The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
Sanders drops out: How Biden, Sanders (and Obama) got to this point
WASHINGTON — According to multiple sources involved in the process, Joe Biden’s and Bernie Sanders’ teams have been having ongoing conversations since early March, especially once Biden took a more significant delegate lead after Michigan's presidential primary.
Those conversations began initially over process issues – especially about how the campaigns should handle the Arizona debate, which ultimately moved to Washington over the Coronavirus. But lines of communication were then established and conversations continued at a big picture level over how to unite the party and bring this to a conclusion.
President Obama was part of those discussions — he spoke with both Biden and Sanders multiple times over the past month.
Ultimately, they planned out the choreography that's beginning to unfold. But as one source put it, “the dates kept slipping” — in part because Sanders, a member of Democratic leadership in the Senate, was dealing with the congressional response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The sides agreed that Tuesday's Wisconsin primary was an important benchmark — as a Sanders advisor put it, they have been trying to land the plane for some time, but “Wisconsin gave us a natural exit ramp.”
Though Wisconsin’s results would take days to come in, the Sanders team nonetheless knew the trajectory of the race was not changing no matter what the outcome. But he would stay in the race in part to help continue driving Democratic turnout for a state Supreme Court election that was a priority for local Democrats.
Biden’s campaign also made clear that they were eager for that specific date to hold firm, and they were prepared, if it did not, to shift their public rhetoric ever so slightly to turn the heat up for Sanders to take steps to begin uniting the party.
Obama especially emphasized that in his conversations with Sanders, another source involved with the process told NBC. But Obama, and Biden as he has said publicly, never once themselves told Sanders to drop out.
Biden’s team had announced Wednesday's virtual town hall meeting” on unemployment and issues facing working families knowing the timeline in place. That will be Biden’s first opportunity to publicly thank Sanders for moving to unite the party.
Asked about contacts between the Biden and Sanders campaigns, a Biden aide told NBC:
“The two campaigns continue to be engaged on a range of topics that will build on the former Vice President’s existing policy proposals and look forward to furthering our shared goals to move the country forward. We look forward to sharing more on that front in the near future.”
—NBC News' Kristen Welker contributed
Sanders' campaign ends without expanding his 2016 base
WASHINGTON — As Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign Wednesday his ultimate downfall was that he never expanded beyond his progressive base.
In fact, he ended up underperforming from 2016.
That explains how he went from the frontrunner in a still-crowded race of Democratic candidates in February, to someone who couldn't win a single county in Michigan or Florida when the field whittled down a month later.
And while Sanders had to navigate a much larger field of viable candidates in 2020 than he did four years ago, his vote percentages underscore his difficulty in holding onto a sizable number of 2016 supporters who left his camp for other candidates.
Sanders' best showing came in the next nominating race, Nevada, where he got 47 percent of the state delegate equivalents in a field that continued to have six major Democratic candidates (not including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who didn't compete in Nevada).
But after that came another underperformance in South Carolina in late February, when those same six candidates were in the race: He garnered just about 20 percent (was 26 percent in 2016) of the vote.
And then on Super Tuesday — after Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg had dropped out of the race and endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden — the trend continued:
- Alabama 16 percent (was 19 percent in 2016)
- California 36 percent (was 46 percent)
- Texas 30 percent (was 33 percent)
- Virginia 23 percent (was 35 percent)
- Vermont 51 percent (was 86 percent)
- Michigan 36 percent (was 50 percent)
- Mississippi 15 percent (was 17 percent)
- Missouri 35 percent (was 49 percent).
After Sanders' exit from the 2020 race on Wednesday, President Trump was blaming Elizabeth Warren for the Vermont senator’s defeat.
But as the numbers show above, Sanders' problem wasn't Warren. Instead, it was his inability to expand beyond his diehard supporters from 2016 — before and after Warren dropped out of the 2020 race.
Sanders urges paychecks for laid off, furloughed in fourth Coronavirus stimulus
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is not pleased with the job President Trump is doing handling the coronavirus pandemic that has cost nearly 13,000 American lives, so he is urging his congressional colleagues in the legislative branch to take the lead.
In an op-ed published Wednesday in the British newspaper The Guardian, published hours before he suspended his presidential campaign, Sanders wrote he believes President Trump is incapable of “providing leadership."
