canvassing to do their part in preventing the spread of a contagious disease that has threatened to overwhelm the nationâ€™s health care system.
With person-to-person contact now out of the question, the Biden and Sanders campaigns have scrambled to maximize their digital operations to attract and turn out supporters to the polls. Each has advantages and challenges amid the unforeseen and abrupt changes to how politics are practiced in Illinois and nationally.
The strength of Sandersâ€™ digital operation remains unmatched, and his legion of supporters that back him on social media platforms and regularly give small contributions to his campaign runs deep. Sanders already had been broadcasting all of his campaign appearances online and had developed the BERN app to help supporters reach out to their friends and family to encourage them to vote -- an effort that has been supercharged in recent days.
However, more than any other campaign, Sanders also has relied on giant rallies that draw thousands of people to help drive enthusiasm for his campaign and to attract new voters into the political process -- particularly on college campuses, many of which now have closed. The Vermont senator also repeatedly has touted the hundreds of thousands of doors his grassroots supporters have knocked on during the final weekend of any given stateâ€™s campaign. Both in-person moments of persuasion are now sidelined.
For Biden, he enters Tuesday -- when Ohio, Florida and Arizona also vote -- with the clear electoral advantage after racking up a series of big wins on Super Tuesday and last week in Michigan, Missouri, Idaho and Mississippi. Biden, who holds an 890-to-736 delegate lead, also has a close lead in Washington state, while Sanders only won North Dakota last week.
With campaign events canceled and the COVID-19 outbreak dominating the news cycle, it is hard for Sanders to find the political oxygen to slow Bidenâ€™s momentum. And while there has been no reliable polling in Illinois, Biden is widely perceived to have a solid lead and has received an overwhelming share of endorsements from the stateâ€™s top political leaders.
In 2016, after Sandersâ€™ stunning upset win in nearby Michigan, he narrowly lost Illinois by less than 2 points. Last week, he lost Michigan to Biden by 16 points.
While Biden may have the lead and momentum, his campaign footprint and on-the-ground volunteers are both much smaller than Sandersâ€™. Bidenâ€™s camp also does not have the digital infrastructure to easily transition to online organizing, and so far, has focused on increasing its social media ad buys instead.
Plus, as questions linger about how coronavirus disruptions will affect turnout, Bidenâ€™s strongest and most consistent support is among senior citizens, the very people who are at heightened risk to contract the virus and have been urged to stay home.
All of the variables have created a greater degree of difficulty in the contestâ€™s final days.
â€œItâ€™s so bizarre,â€? said Sheila Nix, chairwoman of Bidenâ€™s Illinois campaign. â€œEveryone is working remote. All the moving around, the field organizing is curtailed. Itâ€™s a real challenge, but in the interest of public safety, we all just have to figure it out.â€?
Feeling the digital BERN
Sanders managed to hold the only Illinois rally in the raceâ€™s final weeks, a massive gathering in Grant Park on March 7 that drew more than 10,000 people.
The Vermont senator also had an event planned for Springfield and a final get-out-the-vote rally scheduled for Monday night in Aurora, both of which were canceled last week as health experts began advocating for social distancing amid the declaration of the coronavirus as a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Pete Dâ€™Alessandro, the campaignâ€™s Illinois state director, said they chose Aurora because of its location within the Chicago media market, proximity to the vote-rich suburbs and for its 50% Latino population, a voting bloc with which the campaign is hoping to perform strongly on Tuesday.
After the events were canceled, the Sanders campaign still hoped to hold small gatherings of 50 volunteers or less to do training for door-to-door canvassing. By Friday, those were scrapped, too, along with planned marches to the polls. Instead, the campaign quickly moved to recruiting volunteers to do phone banking from home.
More than 1,100 volunteers signed up in a single day, Dâ€™Alessandro said, with the campaign reporting that its volunteers called more than 170,000 Illinois residents on Saturday alone. Dâ€™Alessandro said the campaign already had knocked on 100,000 doors in Illinois, with the goal of hitting 100,000 more over the final weekend.
â€œThe final 10 days are get-out-the-vote mode, and when youâ€™re in GOTV mode, your whole world is connecting to your voters and then pushing them to the polls. That hasnâ€™t changed, just our tactics have," Dâ€™Alessandro said. â€œIâ€™m an old-school field guy, so I want to hit the doors, but once you realize you canâ€™t do it, weâ€™re in a unique position because our parallel program to that was always very strong with our ability to do online organizing, virtual phone bank organizing."
