Joe Biden has emerged as the Democratic presidential nominee-in-waiting, but amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, the emphasis must be put on “waiting”.
In the three weeks since his blow-out win in the South Carolina primary, Mr Biden has built an essentially insurmountable lead over his last remaining rival, Bernie Sanders.
Yet the Vermont senator remains in the race. And with several states delaying their primaries to avoid the spread of the Covid-19 virus, Mr Biden can not reach the required majority of pledged convention delegates until May or June.
Still, the former vice president, who proudly calls himself a “tactile politician”, can not chase those votes in public as he is essentially confined to his Delaware home like any other American in a quasi-national quarantine.
His new campaign manager and her staff are working from home, too.
For now, Mr Biden’s campaign has little choice but to embrace an unprecedented political purgatory.
“Three weeks ago, we were on the verge of collapse as a campaign, so this is a very recent phenomenon,” said Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn, insisting the 77-year-old candidate remains focused on playing a productive role in the coronavirus response and sealing a nomination fight he does not see as finished.
“We will figure out how to put together a general election campaign for this difficult time,” Ms Dunn said.
Mr Biden is confident enough in his position that he has started to consider possibilities for a running mate, saying he intends to chose a woman.
His former Democratic presidential rivals have coalesced around him, too, including Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard, who on Thursday officially dropped out of the race.
.@SenGillibrand has never been afraid to speak without fear, to be brave in the face of injustice, and to empower others to get off the sidelines. I'm thrilled and honored to have her support. https://t.co/3DWCZnsnqB— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) March 20, 2020
Amid lockdowns, digital fundraising efforts continue. But high-dollar fundraising events are on hold, including any possibility of a joint fundraising agreement with the Democratic National Committee.
That deal, typically forged between nominees and the party, would allow individual mega-donors to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars each to the party and certain Biden operations, exponentially multiplying the usual $2,800 limits on individual contributions to the Biden campaign.
But the vehicles of that fundraising approach are glittering in-person events that allow donors close contact with a would-be president. No one knows when such events can happen again.
Meanwhile, Mr Biden and his aides must also react to President Donald Trump and developments in the coronavirus outbreak and response.
The words of a president matter, and Donald Trump has used his to downplay COVID-19 and mislead the American people. He is unfit to lead us through this crisis. https://t.co/s7tnaR4G7p— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) March 20, 2020
While challengers to presidents always play a reactionary role, that is especially true for Mr Biden, who has built his entire campaign as a juxtaposition with Mr Trump.
But now Mr Trump and his team have an even more dominant media megaphone with an endless loop of White House briefings and congressional machinations in response to the crisis.
The immediate wild cards for Mr Biden, though, are Mr Sanders and the shifting primary calendar.
Though a lengthy primary could afford Mr Biden media spotlights and fundraising opportunities he might not otherwise have, Mr Sanders’ lingering presence also delays efforts to unify a party that was damaged in 2016 by a long primary fight between Mr Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Mathematically, there are not enough states up for decision in April for Mr Biden to claim the nomination. But more likely, he would need to win 75% of the delegates from scheduled contests to win the nomination outright on May 19 with Mr Sanders still in the race. If he does not, June 2 would become his more likely clinching date.
At the least, Mr Biden and Mr Sanders have indicated they will not descend into a bitter fight.
Mr Sanders was at home in Vermont on Thursday, beginning to speak to top supporters about his campaign going forward. His team understands he has virtually no chance at the nomination, but they also said Mr Sanders wanted to leave on his own terms.
In an email to supporters on Thursday, Mr Sanders did not ask for campaign contributions for the second straight day — an indication he would not be in the race much longer.