“Biden is better than Trump,” West said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Comments like this have gone a long way in shedding the shell of anxiety and fear that has long enshrouded a Democratic Party still shattered by its unexpected loss to Trump in 2016. In the past month, amid the worst public health crisis in a century, the party has coalesced around a single candidate far earlier than most expected, and set aside many of the divisions that hobbled Clinton in 2016.
The long-feared contested convention has been forestalled. A traditional, cast of thousands party gathering that would have given Biden opponents a nationally televised forum for protest appears less and less likely to occur. Allegations of intraparty rigging that defined 2016 have been largely quarantined in Trump campaign news releases.
Already Sanders and Biden are engaged in mutual public praise that eluded Sanders and Clinton four years ago and delayed his endorsement until July. And for the first time in 16 years, a non-incumbent Democrat has sealed the presidential nomination in early April, providing an extended runway to prepare for the general election.
While party leaders still expect a close election, given Trump’s strengths as a candidate, his deep base in core swing states, his significant bankroll and much larger campaign organization, they argue that the dramatic shifts of the last month clearly have placed their party in a stronger position for November.
“There is a presumptive nominee which every other contender for the nomination now acknowledges, and that was not clear like this in 2016,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, echoing the new mood among party leaders. “That gives us months to not only define the stakes but to also define the contrast.”
Former senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota also expressed confidence about the prospects for party unity, saying the tone she detected from Sanders since his Wednesday departure from the race was markedly different from 2016.
“When you look at this, Senator Sanders immediately coming out and saying Joe Biden’s a decent person, a great human being, that’s an endorsement I think Secretary Clinton didn’t exactly get,” said Heitkamp, adding that Democrats have another advantage they lacked in the last election: “What Hillary Clinton didn’t have in ’16 is she didn’t have President Trump. And President Trump may be the single most significant unifying factor in the Democratic Party.”
The new advantages enjoyed by Democrats go beyond an end to infighting. The viral outbreak now roiling the country has also refocused the country on health care costs and access, issues that have recently given Democrats an advantage, while Trump’s biggest issue edge, the roaring national economy, has evaporated for the moment amid a nearly nationwide shutdown.
Despite the introductory video on the website for new Trump campaign volunteers boasting of a “strong, still growing economy,” even some top Republicans increasingly feel that the election is destined to be a referendum on Trump and his handling of the virus, a prospect that makes them nervous given critiques of the administration’s crisis management and the dire health and economic consequences many have suffered.
“I think that Trump is at greater risk of losing because the strong economy was a central plank of his argument to reelection,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent Trump donor and oil industry executive. “I think at some point he needs to take a step back from the press conferences and let the scientists talk more and then he needs to find some way to communicate how hard he is trying to get the economy moving again.”
Trump’s focus on the viral outbreak has also given Democrats an unexpected opportunity to dominate the swing state airwaves in March and April, despite the much-deeper pockets of the Trump campaign, which has decided so far to delay any television offensive against Biden.
Between March 10 and April 10, Democratic super PACs have spent about $6.9 million in televised anti-Trump ads in five swing states — Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — according to a Democrat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal tracking data. The Trump campaign and its supportive Super PACs have hardly responded, with about $8,000 on the air in North Carolina, according to the same person. Now that Biden is the presumptive nominee, they have announced plans for more spending in the coming months.
Most of the recent Democratic ads have been hitting Trump for his handling of the covid-19 pandemic, while Trump’s campaign has responded in recent days with digital ads attacking Biden for his liberal positions on immigration and taxes, and his policy approach to China. Even here, Democrats see an advantage over the Trump operation.
“I do question whether attacks that are so distant from what is the total preoccupation of every American right now will land forcefully,” said Jim Margolis, a Democratic admaker in the last four presidential cycles, who expects a close contest in November. “In my view, there is a real question of how they will be successful.”
With Biden at the top of the ticket and the crisis upending life across the country, many Democrats are hoping to recreate the model they used to win back the House in the 2018 midterm elections — emphasizing competence and noncontroversial stances and avoiding strident partisanship in swing areas where they believe anger with Trump will carry them to victory.