"This is a frightening and devastating time for our country, and the world. Never before in our lifetimes have we had to deal with both a public health pandemic and an economic meltdown,” Sanders wrote.
As the focus of the Sanders campaign shifts to Coronavirus response, the senator is out with a list of priorities he hopes makes it into the next congressional package, which is already being discussed on Capitol Hill.
This includes intensifying the use of the Defense Production Act, which Sanders says Congress should explicitly authorize to compel the private sector to produce more products needed by medical personnel across the country. “We cannot rely on Trump to do it,” Sanders said.
Trump has invoked the DPA on a handful of occasions, but Democrats have criticized him for not going further.
Sanders also wants to ensure that every worker in America continues to receive their full paycheck and benefits, through the duration of the pandemic.
“We cannot wait before taking the bold action that is necessary,” Sanders wrote. “In my view, it makes a lot more sense to prevent the collapse of our economy than figuring out how we put it back together after it crumbles."
While Sanders said he knows a full Medicare-For-All bill would not be agreed upon for this stimulus, he wants to make sure Americans receive all of the healthcare they need regardless of income. He proposed that Medicare pay all deductibles, co-payments and out-of-pocket healthcare expenses for the uninsured and the underinsured during this crisis, regardless of immigration status.
As part of his campaign's focus on coronavirus, Sanders held a livestream Tuesday night focused on how the African American community is specifically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Campaign surrogates discussed racial disparities in treatment during visits to doctors' offices and emergency rooms, and how and why data shows COVID-19 is more deadly in majority-minority communities.
Health officials say those with pre-existing conditions including heart disease, diabetes and asthma are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, as well as the fact that many African Americans in some of the nation’s “hot spots” are employed in essential service industry jobs, requiring face-to-face contact.
Sanders has held nine, similar, livestreams in the past few weeks, all focused on the pandemic.
New Biden super PAC ad highlights Democrat's coronavirus plan
WASHINGTON — The super PAC supporting Joe Biden is returning to the national airwaves with a new television ad, this time focusing on the Democrat’s plan for tackling the coronavirus outbreak.
The 30-second spot from Unite The Country pivots from the group’s other recent paid messaging, which faults President Trump for how he has handled the pandemic.
Instead, the ad asks what Biden would do differently, before laying out elements of his previously announced plan, including ensuring all states had at least 10 mobile testing sites, greater availability of safety care, free vaccines, and an extended Obamacare enrollment period – something the Trump administration recently ruled out.
The new ad will begin airing early this week on cable airwaves nationally as part of a six-figure buy, a spokesperson for Unite the Country told NBC News.
That new investment is in addition to the previous, seven-figure campaign behind the earlier ad, which made the point: "Crisis comes to every president. This one failed.”
The Biden campaign itself has been largely off the airwaves during the pandemic. Ahead of today’s Wisconsin primary, the campaign focused on text and phone outreach to voters there.
Last week, the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, announced it will spend $10 million on ads criticizing Biden in swing states.
Wisconsin voters and poll workers head to polls in protective gear
WASHINGTON — After a dramatic battle over whether to even hold its primary on Tuesday in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Wisconsin voters are in fact heading to the polls.
With public health officials warning against non-discretionary travel and suggesting Americans wear face-coverings while venturing outdoors, Ryan Jenkins from TMJ4, NBC’s Milwaukee affiliate, spotted poll workers and voters donning masks and other protective equipment.
Be sure to check out today’s First Read for more on how we got here, and for what this could portend for elections to come, particularly the general election.
John Lewis endorses Biden for president
WASHINGTON — Rep. John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, endorsed Joe Biden for president Tuesday, saying the former vice president will inspire another generation "to speak up, to speak out, to be brave, to be bold."
"It is my belief that we need Joe Biden now more than ever before," Lewis, D-Ga., told reporters. "He will be a great president. He will lead our country to a better place. He will inspire another generation to stand up, to speak up and to speak out. Be brave, to be bold. That's why I'm committed to supporting him."
In an interview with NBC News' Craig Melvin airing later this morning on "Today," Biden calls Lewis "one of my heroes," praising his courage and sacrifice in the fight for civil rights, especially as part of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
Biden said: "The fact that he would endorse me is just — it makes me even more certain that I should be doing what I'm doing. I'm a great, great admirer of John Lewis. He's a man of enormous integrity."
