ROBERT COSTA: Fear sinks the markets and challenges President Trump as Democrats battle in South Carolina.
FORMER NEW YORK MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (D): (From video.) Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States, and that’s why Russia is helping you get elected so you’ll lose to him.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) Oh, Mr. Bloomberg.
MR. COSTA: On the eve of the South Carolina primary, the frontrunner faces incoming.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) In walking distance of here is Mother Emanuel Church; nine people shot dead by a white supremacist. Bernie voted five times against the Brady bill.
MR. COSTA: But Senator Sanders fights back.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) The economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg and other billionaires, but you know what, for the ordinary American things are not so good.
MR. COSTA: Still, some Democrats are increasingly uneasy about whether the party will come together.
SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): (From video.) If we spend the next four months tearing our party apart, we’re going to watch Donald Trump spend the next four years tearing our country apart.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) Whoever the nominee is of our party we will wholeheartedly support. Our gospel is one of unity, unity, unity.
MR. COSTA: And global markets tumble amid fears of a worldwide pandemic, and President Trump speaks out.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It’s going to disappear one day. It’s like a miracle; it will disappear. And from our shores we’ve – you know, it could get worse before it gets better.
NANCY MESSONNIER, M.D.: (From video.) It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Welcome to a special edition of Washington Week.
We begin with the latest fallout from the coronavirus and the response in Washington. The World Health Organization raised its risk assessment of the virus to very high on Friday, just one level short of declaring a global pandemic. As fears have mounted, stocks have plunged. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 350 points on Friday, or more than 1 percent. For the week, the Dow fell more than 12 percent, capping off the market’s worst week since the financial crisis that began in 2008.
This all comes at a politically charged moment. President Trump and his top aides are lashing out at critics. And Congress, it’s on edge about a whistleblower report and whether lawmakers can come together on emergency funding. And Democrats, they are still searching for a standard-bearer on the eve of the South Carolina primary and next week’s Super Tuesday showdown.
Joining me at the table, Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; and from Chicago, Yasmeen Abutaleb, health policy reporter for The Washington Post.
President Trump named Vice President Mike Pence as the point person for the administration’s response. This move is being questioned by Democrats and health experts, and the administration’s early decisions are already under scrutiny. As Yasmeen and her colleagues wrote in the Post, a whistleblower is alleging the Department of Health and Human Services sent, quote, “more than a dozen workers to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, without proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear.” Yasmeen, was the U.S. government prepared for this crisis?
YASMEEN ABUTALEB: I think a lot of criticism has come from the moves that the U.S. government made a couple of years preceding this crisis. John Bolton, the former national security adviser, had disbanded a unit within the White House that was set up to prepare for this kind of thing back in 2018, so when this came there was no immediate clear leadership as to who should be in charge. You do have top health officials who have been involved in other responses. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was in the Bush administration during the SARS outbreak. Anthony Fauci at the NIH has been involved in several outbreaks over decades. But there was a lack of leadership at the beginning, and a lot of that came because there was the disbanding of that unit within the White House and the pandemic preparedness people whose sole job was to prepare for an event like this, and cuts to the CDC that did global monitoring to detect outbreaks before they spread out of control.
MR. COSTA: Yasmeen, do officials who are there feel like they can speak out and tell the truth to the American people, or do they have to go through Vice President Mike Pence?
MS. ABUTALEB: I think there’s still a lot of confusion with all the events of this week and the change in leadership. We do know from our reporting that now all communications regarding the outbreak and the message to the public do need to be routed through the vice president’s office. Some people say it’s just to make sure the administration has a coordinated message because on Tuesday we saw conflicting and – messages that were sort of overlapping and conflicting with one another, but it still remains unclear whether scientists and top health officials are going to be able to speak freely or if the administration wants to take a different posture because of the way the markets have reacted this week.
MR. COSTA: Yasmeen, stay with us. Peter, to that point, the significance of the market collapse.
