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Neil Young looked into the camera and gave a little “Hi, Bernie,” as he started the opening harmonica chords of “Heart of Gold" for about 7,000 Sanders supporters watching on computers and phones around the country. At one point, Young’s dog casually crossed in front of the shot, set up at his California home.
“This is a moment when we must all come together,” Sanders said later during the live-streamed concert and rally Monday night. “We’re all in this together, literally, in the sense that if I have it, you’re in trouble, and if you have it, I’m in trouble.”
Around the same time, Joe Biden called into a telephone town hall meeting to take questions from the public about his campaign and the coronavirus.
“We’re going to overcome this moment,” Biden said on the call. “It’s going to require all of us to be prudent and proactive.”
In the runup to primary elections Tuesday in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona, the pandemic and the isolation it has required has forced campaigns into a challenging predicament: try to turn out voters while assuaging their fears of going out in public.
Biden, who brought on a former surgeon general to address questions about the virus, said his campaign is following the guidance of state health-care officials who said the primaries would go on. He noted trying moments in American history when elections proceeded.
Sanders used the moment to stress his call for Medicare for All and for the government to protect the finances of people who will likely face steep economic losses. “We’re going to protect you,” Sanders said on the live feed from Vermont. “If you’re a single mom, we’re going to protect you. If you’re a small business owner ... a worker in a restaurant, the business of the federal government is to protect every man, woman, and child.”
In the last five days, Sanders and Biden have shifted their campaigns to entirely remote operations, leaving field offices and headquarters empty and campaign staffers organizing video conferences to encourage volunteers to contact their friends and remind them to vote.
Across the country, field managers skilled in the art of door knocking and face-to-face persuasion relied on phones or computer screens to get the job done — with all the glitches that can occur in the age of the coronavirus.
“It’s extremely important we call supporters and let them know about the different changes," Jennifer Sousa, Biden’s Arizona director, said on a get-out-the-vote call with about 60 volunteers. "Some polling stations may not be open, but they can go to any vote center and drop off their ballot. Let them know election officials are making sure elections are conducted in a safe environment for them to vote, and also, exercise their right to support Joe Biden.”
As they try to motivate voters to come out, those voters are also hearing warnings from the federal government to avoid group interactions of more than 10 people. Ohio’s primary, also scheduled for Tuesday, was delayed. Arizona renamed its polling stations “voting centers” where absentee ballots could be dropped off in place of voting in person.
On Monday, in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Sanders said states should consider delaying primaries. “I would hope that governors listen to the public health experts, and what they are saying, as you just indicated, we don’t want gatherings of more than 50 people,” Sanders said. "I’m thinking about some of the elderly people sitting behind the desks, registering people, doing all that stuff. Does that make a lot of sense? I’m not sure that it does.”
One caller Monday, Lillian from Florida, asked Biden how he could guarantee that people who go out and vote will be safe.
Biden said that decisions to hold the primaries should be made by state health officials, not candidates. But he assured the woman that should she need to vote in person, polling places in Florida would require people to stand six feet apart from one another, and machines would be sanitized between uses.
Biden’s telephone town hall went much better than a Friday live-streamed Q&A with Illinois voters, which had severe technical glitches.
Jill Biden called into five teleconferences Monday. “Like you, I’ve spent a lot of time at home these last few days, and there’s nothing like isolation to reveal how deeply connected to each other we are,” she said on a 4 p.m. call with Arizona volunteers, urging them to turn out voters.
“One phone call can change a mind, one conversation can sway a vote, one ballot can win an election," Jill Biden said.
Sanders’ virtual events have seemed to go off largely without a hitch. The Monday rally was a well-produced program that transitioned easily from multiple locations between performers and speakers. Campaign manager Faiz Shakir said during Sanders’ virtual fireside chat this weekend that the campaign was uniquely prepared for the new campaigning because of its network of digital grassroots organizing.
“This campaign more so than any ... potentially in presidential history is best suited and prepared for this kind of campaign," Shakir said.
Sanders on Friday said he’d increase his footprint in Pennsylvania with the addition of 20 staffers and a plan for five field offices. But the campaign quickly clarified that it was going entirely remote and that the physical offices would go unused for now. Brooke Adams, coordinating director for Sanders in Pennsylvania, who moved to the area after heading the campaign’s efforts in Iowa, said it had been “an exciting, chaotic and troubling week."