In this edition: Biden wins over Sanders, but not yet the left, while Republicans suffer a loss in Wisconsin.

In the end, it came down to crucial Waukesha County, and this is The Trailer.

On Monday, when Bernie Sanders endorsed Joe Biden and ended the Democratic primary, the former vice president unveiled a consolation prize. The presumptive nominee and the runner-up would form new “working groups” to help hammer out policies on everything from the economy to immigration reform to climate change.

Just a few hours earlier, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York was wondering why Biden's overtures to the left were so unconvincing. His first consolation prize — lowering the age of Medicare eligibility from 65 to 60 — had landed with a thud.

“I think Hillary [Clinton] was looking at policies that lowered it to 50,” the congresswoman told New York Times reporter Astead Herndon. “We’re talking about a ‘progressive concession’ that is 10 years worse than what the nominee had in 2016.”

Biden's march to the Democratic nomination, which looked unlikely until it became inevitable, did more than deny the left its preferred candidate. It validated Biden's very approach to the left, the most standoffish of any Democrat with a shot at victory. Activists who had gotten commitments or sit-downs from other moderates in the race, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, failed to get a hearing from Biden. He won anyway, letting him, not them, set the terms for the challenge to President Trump.

“We recognize that some progressive leaders and organizations were supporting other candidates, but we also know many feel they cannot sit out of the most important election of our lifetime,” said Jamal Brown, Biden's national press secretary. “We’re going to continue establishing common ground and identifying where we can work together on building upon Vice President Biden’s ideas, advancing shared policy goals, and broadening our winning coalition.”

Some activists who had been frustrated by Biden said that the campaign had indeed started to reach out as the primary ended. But in the run-up to 2020, liberal and left-wing activists set up conferences, questionnaires and cattle calls, all with the goal of finding a candidate who would take their movements into the White House. By the end of 2019, they had divided their support largely between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. 

They frequently lacked access to Biden, whose record made them instant skeptics, anyway. He skipped Netroots Nation, a conference of grass-roots and online activists to whom he'd spoken in the past, even though the 2019 event was held near his downtown Philadelphia headquarters. He didn't participate in the endorsement process for Indivisible, a network of organizers formed after the 2016 election, or in the process put together by the Center for Popular Democracy, a coalition of economic and immigrant justice groups. He was one of the only major candidates to miss these events. (Biden's campaign did not share details on why he ignored many of these requests.)

Biden frequently made time for labor unions, which were more judicious and demanding about this primary than they'd been when they largely backed Clinton's 2016 campaign. But he didn't compete for support from more left-leaning unions, such as National Nurses United; they usually supported Medicare-for-all, and he wouldn't. Last summer, Biden punted on a taped interview with Ady Barkan, a Medicare-for-all activist who has ALS and launched a multimillion-dollar PAC to campaign for Democrats. 

“We reached out multiple times, across different channels and multiple members of his senior team to urge Vice President Biden to sit down with me and have a respectful conversation about the future of health care policy in America,” Barkan said in an email. “Other candidates who were not supportive of Medicare for All were willing to come out to Santa Barbara, sit down with me, and make their case to progressive voters, and that's why it was so disappointing that the vice president didn't seem interested in joining them.” 

Biden was also one of few credible Democratic candidates who didn't return a questionnaire from the ACLU, which massively stepped up its political organizing after 2016. (Faiz Shakir, the ACLU leader in charge of this, would eventually become Sanders's campaign manager.) When they buttonholed Biden, ACLU volunteers sometimes got answers they liked, such as when Unitarian minister Nina Grey got the candidate to abandon his support for the antiabortion Hyde Amendment. But the countless brochures that the ACLU distributed to Democrats, featuring the top candidates' positions on issues such as court expansion or felon voting rights, never included Biden.

“While he has staked out a few pro-civil-liberties positions recently on issues like immigrants’ rights, there is a broader opportunity here to speak directly to civil liberties voters,” said ACLU spokeswoman Lauren Weiner. “As his campaign makes efforts to reach out to more and more voters and create a bigger tent for November, we hope he’ll be interested in answering our full range of questions.”

At least two players see Biden as a leading liberal: the candidate himself and the GOP. Republicans, who had at one point hoped to tie every Democratic candidate further down the ballot to a left-wing nominee, have tried to deploy that tactic on Biden. They've accused him of wanting to ban fossil fuels based on a verbal hiccup in a 2019 debate; Biden appeared to be discussing subsidies for fossil fuels but dropped some words. They've tied him to the Green New Deal, a left-wing framework for remaking the economy with job guarantees and clean energy, even though his climate plan was denounced by the Sunrise Movement, which came up with the Green New Deal.