PETER BAKER: Yeah, it’s big because, of course, first of all, economically a lot of people are dependent on the supply chains, on China in particular, that has been a source of a lot of material and products that we – that we use. Apple alone I think assembles the vast majority of its products in China. That’s a big, big part of the American market as well. And it’s big politically. The president of the United States is running for reelection largely on his record of keeping the economy going strong, and if that seems to begin to pare back over the weeks and months to come that undercuts his message, something he’s, I think, acutely aware of, particularly in private when he’s talking with his aides, great anxiety about what’s happening.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, as we went to air President Trump in South Carolina at a political rally, his aides like acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney all day lashing out at critics, framing this as a political fight as much as a – as a federal response.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: That’s right. The White House has been saying that Democrats are trying to use this to make President Trump look bad. They have even at some point saying that – said that Democrats are hoping that the president messes this up or hoping that this turns into a full-blown crisis so that the president maybe is hurt politically. But that said, this is a president who has always seen his political benefits and his political legacy tied to whatever crisis is going on, whether or not it’s Russia interfering in the election or now coronavirus possibly infecting Americans. We know already through my own reporting – and I’m sure other people’s reporting – that senior administration officials are already looking at economic things to do in response to the coronavirus. They’re looking at tax cuts possibly. They’re looking at possibly pressing for interest rates to go down with the Federal Reserve. So what you see is the White House already trying to assemble both an economic solution for this, as well as a medical and scientific solution. And when we talk about Yasmeen and others saying that there’s conflicting issues here, the conflicting message was that the president was saying that everything’s going to be OK, that there’s low risk, and then you have the CDC and the World Health Organization – who are experts on this – saying, actually, that’s not what we can say; we can say that this is high risk and people should get ready for what happens next.
MR. COSTA: Yasmeen, based on your reporting, what does happen next in terms of the federal response and what their read is on the spread of the virus?
MS. ABUTALEB: Well, I think the virus has sort of entered a worrying new phase in the United States. Our colleagues reported today that California has confirmed another case of community transmission. That’s about 90 miles from the case that was reported earlier this week, so that indicates that you have community spread of the virus in two different places within California. And as you mentioned, CDC officials earlier this week said it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when there is greater spread in the U.S. and that we will see more cases. So I think the question is going to be, how does the federal government make sure hospitals and local and state health departments are prepared? How are they going to scale up testing? Because more people are going to need to be tested for the virus now. And how do they change the guidelines of who needs to be tested and how quickly you get people tested depending on the symptoms that they show, since those symptoms are very similar to a cold or the flu?
MR. COSTA: Peter, you’re a scholar of the presidency. When you look at the decision President Trump made to put his vice president in charge, a political official in a reelection year, a campaign season, what does that tell you about President Trump in doing that versus putting in a medical professional?
MR. BAKER: Well, look, you know, you need a leadership that goes beyond simple science, right? But the question is whether or not Vice President Pence surrounds himself with the people who understand the science to guide the decisions that he will help make in the days and weeks to come. President Obama put Ron Klain in charge of the Ebola crisis during his thing. Ron wasn’t a medical expert, but he was an expert in making government work. He’d been the chief of staff to two vice presidents and a long-time political operative who understood government.
So the question isn’t necessarily whether Vice President Pence has a particular medical background or not, but whether he surrounds himself by people – and listens to people – who do. Now, his own experience as governor of Indiana has caused some concern because of the way he handled outbreak of HIV back then. He said today on Rush Limbaugh’s show that actually it was an experience that made me more qualified, not less qualified. But he will be continued – I think it will continue to be controversial that they put him in charge.
MR. COSTA: And he was criticized for how he handled needle exchange in Indiana, correct?
MS. ALCINDOR: He was criticized for that. Now, there are people who say that was a moral issue for him, that his – possibly his religious views made him feel like he didn’t want to have a needle exchange in Indiana. This is a little bit different because it’s coronavirus. But there are a lot of people who are worried that Mike Pence might end up being the fall guy if this doesn’t go well, that the president is already looking for someone to say: Look, it’s not my fault. I put Mike Pence in charge. This is what I’m going to. And he didn’t handle this well. It’s not my fault. So that’s in some ways the political calculation that could be there.
MR. COSTA: Yasmeen, what are you hearing, based on your reporting, about how the congressional briefings went on Friday, and whether Congress is going to be able to come together on an aid package?
MS. ABUTALEB: I think one thing that we’ve seen this week, Secretary Azar was on the Hill several times this week being grilled by lawmakers about the response and the supplemental request that the administration sent to Congress on Monday. They asked for $2 ½ billion to respond to coronavirus, and about half of that would be reallocated from other resources. It seemed both Republicans and Democrats agreed this week that that was just not enough money, and that something more along the lines of $4-8 billion would need to be appropriated. So there does seem to be bipartisan agreement that more money is needed.
