The presidential campaign has suddenly become an afterthought.
With the virus crisis dominating our lives, with more than 5,000 lives lost in the United States, with 6.6 million new jobless claims filed last week, who can think about November? Most of us are consumed by getting past the peak of the pandemic, or just making it to next week.
It had become obvious, even before Joe Biden said it out loud, that the Democratic convention in Milwaukee was not going to happen in early July. After the de facto nominee urged a delay, the party Thursday said it was pushing back the event from July 13 to Aug. 17, putting it a week before President Trump’s renomination in Charlotte. One Democratic official told the New York Times it would probably be a “bare minimum” convention.
But it’s not impossible to imagine that neither party will be able to bring together 30,000 delegates, politicians and journalists unless the virus has largely vanished.
Biden, through no fault of his own, has mostly faded from the radar. After an initial quiet period, he’s been doing a spate of interviews from his home studio in Delaware, including with Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. He sometimes breaks through with a headline, but is largely drowned out by the president’s daily White House briefings, Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings, and the hourly flood of coronavirus news.
The campaign calendar is literally frozen. While Wisconsin, in a heavily criticized move, plans to proceed with its primary next Tuesday, several other states have postponed their contests until June, meaning Biden can’t wrap things up until then. Bernie Sanders is refusing to drop out, so Biden, despite his huge lead, is in this suspended animation of only being the presumed nominee.
The former vice president has enjoyed leads between 2 and 10 points over Trump in three recent general election polls, but this is ephemeral at best. The campaign won’t really be joined until every hour on television and virtually every story on the front pages is not laser-focused on the pandemic.
Biden’s problem, quite simply, is that he has no job. He’s not a governor on the front lines, he’s not a senator voting on bailout legislation. He’s in limbo.
Trump remains at the center of a global stage, which is why, despite a barrage of media criticism, his approval ratings have inched up–between 45 and 48 percent in recent polls. Ordinarily, you’d expect a surge in support for a self-proclaimed “wartime president,” even if he is fighting an invisible enemy.
The record here is mixed. George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings skyrocketed to 90 percent after he assembled the coalition that won the Gulf War, but the following year he lost to Bill Clinton. Bush’s son, however, won a second term after he grabbed that bullhorn in the wake of 9/11 and launched a war on terrorism.
Trump has mostly played to his base in a fiercely polarized electorate — he was impeached, you may recall — and that has limited his upside while also providing him with rock-solid Republican loyalty.
In case you were wondering how all this is affecting the 2024 race — most people are just trying to make it to next week — Politico has some handicapping that is actually relevant right now:
“Andrew Cuomo’s poll ratings are soaring. Jay Inslee is drawing more attention than his failed presidential campaign ever did. Gretchen Whitmer is burnishing her credentials as a possible running mate for Joe Biden.”
But the governor of New York (71 percent approval at home but not running for president) isn’t just having a moment, along with the Democratic leaders of Washington, Michigan and California. They are reminding the country that governors, unlike lawmakers, are on the front lines and actually have to manage crises.
That was why Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Clinton and George W. all won the White House, before politics became so Washington-focused in the Obama-Trump era. All the governors and former governors in this year’s primary — Inslee, John Hickenlooper, Steve Bullock and (briefly) Deval Patrick — flamed out.
The future may look different, but at the moment, both Trump and Biden face an environment where they can’t hold rallies, shake hands and hold babies. It’s a virtual terrain that may ultimately produce a referendum on the incumbent–based largely on his handling of this pandemic.