Georgia has delayed its primary until May 19 because of the coronavirus outbreak. Although he was diagnosed December with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, Lewis said he was committed to traveling across the country to rally support for Biden.
"We need his voice. We need his leadership, now more than ever before. We need someone who will get our country on the right side of history and help save our planet," he said
As vice president, Biden joined Lewis in 2013 in celebrating the 48th anniversary of the Selma voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He also paid tribute to Lewis at a separate commemoration of the march in Selma this year.
Lewis' backing comes as Biden has a commanding delegate lead over his only remaining challenger for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, but with many states — including Lewis' home state, Georgia — having delayed their primaries. Still, it underscores what has been Biden's greatest asset in arriving at this position — the overwhelming support of African American voters.
Asked whether Biden should pick a woman of color as his running mate in light of that support he's enjoyed, Lewis said it "would be good to have a woman," as Biden has already pledged to choose.
"We have plenty of able women — some are black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native America," he said. "I think the time has long passed for making the White House look like the whole of America."
Behind the scenes of Sunday's unexpected White House coronavirus briefing
WASHINGTON — Sunday was supposed to be a quiet day at the White House, with no briefing scheduled and a decision from senior aides to call a “lid” before noon, indicating there was no expectation of seeing President Trump for the rest of the day.
The president's top health officials and secretary of defense appeared on the morning shows, warning of a brutal week ahead, conceding the administration was “struggling” to get the pandemic under control, and predicting the coming days could be “the hardest moment for many Americans in their entire lives.”
Given that it was Palm Sunday, the coronavirus task force was slated to meet remotely in the early evening via teleconference, led by Vice President Mike Pence from his residence.
But President Trump was not satisfied with that plan, according to a source close to the task force, and didn’t want the “dour” messages from the surgeon general and Dr. Anthony Fauci to be the only public-facing moments of the day. He felt it was important to have a presser to stress “glimmers of hope,” according to this person.
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams gave a dire projection on Meet the Press hours earlier, saying that this week “is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, it's going to be our 9/11 moment.”
Two officials close to the task force told NBC News that prior to Sunday they had not heard Adams refer to this week as the next Pearl Harbor and 9/11, and thought the language was a bit strong.
Trump therefore decided to convene the group in person in the Situation Room on Sunday and then floated the possibility of an evening press conference on Twitter, which even caught several aides off-guard.
“It came as a surprise,” a senior administration official admitted.
Reporters were ultimately called back to the White House and a lengthy, 83-minute briefing followed. Senior staffers have repeatedly argued a consistent presence from the president is as critical as ever.
“It is important during this unprecedented crisis to hear from the president and these briefings are one of the methods he has chosen to communicate directly to the American people,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told NBC News in a statement.
On Sunday afternoon, members of the task force eventually made their way to the West Wing, marking the second weekend in a row where they were asked to come to an in-person meeting after conference calls had already been scheduled and publicly announced.
The other instance was when Trump haphazardly floated a quarantine for the tri-state area last weekend and the abrupt nature and frenzied response caused the vice president and others to scramble to the Situation Room for an evening meeting. Hours later, the potential quarantine was walked back and scrapped entirely.
DNC reserves $22 million in YouTube ads for general election
WASHINGTON — The Democratic National Committee announced on Monday that it will reserve $22 million in YouTube ads ahead of the general election as the party looks to fight President Trump's fundraising and online campaign behemoth.
The ads will start in September in Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and then in October in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Maine, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia.
While the party hasn't announced the content of the ads yet, it said in a release announcing the effort that the strategy is aimed at boosting turnout for the party's presidential nominee as well as the entire Democratic ticket.
Campaigns and political groups typically get better rates for ads when they make earlier investments.
“Now more than ever, it’s critical that we reach voters where they are online — and this digital program will help us mobilize the voters we need to make Donald Trump a one-term president,” DNC Chair Tom Perez said in a statement.
“By making these kinds of historic, early investments in our battlegrounds and campaign infrastructure, the DNC is putting our eventual nominee and Democrats running at every level of the ballot in the strongest possible position to secure victory in November.”
