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Coronavirus shakes up the presidential campaign

Workers handle ballots from the Washington state primary

Workers handle ballots from the Washington state primary election on March 10.   Credit: AP / Ted S. Warren

WASHINGTON — Canceled campaign rallies. Primary election postponements. Uncertainty over the scale of this summer’s presidential nominating conventions.

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing the presidential candidates and party leaders on both sides of the aisle to navigate a new political landscape — one in which virtual town halls replace crowded rallies and where there is a renewed focus for voters to turn in absentee ballots by mail rather than turn up to the polls.

Here’s a look at some of the ways the spread of COVID-19 is impacting the 2020 presidential campaign.

Primaries

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Tuesday he has not thought about postponing New York’s April 28 primary,   even though five other states already made the move.

“I have virtually no political thoughts at this time and no thought about postponing an election,” Cuomo told reporters after Ohio’s Republican governor announced he was moving forward with plans to move the state’s primary to June.

Ohio, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maryland have pushed their upcoming primaries to June, and Georgia has moved its primary from March 24 to May 19. Elected officials in those states have raised concerns that having voters and poll workers show up to voting locations could lead to further spreading of the virus at a time when federal officials are urging Americans not to congregate in large groups.

Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, which all hold their primary contests on the same day as New York, have urged their voters to request absentee ballots that can be submitted by mail to help cut down on lines at polling precincts on Election Day. On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told MSNBC the state should allow for mail-in voting because gathering at polling places would be "dangerous."

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The state constitution restricts absentee ballots to those meeting one of to six conditions, including illness, being the primary caregiver for someone who is ill or physically disabled, and absence from a voter's home county on Election Day. Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, said Sunday the administration was reviewing its ability under the state constitution to ease those restrictions.

The decision to move the primary rests with Cuomo and the State Legislature, said John Conklin, a spokesman for the state Board of Elections.

“We have given advice and answered questions posed to the board, but it remains their call to make,” Conklin said.

Conklin did not respond when asked what advice the board had given. But Douglas A. Kellner, its co-chair, told The New York Times he supports moving the primary to June 23, when it would coincide with another previously scheduled statewide election. He told the Times there’s “no compelling reason to have the presidential primary election in April apart from the other election.”

Jay Jacobs, chairman of the State Democratic Committee and the Nassau County Democratic Committee, said he did not believe the primary should be moved. He said the states that have moved their dates are “in the middle of the crisis” and he is hopeful that by New York’s primary date “most of the worst of this will be over.”

“I don’t suggest that there won’t be one case of coronavirus in America, but at least the concern about the spiking and the spread of it will have passed,” Jacobs said.

Campaigning

Without the ability to rally support via campaign rallies, the septuagenarians running for the White House — President Donald Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — are tapping into technology to reach out to voters.

Biden delivered his election-night victory speech from his Delaware home on Tuesday after defeating Sanders in a sweep of Florida, Arizona and Illinois. The somber speech was livestreamed on multiple social media platforms, including Facebook, in a departure from the celebratory speeches candidates usually deliver in crowded hotel ballrooms adorned in red, white and blue campaign banners.

Sanders, faced with Biden’s series of victories over the past month, plans to “assess his campaign” in the coming days, his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, said on Wednesday. Sanders' campaign rallies often have the feel of a festival — with musicians and celebrity surrogates taking the stage before he speaks — and he tried to capture some of the same feel on Monday when he held a virtual town hall that featured a performance by musician Neil Young.

Trump, who throughout his presidency frequently has held campaign rallies in battleground states, has put a halt to the events filled with his red-capped supporters. His campaign manager, Brad Parscale, announced last Friday that the team is shifting its focus to mobilizing voters online.

The campaign plans to hold “virtual events with top surrogates," Parscale said. It will use “online platforms to train” campaign volunteers, he said, and will encourage them “to make calls to rally support for the president in states voting soon.”

“It’s sort of a part of the presidential election to expect these rallies, so to what extent the absence of rallies is going to matter, I’m not sure it’s a whole lot,”  said Craig Burnett, a political-science professor at Hofstra University. “It’s not like Biden is some unknown person. Most people have a good sense of who he is.”

Burnett noted that Trump’s rallies usually draw his die-hard supporters, so the lack of them won’t have a major effect on his ability to persuade undecided voters.

But they “seem to be the way he gets himself energized, and so not being able to do that may have the biggest impact on Trump personally,” Burnett said.

Conventions

Party leaders involved with the planning of the Democratic National Convention in July and the Republican National Convention in August say they’re continuing to monitor the outbreak. For now they are not planning to cancel or postpone the crowded campaign events, which draw thousands of nominating delegates and elected officials from all over the country.

Democratic National Convention organizers said they will “remain in constant communication with local, state and federal officials responsible for protecting public health and security, and we will follow their guidance as we move forward.”

The convention is slated for July 13-16, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a state that Trump flipped in 2016.

“Every decision we make will consider the health, safety and well-being of those involved in our host city, and across the country without exception,” the organizing committee said in a statement.

Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic national committeeman from Great Neck, said whether the nominating process is “done in a convention hall with all the pomp and circumstance or done remotely on our phone is really of no consequence. What’s imperative is that the nominating process moves forward, and it will.

“The only thing that matters is that we have our Election Day on Nov. 3,” Zimmerman said.

Republicans have been planning their nominating convention for Aug. 24-27 in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Trump is expected to easily accept the party’s nomination for his reelection bid.

Tatum Gibson, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman, said organizers would continue to “prioritize the health and safety of delegates, media, guests, community members and staff.”

“As we move forward with planning, we remain in communication with local, state and federal officials, and we will continue to closely monitor the situation and work with all stakeholders and health authorities to ensure every necessary precaution is taken into account,” Gibson said in an email to Newsday.

With Tom Brune

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