Bernie Sanders loves the campaign trail. He wants to be “running around the country” hosting rallies, organizing canvasses and leading marches to the polls.
But as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, the Vermont senator is mostly stuck at home in Burlington, stumping virtually for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Sanders exited the 2020 primary with a promise: that he would do everything in his power to elect Biden in November. For more than a year, Sanders had assured worried Democrats that, if he did not win the nomination, he would be on the frontline for whomever did. Some were skeptical. They were wrong. As the race enters its final stretch, Sanders – after delivering an impassioned case for Biden at the Democratic convention last week – is making good on his guarantee.
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He plans to stream a speech on Saturday making the case for Biden’s “concrete” economic agenda and how it differs from President Donald Trump’s “broken promises” – a point of focus that many on the left feel didn’t get enough programming time during the convention. And over the past month, Sanders has held livestreamed panels, each of them with a call to register and vote, with participants in Wisconsin, Kentucky, West Virginia and Iowa.
The events, Sanders’ team said, have racked up more than 850,000 views in all, for an average that exceeds 200,000.
After his remarks Saturday, Sanders will turn his energies toward Colorado and Texas. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke will join him, along with local leaders and candidates, for one virtual town hall, and freshman Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, a progressive favorite, in another – both events designed to reach the kind of potential voters who have not been obsessing over the conventions or enduring panic attacks as the latest round of horse race polling comes in.
“The goal here is, primarily, to reach out to what we would call nontraditional voters, people who don’t vote all of the time,” Sanders said. “Working class people who are struggling right now and young people and people of color, Latinos, and say to them, make the case to them, why this election is enormously important for their futures.”
The issues that animated Sanders’ campaign have not receded. If anything, the fundamentals of his analysis have been underscored by the collapse of an already tattered social safety net as the coronavirus and its economic fallout continue to deepen. The difference now is that Sanders has to convince people – and not those who will be impressed by former GOP officials switching sides – that Biden’s election is the only way to assure their concerns will ever again receive a free and fair hearing.
“This is not just an election about health care or decent jobs or immigration or climate change,” Sanders said. “This is an election about the very nature of American democracy and whether we retain American democracy.”
The coronavirus has unleashed wicked and unpredictable crosswinds on the voting process. Trump has openly pushed to restrict the franchise, fighting funding for the US Postal Service and threatening to station law enforcement at in-person polling places. Democrats are pushing back in court and, to the extent they can, on Capitol Hill.
But with the GOP-controlled Senate unwilling to take up a House bill, passed by Democrats largely along party lines, to allocate $25 billion to the Post Office and clamp down on any of the changes that have slowed service, their options are limited.
“Trump has been pretty honest about his desire to sabotage the Postal Service,” Sanders said. “And he understands that if there is a large voter turnout, he will, in all likelihood, lose. So if you don’t want a large voter turnout, if you’re going to force people literally to put their lives on the line by having to vote (in person) and worry about getting sick, because you’re going to a polling station, you can suppress the vote very significantly by suppressing mail-in ballots.”
That is the unnerving reality has also begun to settle in for many Democrats: to defeat Trump in November, they will need overwhelming turnout – enough to overcome whatever traps fall in their way.
Sanders has acknowledged the challenge, one made even more complicated by the impossibility of his favorite tactic for getting out the vote. There will be little or no door-knocking ahead of November. Instead, Democrats up and down the ballot are investing more time and money online, trying to drum up excitement and help would-be voters navigate an often confusing new process remotely.
Asked if his and others’ efforts, even accounting for the heavily-viewed, far-reaching livestreams he’s been doing for weeks and plans to continue through the fall, can make up the difference, Sanders conceded it would be difficult.
“It’s a real loss and I don’t know that you can,” he said. “You have followed me enough to know I love real life campaigning. When I ran for mayor of Burlington a long, long time ago, I knocked on almost every door in the city. I love doing rallies, I love doing town halls. I love meeting people in person. And I think that is something that virtual relationships cannot replace. But we are where we are – we cannot endanger people’s health.”
Voting rights experts and seasoned organizers often talk about hierarchy of voter contacts. Face-to-face conversations are the most valuable. They also know that combating suppression efforts is a tricky business. Talk of suppression, even in the context of combating it, has the potential to discourage would-be voters from trying.
It’s a fine line to walk.
Sanders said the solution is to accentuate the positive and point to states, like his own, Washington and others, where vote-by-mail has a track record of success.
“You talk about the history of mail-in voting, which has been very, very successful in this country,” he said. “States have done it for years and you say to (people), ‘This is the most important election in the modern history of this country. You have got to vote, make sure your vote counts, vote early and vote by mail in as early as you possibly can.’”