Patrick Stevenson, the party's chief mobilization officer, added in a statement that the party had been already planning an "aggressive general election online strategy" before the coronavirus pandemic upended American life, and the campaign trail.
"The pandemic has only reinforced the importance of communicating with voters across a wide range of online channels and utilizing a variety of innovative, data-driven digital tactics," Stevenson said.
"That's the approach we’re taking, and these ads will be another important tool that will help our eventual nominee and Democrats running at every level win in November.”
While the new DNC ads will hardly be the only digital ad spending from Democratic groups this cycle — other outside groups have already begun announcing commitments of their own — the party says it's working to reserve more ads across "several other platforms."
But as the eventual nominee stands to help the party significantly up its digital investments, Democrats will face a robust digital operation on the Republican side, one that's spent heavily on digital platforms in the hopes of re-electing Trump.
The Trump campaign alone has spent more than $48 million on Facebook and Google since the start of 2019, according to a digital tracker by the Democratic communications firm Bully Pulpit Interactive, with more coming from the Republican National Committee and other allied groups.
Much of that online spending has gone to ads encouraging supporters to sign up and donate to the Trump campaign.
Wisconsin primary confusion leaves Biden campaign scrambling to mobilize voters
WASHINGTON — As Wisconsin chaotically moves ahead with its presidential primary on Tuesday, Joe Biden’s campaign is scrambling to figure out the best ways to target and mobilize voters amid a major pandemic that has fully upended the 2020 presidential contest.
Wisconsin, which has been under a stay at home order since March 25 to combat the coronavirus crisis, had been scheduled to hold its primary over the objections of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who unsuccessfully pressed the Republican-led legislature to halt in-person voting, and others who are warning it's too dangerous to hold an election with the pandemic raging.
But it's unclear what that primary will look like after Evers' last-minute decision Monday afternoon to issue an executive order suspending in-person voting and moving it to June 9.
While Sanders bested Democrat Hillary Clinton by 13 points in Wisconsin's 2016 primary, polling shows Biden well ahead of Sanders this time, but given the unusual circumstances of this contest, no outcome is assured. And Wisconsin is a key general election battleground that Trump narrowly carried in 2016. So Biden’s team, which has been following work from home guidelines set by the campaign in early March, has been forced to campaign in earnest.
Biden has not visited Wisconsin during the primary season and the campaign has done no television advertising there. Outside of billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who carpet-bombed the airwaves during his brief bid, no candidate has spent significant money on the Wisconsin airwaves this presidential cycle. The former Vice President's campaign spent about $600 to run a new digital ad featuring Biden asking Americans to help protect COVID-19 frontline workers that Wisconsinites saw over four days last week on Facebook and Instagram.
Most of the campaign efforts have been spent on direct voter contact, advisers say.
Organizers have retired their door-knocking clipboards, turning their attention full-time to reaching voters on the Team Joe app and Pencil, a voter-database texting app that allows them to text persuadable voters and have ongoing conversations with them. The Biden campaign says that they have sent 3.1 million initial text messages from their texting platform since the March 17 primaries to voters living in key states like Wisconsin.
But instead of solely focusing on selling their candidate, campaign staffers say they are consoling Wisconsin supporters and key constituencies amid the distress caused by the coronavirus crisis.
Besides restructuring their direct voter contacts, staffers are being trained on how best to engage and inform voters about the virus in an effort to not just win over their support, but also solidify their trust in the candidate in a key battleground state as they eye the general election against President Donald Trump.
“We’re calling supporters and would-be volunteers to ask them how they’re doing, how they’re staying safe,” Molly Ritner, the campaign’s states director, said in an interview with NBC News. “Sometimes we’re the only ones interacting with these people on a daily basis.”
The Biden campaign is banking on their “aggressive” shift to a phone-calling and texting approach to put them over the edge in Wisconsin, the first real test for them to mobilize voters at a time when they are being told to stay at home. Achieving success and turnout in the Badger state could lay a rough template for how the campaign approaches future contests next month, most of which have become vote-by-mail primaries.
Concerned about the potential public health dangers of in-person voting on Tuesday, the campaign has prioritized getting as many supporters as possible to sign up for absentee ballots instead.
“The health and safety of our staff, supporters, and the general public is Biden for President’s number one priority. We encourage voters to take advantage of absentee ballots,” Biden said at the end of a recent statement announcing his endorsement of Jill Karofsky in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race.