Biden, too, has bristled at the idea that he is not offering liberals what they want. While he never embraced Medicare-for-all — a left-wing litmus test that he didn't need to pass to win — he would often argue that he had better, more workable plans for activists and ask why they refused to see that. Last summer, when he spoke to a Washington conference organized by the Poor People's Campaign, he chastised skeptics who didn't think the passage of the 2009 stimulus bill was a big enough achievement.

“Folks, look, if you start off with the notion there is nothing you can do, then why don’t you all go home, then?” Biden said. “Or let’s start a real, physical revolution if you are talking about it.”

Months later, Biden found himself in a confrontation with Carlos Rojas, an activist with the immigrant rights group Movimiento Cosecha, who demanded he commit to putting a moratorium on deportations. Biden began to explain his plan — which would not halt all deportations — and when activists interrupted, he sarcastically advised them to vote for Trump.

“We hear him say that mass deportation was a big mistake, but then we hear the same words, 'felons not families,' used to justify it,” said Brenda Valladares, a Movimiento Cosecha organizer. “Regardless of what he's saying now, we wanted to hear him say why he was wrong.”

The “vote for Trump” moment stuck with activists. So did a rediscovered 1995 floor speech in which Biden, during a fight over the balanced budget amendment, emphasized his willingness to negotiate long-term spending on Medicare and Social Security. But none of it stuck with the bulk of Democratic voters. David Sirota, a journalist and former Hill staffer who worked for the Sanders campaign, said that Biden had successfully reintroduced himself as a liberal who could continue President Barack Obama's legacy. Warnings that he had once opposed the left, as Sanders and Sirota tried to raise, never seemed to click.

“Is he the Biden of many, many decades, someone who sees his brand as juxtaposing himself with the Democratic Party's base?” Sirota asked. “He wasn't one of these Democrats who quietly cast conservative votes. It was his identity: He was the guy who would put Social Security on the table when the left didn't want to.”

Some activists who had clashed with Biden, or brushed by him on the way to endorsing other candidates, said they had begun to hear from the campaign. Bidenworld had gotten back to Barkan, and the working groups, though unenthusiastically received, gave activists the chance to influence his campaign. The chance of nominating a candidate they agreed with was gone, and the new job was to see how far Biden could be moved. 

Obama put out his own video backing Biden on Tuesday and said that the next president would need to go further than he had on policy issues, without endorsing pressure on the candidate.

One month ago, in his only one-on-one debate with Sanders, Biden repackaged his immigration plan and emphasized that it was, after all, different from what he'd defended in the Obama years.

“The first hundred days of my administration, no one, no one will be deported at all,” Biden said. “From that point on, the only deportations that will take place are commissions of felonies in the United States of America.” It was not exactly what Movimiento Cosecha had asked for, but the candidates who paid the most attention to them had lost.

Reading list

“Liberal challenger defeats conservative incumbent in Wisconsin Supreme Court race,” by Amy Gardner and David Weigel

An upset that neither party was expecting.

“Democrats' dream election map will be hard to replicate in November,” by Craig Gilbert

The math in Wisconsin's elections.

“The Me President: Trump uses pandemic briefing to focus on himself,” by Ashley Parker

The rally comes to the Baker room.

“Upset victory in Wisconsin Supreme Court race gives Democrats a lift,” by Reid J. Epstein

A look at the campaign tactics that worked, or didn't.

“Ex-president Barack Obama announces support for Joe Biden, his former vice president,” by Sean Sullivan and Michael Scherer

The team-up that inspired a series of mystery novels (seriously!) is back.

“Republicans are trying to kick thousands of voters off the rolls during a pandemic,” by Ari Berman

A warning from the left about over-policing voter registrations.

On the trail

Hours before Wisconsin counted up ballots from its April 7 election, Democrats steeled themselves for defeat. Ben Wikler, the state party's chairman, held a news conference to warn that “democracy had lost” when Republicans forced the election to go forward. Their quest for a state Supreme Court seat, the biggest partisan prize on the ballot, forced voters to “brave death” and may have gotten some of them killed.

“We'll find out whether Republicans succeeded in stealing the election by weaponizing a pandemic,” Wikler said.

By Monday evening, the script had been torn up and thrown out. Democrat-backed judicial candidate Jill Karofsky had easily defeated conservative Justice Daniel Kelly. As ballots rolled in from the state's more liberal precincts, Karofsky's lead stretched to 11 points and more than 160,000 votes — nearly eight times the margin by which Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin. 

As a result, conservatives will be held to a 4-to-3 majority over liberals on the state's court, putting at risk some Republican priorities, such as an effort to remove more than 200,000 names from the state's voter rolls.