But then we also know on Friday that public health officials were questioned about this whistleblower report. And are they adequately preparing staff members for this? And were protocols broken when these staff members went to receive the first passengers returning from Wuhan?
MR. COSTA: Peter, back to the market for a moment, would – and Yamiche mentioned that the Trump administration could pressure the Federal Reserve for interest rates cuts. Are you hearing the same? And do you expect emergency measures to be taken?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, I think it’s possible. I don’t know how much that would actually stem the tide. I mean, what the markets are concerned about go beyond interest rates and a little stimulus from tax cuts at the moment. It’s the uncertainty that they’re grappling with. What is this going to mean not just in the next few days, but what’s it going to mean down the road? China’s such a big factor in our economy as well.
Second-largest economy in the world, if they are shut down to us on a long-term basis, you know, a slightly smaller interest rate might not be enough to counter that. But what the president wants to do is show confidence. He wants to build, you know, economic, you know, vitality going forward. And these are possible signs in order to do that, even if they might not substantively have the kind of effect people would want.
MR. COSTA: Thank you, Yasmeen Abutaleb, we appreciate your reporting.
Now, to South Carolina. Voters will head to the polls on Saturday, just days before Super Tuesday. For former Vice President Joe Biden, it’s a critical moment. After struggling in the first round of contests he is leading the polls there and is hoping to jumpstart his campaign. But Senator Bernie Sanders, after a decisive win the Nevada caucuses, has been gaining ground in the state. And joining us now from South Carolina is Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for CNN, and Asma Khalid, political correspondent for National Public Radio.
Jeff spoke to Mr. Biden on the trail this week.
JEFF ZELENY: (From video.) Is this state still your firewall, sir?
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Well, I think it’s a state that I’m going to do well in. I think – you know, it has – 60 percent of this vote is African American vote. They have an opportunity to basically choose who the nominee is.
MR. COSTA: Jeff, take us a little bit inside the African American vote in South Carolina. Is there a generational divide, just hours before that vote?
MR. ZELENY: Bob, there’s no question that there is. And it’s been clear, being here all week, talking to so many voters, that there is a generational divide. That came up again and again, but no place more so than on Wednesday, the morning after the big debate here, when Congressman James Clyburn, who is the biggest figure here in South Carolina Democratic politics, and the dean of the – of the congressional delegation, his endorsement of Joe Biden, certainly expected. I talked to a lot of people after that, younger people, they simply aren’t moved as much by that. Their parents, maybe, their grandparents, maybe. But you know, so the question of how much value an endorsement has certainly speaks to the generational poll here going on.
Bernie Sanders is attracting younger voters of all races, no question about it. But it is the older voters who tend to vote. So I think, you know, heading into the primary tomorrow here are a couple things. Joe Biden said, you know, the size of the electorate, African American, turnout, he believes, will be 60 percent. That’s what it was four years ago. But we don’t know that. That is something that we are keeping our eye on. In 2008, back when Barack Obama won this state convincingly over Hillary Clinton, which really did propel him to the rest of the primary contests, it was about 50 percent, slightly over half. So that is something we’re keeping an eye on.
Population has changed considerably here in South Carolina. So a lot of Democratic strategists and advisors I talked to said they believe that it will actually be less than 60. But what Joe Biden is doing, and trying to do, and it looks like he is doing, is building that coalition of black and white voters here. That’s what you need to do. And there is a sense of a pragmatic sense of a stop Bernie Sanders movement. If it’s going to happen, it has to happen here.
MR. COSTA: Asma, if Joe Biden wins in South Carolina, is his campaign ready to jump into Super Tuesday or not?
ASMA KHALID: I think there are legitimate questions about whether he has the infrastructure, the money, and certainly the grassroots support to compete with someone like Bernie Sanders who, you know, has been spending and building a campaign infrastructure in a number of other Super Tuesday states. But also, there’s Mike Bloomberg who’s going to be finally a part of this conversation and a part of this race. And he is not on the ballot here in South Carolina, but he’s a name I have heard from some voters, even some folks at Joe Biden events.
