From primaries to pandemic: How focus has shifted from the Democratic primaries to coronavirus
At a rally following his unexpectedly large victory in the South Carolina primary election, former Vice President Joe Biden declared his candidacy in the 2020 race “very much alive.” While Biden accurately predicted the viability of his campaign, he did not anticipate that this rally would be one of his last.
Two weeks later, Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) debated in front of an empty room.
Collin Willard, a sophomore public policy and sociology double major and president of the university’s College Democrats, said the lack of an audience and the extra spacing between the candidates on stage changed the dynamic of the debate.
“The vibe was really somber,” Willard said. “It was a really stark contrast to other debates before.”
Since mid-March, however, the attention of many Americans has shifted away from the politics surrounding the Democratic primary elections as coronavirus has gripped the country. The media has mirrored this shift.
“Any time there is a crisis, a massive crisis, media is going to be fixated on that crisis, as they should be,” David Redlawsk, a professor of American politics, research methods and political psychology, said.
Both the New York Times and the Washington Post are currently providing free access through their websites to coverage relating to coronavirus. Local news stations also constantly provide updates on coronavirus in specific areas.
“I feel like right now it’s really centered around the pandemic and people are getting an influx of information,” Esha Shah, a freshman public policy and communications double major, said. “It’s kind of driving a bit of a paranoia.”
Shah also reflected on how politics fits into the new reality defined by coronavirus.
“It’s kind of hard to remember that there is a presidential election happening this year,” she said.
While state primary elections were still happening, Biden secured a significant lead over Sanders. Willard pointed out that the declining media focus on the primaries could also be a result of Sanders’s poor performance.
“It was pretty wild because it felt like at the beginning of March after Super Tuesday and leading up to Super Tuesday, you had no idea of what was going to happen,” Willard said. “Then all of the sudden Biden wins a bunch of states and we get this giant pandemic and the campaigns are effectively over.”
Redlawsk also said he feels fairly certain that Biden will win the nomination. Like Willard, he said he believes that this attitude diverts attention from the Democratic primary.
“Nobody expects that [Sanders] can win this, so I’m not sure why anybody would be paying attention to campaign dynamics right now,” Redlawsk said.
According to Redlawsk, the two candidates will face unprecedented difficulties in their campaigns because of the growing presence of coronavirus.
Redlawsk mentioned the importance of campaign rallies as a major source of attention for candidates. Biden, Sanders and President Donald Trump have all canceled rallies due to concerns about coronavirus.
“Without rallies it’s much harder to engage voters and the media,” Redlawsk said. “You can do things online of course, but it’s just not the same thing as being there in person and the energy that gets generated.”
Without the ability to gather large crowds or to canvas in-person, campaigns are forced to change and adapt their styles to be more suitable for online campaigning. According to Redlawsk, campaigns have been at least partially virtual for a long time and will continue to use their “robust virtual arms” in 2020. This is the first time, however, that campaigns are forced to rely almost entirely on their internet platforms.
Although he is not involved in either Sanders’ or Biden’s campaign, Willard reflected on growing efforts local campaigns are making to explore phone-banking. He said that because this is an unusual time for many, many local politicians have been prioritizing the well-being of constituents rather than directly promoting their platforms.
“I think that candidates are still struggling to figure out how to get the word out, how to get some attention,” Redlawsk said in regards to Biden and Sanders.
In addition to having to adapt their campaigns to a more virtual format, whoever is eventually chosen as the Democratic nominee will face additional difficulties in taking media attention away from the incumbent president.
Redlawsk pointed out that it is harder for candidates to make themselves known when they are facing an incumbent, especially in a time of crisis.
“In a crisis environment, the media is going to be paying attention to the president,” Redlawsk said. “It’s much more difficult for somebody challenging the president to get attention simply because we are all fixated with what’s going on with the president or in this case, with governors.”
He also thinks that Biden will likely have a harder time gaining media attention because he currently has no formal role in the government. Sanders, he claimed, should be able to get attention because of his role as a senator.
Because neither candidate is a newcomer and both have already established themselves in the minds of many Americans, Redlawsk expects the fall campaign to be centered on getting people to vote rather than on persuading people to support a specific candidate.
“The other piece that experts are worrying about is whether we’ll physically be able to vote and how,” Redlawsk said. “In the end, the campaigns are going to be about getting their supporters out and the question is going to be how hard is that going to be to do?”
As states delay their primaries, coronavirus has already affected voting itself. Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Wyoming and Puerto Rico have all postponed their primaries. The Delaware primary was supposed to occur on April 28, but is now scheduled for June 2.
Both Shah, a Delaware resident, and Willard, a Pennsylvania resident, felt that the decision to delay the primaries was the correct one.
“I think it’s actually a good decision on their part,” Shah said. “Coronavirus has been a really contentious thing. No one really knows when it’s going away, what is supposed to happen with it, so I think moving the primaries gives people more time to maybe feel more comfortable.”
The 2020 Democratic National Convention was also pushed back from its original July 13 to 16 date. It is now set to occur on Aug. 17.
“Ensuring the safety of the convention’s host community and all convention-goers has been—and always will remain—the top priority of the Democratic National Convention Committee,” an update posted on the convention’s website said.
Delaying primaries and the convention, both of which draw lots of media focus, also contributes to the current lull in media coverage of politics. Redlawsk pointed to the convention as an event that, when it does happen, could attract lots of media attention and recapture focus on the 2020 presidential race.
“The real question for campaigning for the fall is whether there’s going to be any bandwidth in the media to pay attention to a campaign versus paying attention to the crisis,” Redlawsk said. “We don’t know what a campaign without the normal events is like.”
Redlawsk emphasized that the media tends to focus exclusively on a crisis whenever one comes about. Both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina absorbed media attention as they occurred and in the immediate aftermath. In both cases, the media returned to more standard coverage relatively quickly.
“The difference, of course, with this is that this isn’t a sudden event that happened and now we’re in the aftermath,” Redlawsk said. “It’s ongoing, and we don’t have a lot of history of this kind of ongoing event.”
World War II was an ongoing crisis that Redlawsk identified as possibly more comparable to coronavirus. However, even during this crisis, the media was able to broaden its focus beyond the war itself.
“Again, at some point it went from ‘this is the immediate crisis’ to ‘okay we’re now in a routine and we’re able to broaden what we’re looking at,’” Redlawsk said. “I just don’t know when that’s going to happen.”
Redlawsk believes that when more of a “routine” is established with coronavirus, the media may be able to return to focus on the campaign. For now, he acknowledged, it will be difficult for campaigns to wrestle media attention from coronavirus.
“None of us can do lots of things well at the same time,” Redlawsk said. “You have to have some focus somewhere.”
Editor’s Note: Collin Willard briefly covered sports for The Review. He is no longer has any affiliation with the paper and last wrote for us in October of 2019. Willard left The Review as he obtained a leadership position with a partisan group.