Republicans had worried about this. Holding the election on the same day as the fading Democratic presidential primary was always going to boost liberal turnout. In a brief, tweeted statement on the results, Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt thanked volunteers for their hard work “despite the many obstacles placed in our way.” The chief obstacle: More than 920,000 voters coming out to vote in the Biden-Sanders race, the vast majority of them punching their ballots for Karofsky.

Still, both sides entered the night ready to discuss a Republican victory. The Trump campaign, which has coordinated closely with swing-state Republican Parties, repeated the tactics that had helped the party win a similar court race just one year earlier. The Republican State Leadership Committee, which got a big share of credit for that 2019 win, spent $1 million for Kelly through its Judicial Fairness Initiative. 

They were slow to react to defeat. The most telling reaction yesterday may have been RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel and a Trump campaign spokeswoman congratulating the president on winning the uncontested GOP presidential primary, while making no mention of the court race — one that the president had repeatedly touted, urging his supporters to vote for Kelly.

Turnout in the election was a bit more than half the total for the 2016 Trump-Clinton race in Wisconsin and only 75 percent as large as both parties' turnout in that year's primaries. But that was bigger than Democrats expected, and the gains tended to come in places where they needed to perform. Crucially, the state Democratic Party began focusing on getting its voters to request absentee ballots on March 15, 23 long days before the vote, and that helped them compete with ongoing GOP plans to push absentee voting. 

“Over 70 percent of people voted by mail,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat who represents Madison. “It was the preferred position of everyone regardless of ideology. You don’t need to risk the health of your constituents to hold an election, but unfortunately, some people didn't have enough time to get an absentee ballot. It’ll be days before we know if anyone was exposed to the virus.”

Wisconsin's political map has hardened since 2016, when Trump won 23 counties that had backed Barack Obama twice. Democrats lost ground in rural, western parts of the state, while Republican margins shrunk in Milwaukee's suburbs and the surrounding “WOW” counties: Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha.

Since then, in everything from big Democratic wins (a 2018 state Supreme Court race) to narrow Republican wins (a 2019 state Supreme Court race), the parties have held onto their geographic bases and fought over the margins. Karofsky won just 27 of the state's 72 counties, up from the 21 carried by defeated 2019 judicial candidate Lisa Neubauer. Karofsky flipped the swing counties of Brown, Winnebago and Outagamie and won the southeast county of Kenosha by 15 points; Neubauer had lost it by four. Had the cities of Madison and Milwaukee been removed entirely from the count, Karofsky still would have pulled out the win.

But it was in the cities and bigger urban counties that Karofsky ran up the score. She won 134,722 votes in Milwaukee County; Neubauer had won just 93,565 votes there. Karofsky won 159,734 votes in Dane County, home to Madison and much of the state's recent growth, a 30,000-vote improvement over Neubauer. Across both counties combined, Kelly improved on the GOP's 2019 number by only around 12,000 votes.

Region by region, the result looked almost identical to the state's 2018 U.S. Senate race, in which Democrat Tammy Baldwin easily defeated Republican Leah Vukmir. Even the “WOW” county margins overlapped. Vukmir won 67 percent of the vote in Washington, 58 percent in Ozaukee, and 62 percent in Waukesha; Kelly's numbers in those counties were 68 percent, 56 percent, and 62 percent. 

That's ominous for Republicans, who tend to win landslides in those counties even in bad years. In 2008, when John McCain lost Wisconsin by the biggest margin of any Republican nominee since Barry Goldwater, he matched the Kelly numbers in Waukesha and ran ahead of them in Ozaukee.

Turnout was obviously affected by the dangerous and eventually confusing conditions the election was held under. Some of the drop-off came from confusion over absentee ballots that many voters requested for the first time; that led to problems like ballots that lacked signatures, ballots that did not include copies of voters' identification, and ballots that were asked for but not delivered on time.

“We shouldn't have had the election on Tuesday,” Karofsky said in a post-election videoconference, not long after winning a 10-year term in an election both sides thought she'd lose.

Turnout watch

Wisconsin's election also featured the second of what this newsletter calls “zombie primaries” — though, really, any better name would be welcome. Like Alaska, which counted up votes last weekend, Wisconsin conducted its election before Sen. Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign and endorsed Joe Biden. Like Wyoming, Ohio and Hawaii, the three other states that began accepting votes before the primary ended, Wisconsin saw no in-person campaigning and no traditional get-out-the-vote efforts. And just as he'd done in every major primary since Super Tuesday, Biden won.

Turnout fell below 2008 and 2016 levels, but not by much. At least 923,758 ballots were cast in the Biden-Sanders race, down from 1,002,036 four years ago and down from 1,113,285 in the primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Yet the drop-off was much steeper in neighboring Illinois, one of the three states that held primaries with substantial in-person voting March 17. Turnout fell about 25 percent in Illinois from 2016 to 2010; it fell by less than 9 percent in Wisconsin.

