US: Campaigning in the time of coronavirus

From handshakes to kissing babies, virus upends poll campaigning in United States

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a news conference. (Credit: Reuters)

Podiums get sanitised before the candidate steps up to speak. Fist or elbow bumps take the place of handshakes, and kissing babies is out of the question.

Rallies are cancelled, leaving candidates speaking to a handful of journalists and staffers instead of cheering crowds of thousands.

This is campaigning in the age of the coronavirus, when fears of the new pandemic's rapid spread are upending Joe Biden's and Bernie Sanders' campaigns.

The urgency of the issue comes at a pivotal time in the Democratic presidential primary, as Biden is beginning to pull ahead as a front-runner for the nomination and as Sanders is scrambling to catch up.

"If coronavirus has the lasting impact that we all fear it will, it will also dramatically reshape the way a presidential campaign unfolds," said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Hillary Clinton's campaign.

"Politics is fundamentally about leaders interacting with the people who they represent, and if a pandemic forecloses that ability, it changes everything — how you campaign, how you knock doors, how you do events and how you do the retail part of politics."

Tuesday marked the first moment the issue affected the campaigns in a substantive way. Both Biden and Sanders decided to cancel planned election-night rallies in Ohio at the advice of local health officials.

And so Biden -- who won at least four of the six states voting Tuesday -- delivered a victory speech to a crowd almost entirely composed of media and dozens of staffers who had wandered over from headquarters. It was hardly the big celebration Biden had hoped for on one of the biggest nights of his 2020 campaign.

It's not the first time a major national crisis has upended the contours of a presidential race. During the 2008 campaign, as the economy was in free fall, Republican nominee John McCain returned to Washington to work on the congressional response to the crisis in an effort to revive his flagging campaign.

Steve Schmidt, McCain's top adviser, has said the coronavirus crisis could be particularly problematic for Sanders — and for Trump.

Trump, meanwhile, delights in turning out tens of thousands of supporters to his events and has kept up a steady calendar of rallies in recent months.

While they have not said they are holding off on rallies, Trump's campaign doesn't have any on the schedule — a rare break to his persistent counterprogramming. The campaign postponed a 'Women for Trump' bus tour through Michigan, citing "scheduling conflicts", after the husband of a participant came into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.

Late Wednesday, the White House announced Trump would cancel his trips to Colorado and Nevada "out of an abundance of caution" amid the coronavirus outbreak.

He was set to leave Thursday for a Western swing that would include a pair of fundraisers and an appearance at the annual gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas.

The 73-year-old president has also continued to shake hands and speak at large gatherings, despite public health warnings directed at people his age.

While Trump continues his handshaking, those warnings from officials could affect the way Biden campaigns. While the former vice president typically holds smaller events and has only consistently turned out crowds in the thousands since winning South Carolina on February 29, he's known for his personal, often physical interactions with voters. He often doles out hugs or goes forehead-to-forehead with a voter to share an emotional moment.

Rick Hasen, an election law expert and professor at the University of California's Irvine School of Law, joked that Biden may have "some things to learn about social distancing". Indeed, even Biden's senior adviser Anita Dunn was trading elbow bumps instead of handshakes with a reporter on the trail this week.

It's not just rallies that face restrictions with the spread of the new coronavirus. The Democrats' next debate, being held Sunday in Arizona, will not have a live audience at the request of both campaigns.

One major concern for the candidates is turnout -- particularly among older voters, who make up a key portion of Biden's base.

Election officials in Ohio and Chicago announced they're moving polling centres out of senior centres and nursing homes.

Some Democratic operatives have expressed concerns that some states could see a shortage in volunteers on Election Day. Election officials in Florida, where early voting is underway, are sanitizing voting machines hourly with disinfectant wipes.

Kelly Dietrich, CEO of the National Democratic Training Committee, a group that trains Democrats who want to run for office or work on a campaign, said they're already seeing a decline in people who have registered to participate in their training over fear of showing up to large gatherings.

The Sanders campaign held a call with staff and advisers to go over new organising protocols on Wednesday. Signs of heightened concern could be seen on the Biden campaign trail earlier this week. His press aides offered liberal doses of hand sanitizer as his travelling press boarded their plane.

And at a high-dollar fundraiser this week in Detroit, boxes of disinfectant wet wipes were placed on the cocktail tables. 

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