And so I do think that while the polls look very good for Joe Biden, and anecdotally when you’re out at his rallies there is certainty an enthusiasm for him, he himself as a candidate seems far more comfortable in South Carolina campaigning than he did when I saw him in Iowa or New Hampshire. But I do wonder about – you know, there’s not a lot of time before this race quickly turns nationalized.
And I will say, you know, sort of the quick data point for me was I spoke with the folks at Advertising Analytics, that’s an ad tracking firm. And they said, as of yesterday the ads that they had seen purchased for Super Tuesday states, Joe Biden was at about 600,000 (dollars). Bernie Sanders was at about 15 million (dollars).
MR. COSTA: Asma, Senator Sanders has made a play in South Carolina, trying to maybe score an upset against Vice President Biden. What is – what does his campaign look like on the ground in South Carolina? What are you paying attention to?
MS. KHALID: So he is trying to certainly, I would say, dip in. I think they felt more confident, certainly, after his big win in Nevada. I spoke with my colleague who was actually with him earlier today in Columbia. And he said there wasn’t the sort of enthusiasm that he had seen earlier. And one thing that’s worth pointing out is that Bernie Sanders has been hopscotching around to Super Tuesday states this week, in addition to spending time in South Carolina. Joe Biden has exclusively spent his entire week to date in South Carolina.
To me, that suggests certainly also a sense of vulnerability from the vice president, that he certainly needs to perform well in South Carolina while, you know, I think Bernie Sanders is looking ahead to the prospect that he’s already built up an infrastructure in a number of other states. Biden needs to do well in order to propel himself forward.
MR. COSTA: Asma and Jeff, stay with me. Yamiche, what about Tom Steyer? He’s been spending millions in South Carolina.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, I was in South Carolina earlier this week and put the question to Tom Steyer about him spending so much money in South Carolina. So he’s not only at spending millions of dollars on ads, he’s also been having block parties. He’s hired a bunch of staffers from the community. So there are a lot of African Americans working for Tom Steyer. And he said, look, there are some people who tell me I’m trying to buy the vote. This is how you politically organize. He said he thought it was racially discriminatory to accuse him of trying to buy the African American vote in South Carolina.
I should say, I did hear from some Steyer supporters who didn’t like Joe Biden. They thought maybe he didn’t have the stamina to keep it together. They also thought Bernie Sanders was too radical. But that said, South Carolina, when I landed there, it felt like a Joe Biden state. It felt like people were saying, look, he was with Barack Obama. He’s someone who was vetted by the last president, the first African American president. This is the person that I feel comfortable with.
But I should say, when I talk to young African American voters they saw their lives as needing radical change. I talked to two queer black women who said: Look, the systems that are holding me back, the systems that are not taking care of me, that make me more likely to die during childbirth, those systems aren’t going to be – they don’t need to be tweaked. They need to be completely revolutionized. And that’s why I’m going for Bernie Sanders.
MR. COSTA: Jeff, to that point, what about Senator Elizabeth Warren, who now has a super PAC backing her? She also makes the argument for an overhaul of the system in some ways. Is she playing in South Carolina, or is it all about Super Tuesday for her?
MR. ZELENY: She is playing a bit in South Carolina. She’s been campaigning across the state. But she is looking ahead more toward Super Tuesday. She has never been able to – at least apparently – to build the coalition and gain that African American support. She’s invested a lot of time here over the last year or so. But just simply, you know, she is quite frankly without the resources. So it is extraordinary, Bob, is we’re at the end of February here; the only thing that is keeping her afloat in terms of advertising money is that Super PAC, something that she rejected, she called on others to reject, so a lot of questions about that.
You know, it’s one of the reasons that Senator Kamala Harris and Cory Booker – she was – you know, it’s one of the reasons they got out. They did not have the Super PAC support – a little bit at the end, but not much – because she made it such a negative thing.
So going into South Carolina, most people do not expect her to have much of a presence here. She is keeping an eye on the Super Tuesday states, including Massachusetts, her home state. But one sign there: Bernie Sanders is going to Massachusetts this weekend to campaign, as well as Minnesota, the home state of Amy Klobuchar. So that is the reality for them.
MR. COSTA: Senator Sanders might be looking for –
MR. ZELENY: By Super Tuesday – right.
MR. COSTA: Senator Sanders might be looking for that knockout blow of both of those senators in their home states.
MR. ZELENY: He certainly is.