“Most of my constituents find partisanship right now just completely abhorrent,” said freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who flipped a battleground congressional district in suburban Detroit that is the kind of place Democrats need to win to dislodge Trump. “It feels like partisanship right now is like an arrow in our bodies. It just feels like it is wounding us because that means that people aren’t working together the way we need.”
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the president’s team is in a dominant position and has been rapidly expanding in other ways over the last month, with a digital-focused campaign that since March 13 has connected with 276,000 people who are interested in volunteering for Trump. He rejects the notion that the campaign is concerned about Biden as a candidate.
“We never had concerns about him,” Murtaugh said. “Watch him perform. Who could be concerned about that?”
Biden’s campaign pointed to overwhelming turnout in the primaries, including in states Democrats must win to defeat the president. “Voters believe in Joe Biden’s vision for this country, they are energized to beat Donald Trump and they know Joe Biden is the person to do it,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager. “Democrats are ready for this fight.”
Though the Republican Party retains an advantage due to the scale of its operation, Democrats have made significant strides in recent years. Juan Peñalosa, the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, says he now has a staff of 104, with 12,000 active volunteers, compared with a staff of 14 and 2,700 volunteers in August 2016. The Wisconsin party has also grown from about 13 staff members in February 2016 to more than 30 in November 2019, which was the last time it released staffing data, according to Philip Shulman, a spokesman for the state’s party.
“In a lot of ways the party is in a much stronger position and ready to support Biden than we had in 2016,” said Michael Halle, Clinton’s battleground analytics director in 2016. “They are in an advantageous position in that they have significantly more time to transition.”
Biden also has been moving quickly to try to attract Sanders supporters who remain skeptical of his campaign. On Thursday, Biden unveiled proposals to lower the eligibility age for joining Medicare and to forgive student debt for many Americans, shifting toward the Vermont senator after conversations between their staffs.
Biden credited Sanders for “laying the groundwork for these ideas,” and Sanders, in an MSNBC interview, called them a positive step. The senator from Vermont has praised Biden and hinted that a formal endorsement could happen in the near future.
Part of the reason Sanders and Biden are getting along better than Sanders did with Clinton is personal rapport. Sanders has long called Biden a friend — and those close to the two men say they have genuine respect for one another. They are of the same generation — Sanders is 78, Biden is 77 — and briefly overlapped in the Senate. With Clinton, the dynamic was far frostier and less trusting.
Still, some Sanders allies have been less impressed by Biden, and have signaled no intention to back him. Brianha Joy Gray, the national press secretary on the Sanders campaign, speculated on Twitter that party leaders might try to replace Biden on the ticket. RoseAnn DeMoro, a close Sanders friend and former nurses union head, dismissed Biden as someone who has “carried the centrist agenda.”
Some Sanders supporters have already moved on, focusing on other causes and races. Chapo Trap House, a left-wing podcast that went on a tour this year to rally voters and organizers for Sanders, has mixed recriminations about the primary with lighthearted episodes making fun of Star Wars sequels.
“You don’t have to worry about the presidential election anymore,” said Matt Christman, a co-host of the podcast, as he packed a joint during a Thursday live stream. “You can tune it out. You don’t have to pay attention about any of this stuff now.”
Most Democratic leaders are convinced the threat of defections has been greatly reduced for the current cycle.
Former congressman Steve Israel of New York, who chaired the House Democratic campaign arm, said the party is “light-years ahead” in its efforts to foster unity, compared to four years ago, because of an urgency that didn’t exist then.
“Democrats never believed Donald Trump could be elected. So there was room to fight each other. But this is a whole new ballgame,” Israel said. “Donald Trump is the best turnout model Democrats have ever had.”
Former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) agreed.
“The reason we lost the general election to Mr. Know-it-all was because of Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton — there was some Clinton fatigue out there and that just never coalesced the way we wanted it to,” Reid said, suggesting the former vice president will be more successful than Hillary Clinton in propelling Democrats to vote for him. “Biden is the pick that Trump hates more than anything.”