So far only 1.2 million Wisconsinites have requested an absentee ballot according to the Wisconsin Election Commission, a much lower number than the 2.1 million who voted in the 2016 primaries.
Ahead of Tuesday’s contest, the Biden campaign has also relied on endorsers in and outside the state to tap into key constituencies in congressional districts they are targeting. Last week, they tasked a campaign co-chair, Louisiana Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond, to lead a call with faith leaders and urge them to inform their congregants to sign up for absentee ballots and vote safely.
The forced pivot to digital has moved them away from traditional campaigning strategies like airing TV ads in Wisconsin, instead prioritizing having Biden appear regularly on national TV and participating in virtual events that a broader swath of voters can view live or after it airs. The campaign targeted young Wisconsin voters on social media to attend Biden’s young adult happy hour last week viewable from the campaign’s livestream page.
“Virtual events don’t have physical borders like a state does, so we’ve been able to target events broadly to Wisconsin voters to have them participate,” campaign states director, Molly Ritner, said.
Pete Buttigieg launches PAC aimed at electing young leaders
HOUSTON, TX — Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who dropped out of the presidential race just over a month ago, is launching "Win the Era," a political action committee aimed at electing a new generation of leaders.
The PAC, named after a common refrain Buttigieg used while on the campaign trail, will represent a continuation of his work to support generational change candidates running in down-ballot races.
“The work of electing a forward-thinking generation of Democratic candidates never ends,” Buttigieg senior advisor Lis Smith said in a statement. “Pete will do his part by building and leading the Win the Era PAC as we get closer to the November election."
In an email to supporters, Buttigieg leans into a sense of urgency related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the need for strong state and local leadership.
“Our nation and world are in a period of upheaval right now, which will make it more important than ever to support and elect good leaders this November and into the future,” Buttigieg writes. He later adds, “In the past few weeks especially, we’ve seen the importance of our institutions and the reality that local and state leadership is extremely important.”
Per the email, the PAC will be rolling out endorsements focused on candidates who represent “a successor generation of leadership,” and Democrats who are competing in conservative places highlighting “areas with emerging diversity in the electorate not yet reflected in leadership,” among other attributes.
Buttigieg, known for being a fundraising powerhouse throughout his presidential bid, hopes to create that same energy around his latest project.
The Buttigieg campaign will refund general election donations made to his campaign, as required by law. Buttigieg ended up with about $3 million in money earmarked for the general election, an NBC News analysis of Federal Election Commission data shows. He is urging his donors to instead put that money toward his newly formed PAC with an option to donate up to $5,000 via the PAC's website.
In addition, to asking his supporters for donations, Buttigieg is also urging them to send along information on lesser-known candidates who the PAC should consider supporting.
Biden leads Trump in new national poll
WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden leads President Donald Trump in the latest Grinnell College national poll. The poll of likely voters, released Wednesday, shows Biden garnering 47 percent support to Trump's 43 percent support.
The poll also measured a hypothetical head-to-head contest between Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Trump leads Sanders, 44 percent to 43 percent, well within the poll's 3.5-point margin of error for likely voters.
And while the poll shows a close race between either potential Democratic nominee and Trump, support among self-proclaimed Trump supporters is stronger than support for either Sanders and Biden supporters.
Of those who identify as Biden supporters in a head-to-head match-up with Trump, just 55 percent said their "mind is made up" on supporting Biden. Forty-three percent of them said they could be persuaded to support a different candidate.
The same story seems to be true of Sanders supporters. Of likely voters who identify as supporters of Sanders, 50 percent said they're steadfast in their decision — and 44 percent of them could be persuaded otherwise. The president, meanwhile, continues to see strength in his base.
Eighty-two percent of self-identified Trump supporters say their mind is made up on who they'll support in the general election, with just 17 percent saying they could be persuaded to vote for someone else.
The Grinnell College poll was taken between March 27 and March 30 as concern about the coronavirus pandemic rose and as new guidelines for social distancing were put in place. But as unemployment rates rise due to the pandemic, Americans are split on if they think the economy is in a better or worse place than when President Trump took office. Forty-three percent of Americans said the economy is better than at the beginning of 2017, while 42 percent said it is worse.