MR. COSTA: Asma, when you’re on the ground in South Carolina talking to these campaigns, are you hearing about possible dropouts? If Vice President Biden does well on Saturday night, will some of these moderates say, hey, it’s time to consolidate, move behind either Mayor Bloomberg or VP Biden?
MS. KHALID: I have not heard that admission from any candidates themselves yet. But I will say, I’ve certainly heard that from voters. I hear that from voters consistently who support Joe Biden. I was at a rally of his just the other day in Georgetown, South Carolina, and one gentleman there told me that at some point the moderate candidates need to decide who they want to back, because they feel that the splintering is inevitably helping a candidate like Bernie Sanders.
And it’s certainly what we’ve seen thus far in some of the early voting states. And it’s what we see in polls when we look at a state even like Texas. We see a lot of splintering of that moderate tier, and that seems to be helping Bernie Sanders. But, no, I have not heard any admissions yet from any of the campaigns themselves that this should be happening.
MR. COSTA: Peter, you spent eight years covering the Obama-Biden White House. What a moment for Vice President Biden.
MR. BAKER: Well, it is. Of course, this is his third time running for the presidency, and this time he’s running, as Yamche said, as the continuation, in effect, of the Obama presidency. And the question is whether other people see him that way. Now, he has a legitimate claim to the Obama mantle. Eight years in the White House will do it for you. And he was a loyal vice president to President Obama. Nobody would doubt that.
But President Obama hasn’t weighed in. He’s chosen to stay out himself. He’s not putting his foot on the scale. And I think there’s some concern among Obama’s circle about whether Biden really can go to the distance or not. You know, by dint of experience and age and in generation, is he going to appeal to the Obama electorate in a way that would move the party generationally?
Remember, all Democrats who have won since – in the last 50 years who won the presidency were generational change agents; John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. They were all generational change agents. And Biden has a hard time making a generational-change argument right now.
MS. ALCINDOR: Two quick things, as I listen to Peter. The first is that Joe Biden is someone who, again, was trying to attach himself to Barack Obama, obviously being his vice president. But Michael Bloomberg’s ads – I’ve talked to some voters who think that Obama endorsed Michael Bloomberg because he’s had so much of Obama in his ads.
The second thing is that Joe Biden, as he struggles, or at least was looking like he was struggling in South Carolina, the day after Jim Clyburn endorsed him he said, well, if he doesn’t win big here, he’s going to be in big trouble. So as he’s endorsing him, he’s also saying, look, if you don’t do well here, you don’t really have a pathway forward. And that to me is telling that even Jim Clyburn is saying that on the record in front of cameras.
MR. COSTA: Jeff, quickly, you’ve covered Mayor Buttigieg’s campaign. What’s his next move?
MR. ZELENY: Well, he needs to show that he can win in a place other than Iowa. He needed to expand his coalition. I was with him at an event earlier today at The Citadel. The crowd was very white. So the reality is he’s been unable to expand his group. So his path now really depends upon Vice President Biden collapse. So look for the Buttigieg campaign to reassess after Super Tuesday. It all hinges on that. But he knows that there must be a consolidation of this other-than-Sanders candidate. So I look for him to do that next week if he is not successful here and on Super Tuesday.
MR. COSTA: Asma, when you look ahead to Super Tuesday, if no one gets out, in less than a minute, are these campaigns now planning for a contested convention?
MS. KHALID: I don’t think we’re there yet. I think Super Tuesday will offer us some clarity, just because there are so many delegates at stake, both between California and Texas; about a third of all the delegates there. So I think we’ll have a better sense of that after Super Tuesday.
MR. COSTA: Super Tuesday – that’s where all of the action is going to be.
Thank you, Jeff and Asma, down there in South Carolina. We really appreciate you joining us on a busy Friday evening. Good luck tomorrow.
For now, we have to leave it there. But coming up in our second half hour, we will dig into Super Tuesday. Peter and Yamiche will be here, plus reporters from Texas and California. And Dan Balz, the chief correspondent from The Washington Post, he will join us to discuss the big picture.
Stay with us. We have a lot to cover. I’m Robert Costa. See you soon.
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(Beginning of second show.)
