The coronavirus global pandemic has altered Florida primary campaigning between Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden.
This weekend, Theodore Matz planned to walk Lake Worth Beach neighborhoods stumping for Bernie Sanders. But he probably would not have offered a handshake and he might have kept a little distance from a voter.
“Other than that, I don’t feel uncomfortable about going out and canvassing,” said Matz, a West Palm Beach resident.
But those plans got changed early Thursday evening when the Sanders campaign canceled canvassing, presumably, Matz said, because of coronavirus-related jitters. Instead, Matz said he and other volunteers will staff a phone bank on behalf of the campaign.
The coronavirus global pandemic has altered Florida primary campaigning between the Vermont U.S. senator and former Vice President Joe Biden. Both Biden and Sanders canceled election night rallies in Ohio earlier this week, and Biden dropped plans for a rally in Tampa on Thursday night.
In addition, the Biden campaign had said it planned to have more surrogates represent Biden ahead of Tuesday’s voting. Former Secretary of State John Kerry made several South Florida appearances for Biden on Monday on the heels of similar events by the candidate’s wife, Jill Biden, last weekend.
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On Thursday, though, a Florida spokesman for Biden did not have details of any surrogate visits. Instead, he said the Biden team would be following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in making decisions on different functions, whether it is large crowd event or smaller size audiences for appearances by surrogates.
That followed an announcement on Wednesday by Biden for President that it formed an advisory group of healthcare experts to “to provide science-based, expert advice” on minimizing coronavirus risks for the candidate, staff, and supporters.
As for the Florida primary, the campaign said it will reach out to voters to encourage them to either vote early or make it to the polls next Tuesday.
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But without rallies to draw thousands, and free publicity, the two campaigns will turn to retail politics, like knocking on doors and manning phone banks, as well as broadcast advertising buys in markets where they have strongholds of supporters.
In Palm Beach County, neither Biden nor Sanders ran many television commercials until the start of this month. Through Wednesday, though, Sanders had outspent Biden, $333,310 to $257,280, and more spending appeared to be in the works.
Another channel to reach the electorate is social media. Between March 3 and 9, Biden had spent $1.7 million on Facebook ads to Sanders’ $1.2 million
Matz, who has been canvassing for Sanders on weekends, said he and his group of volunteers had a goal of reaching 1,000 homes in the Lake Worth area before the vote counting began Tuesday night.
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When he spoke to voters, Matz said he pitched Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal as well as touted the Green New Deal to address climate change. Then of course, there was the electability question.
“Half the people tell me they don’t care who the nominee is, that they just want someone who can beat Trump,” he said. As he calls voters this weekend, he said “I’ll make the argument that Biden is a centrist and when we tried that back in 2016 that didn’t turn out so well.”
That said, two polls this week showed Sanders badly trailing Biden in the Sunshine State. One poll, by Florida Atlantic University’s Business and Economics Polling Initiative, on Tuesday showed Biden trouncing Sanders by 61% to 25%.
On Thursday, the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab released a poll showing former Vice President Joe Biden topping U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders by 44 points, 66% to 22%, in a contest sharply divided among generational lines.
Among younger voters, those between the ages of 18 and 24, Sanders captured a stunning garnered 77% support. Biden fared better among those ages 35 to 44, leading Sanders by five points in this group, 45% to 40%. Biden also dominated among voters 65 and over with 78%.
Warnings that the coronavirus is a more serious concern for older voters have raised some fears that fewer voters over the age of, say, 60 might risk a trip to the polls potentially alter the dynamics of the Biden-Sanders race.
But Michael Binder, director of the Public Opinion Research Lab, said that is highly unlikely to happen.
For starters, there have been a large number of votes cast already. So far, more 1.1 million mail-in ballots have been cast statewide compared to just over 1.2 million in the last Florida presidential primary in 2016 primary.
“There are already a bunch of votes already in the bag,” he said.
Plus, Binder said he is skeptical the virus will dissuade the electorate because voting does not entail the kind of exposure risk from, say, sitting for hours in a professional sports event. “It really would take a monumental shift for people not to show up on Tuesday,” he said.
And, Binder said, coronavirus concerns could very well disproportionately depress voter turnout among the legions of younger Sanders supporters.
Binder noted that many younger voters, those studying at state Florida universities, have also now had their lives disrupted and may be distracted from voting.
“There is a lot of uncertainty for a lot of those folks, too,” he said.
President Trump doesn’t face a serious primary challenge, but the virus has disrupted his re-election efforts, too.
Speaking at the White House Thursday, the president noted his campaign had canceled three rallies slated for Nevada. In addition, Trump said the campaign was planning an event on March 25 in Tampa — and had already received 100,000 requests for tickets — but said the event “probably” would be put off.
“We need a little separation until such time as this goes away,” he said. “It will go away.”
Annie Marie Delgado, president of the Trump Team 2020 Florida fan club, said rallies and other events are a way to demonstrate the president’s popularity among Republicans. She points out that in the March 3 primary in Utah, the president drew 298,936 votes, almost 50 percent more than the total 211,157 cast for Biden Sanders and the entire Democratic field.
“If you look at the primary elections that are happening with the Democrats, the president doesn’t even have an opponent and he’s gotten more votes than the Democrat candidates combined,” she said. “Republicans came out to vote and they didn’t even have to.”
Political consultant Randy Ross said Trump’s rallies are important for the base — and the president.
“The base is already fired up,” said Ross, who was the 2016 Orange County Chairman for Donald Trump Campaign. “When he comes in and does a rally, this is unprecedented. What fires us up is seeing the boss. The person that won the 2016 election single-handedly is Donald Trump ... There’s no better cheerleader for Donald Trump than Donald Trump, and when we’re around him that ignites and excites us.”
Reporting by Palm Beach Post reporters Wendy Rhodes, Chris Persaud and Christine Stapleton was used in the story.