Sanders also is scheduled to participate in a Monday night â€œdigital rallyâ€? that will include Neil Young, Daryl Hannah as well as musicians Jim James -- of the band My Morning Jacket -- and the Free Nationals. U.S. Rep. Jesus â€œChuyâ€? Garcia, a Chicago Democrat who spoke at Sandersâ€™ Chicago rally earlier this month, also is scheduled to take part.
Another part of the Sanders campaignâ€™s digital effort is the BERN app, which prompts those who download it to â€œadd friends to grow our movement.â€?
While phone banking is an effort to reach voters who arenâ€™t known, the app is designed to help the campaignâ€™s supporters contact their friends and family and encourage them to vote. The BERN helps supporters map out their family and friends, determine the best way to reach them -- a call, text, social media message -- and then locate their specific voting information, including the location of their polling place or early voting center.
The campaign has been urging attendees at its rallies and supporters online to download the app for months. It also has been holding statewide â€œget-out-the-vote house partiesâ€? on video calls to train supporters on how to use the app, said Gabriel Gold Hodgkin, the campaignâ€™s Illinois field director.
â€œEveryone is looking for what can I do right now while Iâ€™m stuck at home, but I donâ€™t want to be isolated, I believe in the spirit of solidarity and I want to check in on people,â€? Gold Hodgkin said. â€œThis app provides a way to do that, and itâ€™s very easy to check in with all your friends and emphasize how Bernieâ€™s plans, especially â€˜Medicare For All,â€™ could be much more beneficial for a situation like this that weâ€™re all going through right now.â€?
Dâ€™Alessandro said the senator and campaign strategically have stressed â€œMedicare For Allâ€? in the raceâ€™s final days because of the real-life relief it could bring to working-class Americans during such troubling times.
â€œThe situation weâ€™re dealing with is the unpaid advertisement for why we need to overhaul our health care system in this country and why it should be a right and not a privilege,â€? Dâ€™Alessandro said. â€œWhat weâ€™re going through is the reason in real life why your health care shouldnâ€™t be tied to your job and why your health care should be guaranteed by the government. Both of those things are in crystal-clear focus to people who are going through this. Itâ€™s happening in real time.â€?
â€˜Heâ€™s in good shapeâ€™
For his part, Biden has stressed his plan to build on Obamacare, contending that unlike Sanders, his plan to add a public option could pass Congress.
â€œI can get it done quickly and everyone will be covered," Biden said in his virtual town hall.
The former vice president had planned to attend a pair of high-dollar fundraisers in Chicago on Friday, followed by a rally that tentatively had been planned for Malcolm X College on the West Side, said Nix, the campaignâ€™s state chairwoman. The campaign also was looking at evening St. Patrickâ€™s Day events for the former vice president to attend, she said.
Nix said the campaign has focused on boosting its digital messaging to highlight Bidenâ€™s widespread support, including a recent endorsement from the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country. The campaign also planned a Sunday debate night video event with Dr. Jill Biden and held tele-town halls with other campaign surrogates in addition to the Friday night virtual town hall that was marred by technical glitches.
â€œObviously, we have to practice that a little bit and move forward on that,â€? Nix said. â€œI think it will be fine for the VP in Illinois. Heâ€™s in good shape. We already had built up a pretty good group of people supporting him and heâ€™s pretty popular and well-known here, but itâ€™s definitely a different way of doing things.â€?
At last count, Biden had the endorsement of much of the Democratic establishment in the state, more than 80 elected officials total, including Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth along with Mayor Lori Lightfoot. As former President Barack Obamaâ€™s vice president, Biden also is expected to receive overwhelming support from the stateâ€™s African American voters, particularly on Chicagoâ€™s South Side and in its south suburbs.
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly represents a portion of that area and noted how she has three of the top five voting precincts in the state in her district. While she acknowledged older African American voters are more likely to vote on Election Day, she hoped that the frequently discussed precautions voters could take to protect themselves would encourage them to still leave the house and vote.
â€œThis is a very, very important election, and we need people to vote," said Kelly, D-Matteson, who has endorsed Biden. â€œI know itâ€™s scary, but I hope people donâ€™t let the coronavirus stop them from voting.â€?
On Sunday, Chicago election officials reported that the city had broken a World War II-era record for vote-by-mail applications, with 118,000 requested amid the coronavirus outbreak. Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul expressed confidence that Bidenâ€™s most loyal supporters would vote despite all the uncertainty.
â€œThis crisis weâ€™re dealing with is going to have an impact across the board,â€? said Raoul, D-Chicago. â€œBut the right to vote is something that is sacred to African Americans, and I think weâ€™ll see a response of people who want to cast their votes in strong support of Joe Biden.â€?