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2020 Watch: How will the coronavirus change the elections?

March 16, 2020 GMT
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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wipes his nose during the Democratic presidential primary debate at CNN Studios, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wipes his nose during the Democratic presidential primary debate at CNN Studios, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

NEW YORK (AP) — Presidential politics move fast. What we’re watching heading into a new week on the 2020 campaign:

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Days to next set of primaries (Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Ohio) : 1

Days to general election: 242

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THE NARRATIVE

The Democrats’ presidential nomination fight has been relegated to an afterthought as the United States grapples with a health crisis likely to grow exponentially in the coming weeks. That’s even as Bernie Sanders fights for his political survival against a surging Joe Biden ahead of another set of high-stakes primaries on Tuesday. And while an otherwise consequential week of Democratic primary politics may struggle to break through, the spotlight is decidedly on President Donald Trump and his ability to lead the country through a time of deep and growing upheaval. Trump’s performance has been uneven at best. And if he continues to struggle to protect America’s health and economy, he will also struggle to get reelected in November.

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THE BIG QUESTIONS

How will the coronavirus change the elections?

There are no easy answers for Democrats or Republicans as they navigate a massive public health threat in the heart of the presidential primary season. The candidates have already been forced to cancel events, and it’s unclear how they will continue to energize their bases now that social distancing has become the unofficial law of the land. There are also major questions about turnout in the upcoming primary contests, especially as the highest-propensity voters, older folks, are being warned to stay home. It’s fair to wonder whether upcoming primary elections will happen at all. This is uncharted territory.

Can Trump show real leadership when the country most needs it?

The Republican president’s reelection may hinge on whether he can guide America through what could be the greatest public health threat of the century. He’s off to a bad start. Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat in recent weeks, likening it to a mild flu and predicting it would pass quickly. He repeatedly promised that everyone who wants a test can get one, although that’s not close to being true. And as he spreads falsehoods and blames the media for his troubles, widespread panic is settling in. An anxious nation is desperate for reassurance and capable leadership. Trump may say he’s not responsible, but he’s the leader of the free world.

Can Sanders limit the damage in Florida?

Assuming primaries are held as scheduled, Sanders cannot afford another bad performance this Tuesday when Democratic primary voters across four states weigh in. Florida alone could decide the Vermont senator’s fate. The state offers the third largest delegate trove in the nation. And Sanders’ team was worried about it even before his slide. The truth is that his brand of burn-it-down politics doesn’t play well with seniors or some Latinos, like Florida’s many Cubans or Venezuelans, who have experience with socialism. Sanders’ path to the nomination is increasingly narrow, and a bad night in Florida could make it all but impossible.

Can Democrats come together?

The Democrats’ ability to defeat Trump will depend, at least in part, of the party’s ability to unify behind a nominee. And as 2016 taught us, that’s easier said than done. Many in Sanders’ base of fiery progressives loathe Biden and the political establishment he represents. Yet if Sanders’ presidential nomination fails, and it’s moving in that direction, he must convince skeptical supporters to rally behind Biden. And Biden will need to do more than simply invite them in as he did last week. He needs to answer a list of detailed questions about his long record and commitment to progressive principles. The problem: In many cases, there are no easy answers.

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THE FINAL THOUGHT

Trump’s allies have long predicted that only a major economic downturn could derail his reelection prospects. Well, financial markets are certainly behaving as though things are heading in a bad direction.

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2020 Watch runs every Monday and provides a look at the week ahead in the 2020 election.

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Follow Peoples at https://twitter.com/sppeoples.

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Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”