[This is the fourth in a two-part – yes, I know, I know – series on the U.S. Presidential election 2020.]
Bernie needs a Hail Mary, and Covid-19 is his only chance.
Well, maybe that is an oversimplification. But, hear me out.
For Bernie to win the nomination, he needs to win Florida. Currently, the polls show Joe beating him by a margin of almost 3:1. Ridiculous, right? Bernie would need a miracle.
Enter Covid-19, the coronavirus that is upending the lives of most people in the world. As of today, the Florida primary is (surprisingly) still going ahead on Tuesday, with special precautions to limit the risk of infection, both for voters and for poll workers.
Bernie can no longer use his best advantage, large rallies, to energize his supporters. His last shot is the head to head debate tomorrow night.
In that debate, there are three things he can’t do:
- He can’t just keep repeating his stump speech with variations, flapping his arms around to denote sincerity. Been there, done that. Continuing that message is like running off tackle from your own 20 with 30 seconds to go, down a touchdown. Not in any way a Hail Mary. (Given the recent cancellation of all sports for the foreseeable future, I thought you’d enjoy a sports metaphor, i.e. a reminder of all that stuff you’re missing.)
- He can’t attack Joe. In this time when the message from everyone has to be, in the words of those famous political scientists, the Beatles, “Come Together”, Bernie has to make nice in this debate.
- He can’t argue that he will be better at handling things like a pandemic. Oh, he can talk about how Medicare for All would improve the country’s response to pandemics, but that’s about it. Bernie or Joe? Both will do a good job with the next pandemic, and infinitely better than L’Orange. To say anything else would smack of opportunism. And, would be incorrect.
What Bernie can and should do is make young people the entire theme of his debate performance. His only remaining (and remote) route to a win is to mobilize young people in much bigger numbers than he has so far.
Florida presents him with a chance to do that, in two very different ways.
First, most voters are going to think very carefully about whether they go to vote this Tuesday. There were more than 1.8 million voters expected to come out (based on the 2016 primary, plus many voter registrations since then), but the strong likelihood is that turnout will be considerably lower than that.
One problem Sanders has is that his younger voters (under 30), while “committed” to him, are less likely to vote generally. Put another way, they are more likely to find a reason, on voting day, to skip it and do something else. That could be long lines, odds against Bernie winning…or risk of catching a disease.
On the other side, one problem Biden has is that older voters (45+), who will break strongly for Joe, and make up 64% of the Florida Democratic voters (more than 3.6 million of them), are also those most at risk if they venture out to the polling station. This will be made worse by the fact that Florida is closing some of the polling stations in assisted living and other seniors’ residences, in part because it is harder to get poll workers for those locations.
Bernie, therefore, has to deliver a strong rallying cry to young voters to get out and vote this time. He has to remind them that the problems in America are ones that will be left to them to handle pretty soon. The virus will pass. The problems will not. This is their shot. They can’t afford to be complacent. Even though it is hard, even risky, they have to suck it up and go to the polls.
Florida only has about 850,000 Democratic voters under 30, but Bernie can be fairly confident of getting two-thirds of those who vote. If his supporters are further motivated, he could do better. He probably needs a 75-25 split of young voters, which means a turnout of at least 400,000 younger voters (about 60% higher than 2016), to even have the slightest chance.
At the same time, he needs older voters to skip the ballot box in massive numbers (although obviously he can’t suggest that). This is likely, but will it be enough? The answer is almost certainly no. Even with a huge young turnout, and a large winning margin in that group, Bernie would need more than half of over 50 voters ( of the one-third who otherwise would have voted) to stay home, to have any shot at winning.
That, however, leads to the second part of the youth theme.
Almost 30% of the Florida Democratic electorate are African-American (more than 1,500,000 registered). Hillary got 81% of those who voted (about a third of them), and Joe will likely get a similar percentage. Joe’s percentage may be down a little bit, just because he will lose some of the older black voters who decide not to vote, but his strength with black voters, and Bernie’s weakness, is well known.
Bernie has to deal with this problem, and Jesse Jackson is not the answer.
Bernie has to announce, on Sunday night, that Andrew Gillum will be his Vice-Presidential running mate. As part of his pitch to younger voters, he would argue that Gillum, at 40, represents the next generation of leaders in America, and will be an integral part of his administration. His focus would be on Gillum’s youth and new ideas, and not on his race.
From a tactical point of view, Bernie should probably announce the choice of Gillum in his closing remarks, and as part of a short discussion of some of the other younger legislators he would be considering for his Cabinet (AOC, Stacey Abrams, Andrew Yang, etc.). He has to have Gillum’s agreement, of course. The rest, he can just speculate on as “interesting options”. (“Unlike Joe, my list of potential Cabinet appointees will include people like…” etc.)
An alternative approach is to announce the Gillum pick as part of his opening statement. It would help set the stage for his theme of youth, and it could also throw Joe off his game. One of Joe’s weaknesses is that he doesn’t think as well on his feet as some of the others, including Bernie. He will be well prepped for this debate, but he is unlikely to be prepared to deal with a VP announcement. It could impact his entire debate performance.
On balance, though, it is probably better for Bernie to make his announcement at the end. He can still emphasize youth at the beginning, and throughout, and then use his closing statement to demonstrate his real commitment to younger people by naming Gillum. He also ensures, by that timing, that his choice of VP dominates the post-debate discussions.
Honestly, even with a Hail Mary like this, there is almost no chance that Bernie will win Florida. He is more likely to get 500,000 votes, to Joe’s 1,200,000, assuming in those numbers there will be a low turnout driven in part by lack of interest.
On the other hand, if Bernie doesn’t win Florida, that’s the end of his campaign for all practical purposes. Any remote chance he had would be gone.
My guess is that Bernie won’t do anything like this. He’ll say the same things he always says, and by the end of the night on Tuesday his last shot at the presidency will have well and truly missed the mark. He will have added a lot of good ideas to the political debate, but ultimately failed to have grasped and held onto the brass ring.
– Jay Shepherd, March 14, 2020