How much of the difference was due to the presence of the Supreme Court race on the ballot and the Democrats' turnout operation? How much was due to the extra days that Wisconsin Democrats had to request absentee ballots? It's likely a combination of both, but the result demonstrated just how dominant Biden had become in the primary's final weeks.

Biden swept all 72 of Wisconsin's counties, winning by margins as small as 15 points (Dane County, home to Madison) and as big as 52 points (Marinette County). In much of the state, turnout was comparable to 2016 levels, but in Milwaukee, the drop was more severe. Turnout fell from 195,057 in 2016 to 152,441; turnout in Dane actually rose, from 164,743 to 168,466. 

That may be the strongest evidence of how the collapse in the number of Milwaukee polling places suppressed turnout, while Dane, which kept most voting locations open, mitigated its problems. And the drop in the most heavily African American part of Wisconsin surely hurt Biden, who won just 59 percent of the Milwaukee County vote.

In a close race, it could have made a difference. But Sanders never got close to Biden. The senator from Vermont captured seven of the state's eight congressional districts in the last primary but was routed in all eight this time. He did worst in the rural 7th Congressional District, grabbing just 25 percent of the vote and a single delegate. Four years ago, he'd taken that district with 57 percent of the vote.

Sanders, who is continuing to compete for delegates despite ending his campaign, needs around 300 more of them to reach the threshold (25 percent) for challenging party rules and platform language. He ended Monday night with 18 more delegates and would need to do about this well in every forthcoming state to hit that magic number.

Ad watch

Mike Garcia for Congress, “Nothing.” The Republican nominee in California's 25th District has talked for weeks about a small but potentially fateful decision by Democrat Christy Smith: She didn't attend a meeting of the emergency committee she leads in the state Assembly. Unlike Katie Hill, the Democrat who flipped the district in 2018, Smith has a political record, and Garcia uses it here to decry a “Sacramento politician” who “did nothing” as the coronavirus pandemic shut the state down. While southern California voters approve of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom's handling of the pandemic and are skeptical of Trump's, Garcia has tried to separate Smith from national political figures, with some success — both sides see a close race in a district that has been shifting toward Democrats.

AFT, “Thieves.” A 30-second ad designed for D.C. and New York media markets, this union spot adds to the symphony of commercials that throw the president's remarks on his coronavirus response back at him. The subject is a story that was already starting to fade: a tossed-off Trump line about whether masks were disappearing from hospitals because of hoarding. The ads hand off from Trump to a series of first responders outraged at the suggestion.

Candidate tracker

Bernie Sanders's endorsement of Joe Biden was packaged as a surprise, and it was surprising: Neither candidate's supporters woke up Monday expecting the two of them to share a live stream. Barack Obama's endorsement Tuesday was inevitable but also steeped with drama. For a few days, Democrats who had worried about the president dominating every news cycle had some buzz of their own.

“Joe helped me restore America's standing and leadership in the world,” Obama said. “He has the character to guide us through one of our darkest times and heal us through our recovery.”

President Trump, meanwhile, continued using pandemic coverage to make his reelection case. “Everything we did was right,” he said at Monday's briefing, where he also played a short video compilation to recast his response to the virus and suggest that he had acted quickly to stop it. He won an endorsement from Georgia legislator Vernon Jones, a controversial and conservative black Democrat who is being challenged in this year's primary; hours earlier, he welcomed to the White House Michigan Democrat Karen Whitsett, a legislator who survived the virus, and credited Trump's interest in hydroxychloroquine for her doctor's decision to prescribe it.

What I’m watching

Amashmentum. Rep. Justin Amash, who left the GOP one year ago, flirted again with a third-party presidential run Monday night. Quoting the president's latest remarks on executive power, Amash tweeted that “Americans who believe in limited government deserve another option.” When conservative commentator Hannah Cox responded — “please be you” — Amash wrote that he was “looking at it closely this week.”

Amash, who is still seeking reelection to his western Michigan House seat, has never ruled out seeking the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination. The party is still planning to pick its candidate at a convention next month in Austin, but there are few restrictions over who can announce, and when; just yesterday, retired judge Jim Gray, the party's 2012 nominee for vice president, announced his own bid, as first reported by Reason's Matt Welch.

The mercurial Michigan congressman has given only the occasional hint about his options, sometimes talking at length to reporters who come to the district, and sometimes staying mum. He did not add to the remarks Tuesday, though some Libertarian Party delegates have continued to urge him to run. (Gray is instantly the best-known contender for the nomination at the moment.)


… three days until votes are counted in the Wyoming primary
… 14 days until Ohio tries to finish its primary
… 126 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 132 days until the Republican National Convention
… 202 days until the general election