The pandemic, however, may give Sanders new hope. State after state has postponed their primaries, ending the run of bad news that could have given Biden unstoppable momentum. Three of the next four states to vote — Alaska, Hawaii and Wyoming — are all either party-run primaries or caucuses. Sanders won caucuses in all three states in 2016, and he won the North Dakota party-run primary on March 10. There’s no reason to think he can’t win all three on April 4.
Progressive-leaning Wisconsin will vote on April 7. While polls from early March had Biden comfortably ahead, pandemic fears could cause older voters — Biden’s base — to choose not to vote. That’s apparently what happened in Arizona, where Sanders was clobbered in early voting but almost ran even in ballots cast on Election Day. Sanders won Wisconsin by 13 points in 2016; it’s not inconceivable he could keep the state close or even beat Biden if senior citizen turnout is down.
The delayed primary schedule then plays to Sanders’s advantage. With Pennsylvania poised to delay its primary to June 2, New York is the only large state scheduled to vote until late May. With the coronavirus ravaging New York City, it’s likely the Empire State will also delay its primary. That would mean June 2 would shape up as a massive showdown. If New York joined the list of states already voting on that day, 1,096 delegates would be up for grabs that day.
Don’t be surprised if Sanders uses the intervening two months to change the race’s dynamics, and it’s not inconceivable that he could do that. Biden looked washed up after finishing fifth in New Hampshire on Feb. 11. Sanders looked to be the likely nominee after sweeping to victory in the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22. Ten days later, Biden swept to victory on Super Tuesday in one of the most shocking reversals of fortune in U.S. history. Sanders will clearly think he can do the same thing if he can get some wins under his belt and two months to draw a contrast with Biden.
Biden might even unwittingly play into Sanders’s hands. He is already saying he won’t debate Sanders in April, claiming there have been enough debates already. That surely won’t sit well with Sanders supporters, and one suspects Biden may be forced to reverse course as party leaders look at reuniting Democrats for the fall. Biden’s attempt to set himself up as the shadow president, regularly holding coronavirus briefings and tele-townhalls, may also backfire if he doesn’t impress. Add his propensity to lose his train of thought during interviews or say odd things, and one can easily see how Biden could look less formidable to Democratic voters as the campaign goes on.
That’s not to say Sanders’s task will be easy. His challenge is to persuade Democrats who are not already strongly progressive to shift their allegiance to him. These voters tell pollsters they prefer a nominee who can beat Trump to one whose views they agree with. Sanders has not effectively explained why he is better suited to do that than Biden. His argument that only he can excite enough new voters to drive high turnout has not convinced voters or political experts. He will need to make a new argument to change people’s minds, and Sanders has proved to be particularly resistant to that. His political strength — decades of holding fast to one set of views that convinces supporters he is sincere — may also prove to be a fatal liability.
That’s all in the future, however. The crisis has given Sanders a reprieve, and a 78-year-old man who knows this is his last chance for the White House will seize whatever lifeline he can to keep his dreams alive. Expect the Democratic nomination race to heat up as the temperatures rise this spring.