ROBERT COSTA: As Super Tuesday looms Democrats face a reckoning, and the presidential race begins a new political season. Along the way, it has featured 28 candidates who made up the largest and most diverse slate in history. The surge of Senator Bernie Sanders has rattled the Democratic establishment.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) Our campaign is not just about beating Trump, it is about transforming this country.
MR. COSTA: With a populist appeal that has electrified younger and liberal voters.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We took a gut punch in Iowa.
MR. COSTA: Former Vice President Joe Biden now needs a strong showing in South Carolina to keep his bid alive. Senator Amy Klobuchar and Senator Elizabeth Warren continue to fight on.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) Are you in this fight with me? (Cheers.) Let’s do this.
MR. COSTA: As does former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
FORMER SOUTH BEND, INDIANA MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D): (From video.) We feel encouraged. We’re definitely getting traction.
MR. COSTA: But there is a wildcard.
ADVERTISEMENT: (From video.) Jobs creator, leader, problem solver.
MR. COSTA: Can former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, spending millions, assert himself as the leading alternative to Sanders? On Super Tuesday, March 3rd, we may find out when voters from 14 states and one territory make their choice, from Alabama to Maine, Texas to Minnesota, to California, which is poised to deliver a bevy of delegates – all told, more than 1,300 delegates are up for grabs. Careers are on the line.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: (From video.) Are you going to win?
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Yes.
MR. COSTA: Debates are as heated as ever.
FORMER SOUTH BEND, INDIANA MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D): (From video.) This is about the future.
MR. COSTA: As Democrats campaign to be the party’s standard-bearer.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Welcome to this special edition of Washington Week. Joining me at the table, Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; and from San Francisco, Marisa Lagos, politics correspondent and co-host of the Political Breakdown podcast at KQED, San Francisco’s PBS Station; and from Dallas, Texas, Abby Livingston, Washington bureau chief for The Texas Tribune.
Marisa, California, it is the prize on Super Tuesday. Is Senator Sanders poised to win there, and if so, why?
MARISA LAGOS: Well, if we believe polling then absolutely. Recent polls have him as much as 20 points ahead of Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden. You know, I think the real question here – you mentioned the delegate count. We’re talking 415 delegates up for grabs on Tuesday, almost half of what somebody needs to get the nomination, and Sanders like elsewhere is doing very well, especially with Latino voters but really across the board, and especially among independents in this state, and that’s really important. We have more no party preference voters in California than we have Republican registered voters – about 25 percent of the electorate, a little more, at this point – and they are breaking for Sanders very much so. And I think that in a lot of ways the question really becomes who else will get any delegates given the fact that you’ve got to get 15 percent statewide or in one of these 53 congressional districts to even be in the game.
MR. COSTA: Marisa, you said they’re trending toward Sanders a little bit. What do we know at this point about the early vote, the mail-in vote?
MS. LAGOS: Yeah, it’s really interesting. You know, we have seen a much sort of slower trickle of ballots come in than in years past. There were some 16 million ballots sent out; around 18 percent of those have come back, same – around that number in terms of the Democratic ballots. And so it seems like people have been really holding on and waiting to vote. I mean, a few weeks ago voting experts were saying some 40 percent of the electorate may have weighed in by this point, or at least by Monday. That is not proving to be the case so far. It certainly seems like Republicans are happy to send in their ballot – much different question there, right – but Democrats, seems like they wanted to know what was happening in Nevada, what happened in these debates, and clearly what’s going to happen this weekend in South Carolina potentially could change the trajectory here in California as well.
MR. COSTA: And what about in Texas, Abby? Could what happens in South Carolina change what happens in Texas? You look at Vice President Biden; based on recent polls in Texas, he seems to be creeping up there behind Senator Sanders.
ABBY LIVINGSTON: I think it absolutely could have an impact on Texas, and I don’t think I would have said that three weeks ago. You’ve got to remember, early voting ended today and it’s been going on for almost two weeks. And so there – normally you would expect folks to be rushing to the polls, and usually if the Democratic primary is even relevant in Texas by its primary day it’s a binary choice. What I am finding anecdotally on the ground when I talk to folks is there’s either people who are all in for Bernie Sanders or they are completely paralyzed. They don’t know who the most electable person is, and I don’t think that is an answerable question. And so there – it’s almost psychologically individuals are waiting to – they’re afraid of making the wrong choice, so they’re waiting until election day to cast their ballots.
MR. COSTA: Abby, has Mayor Bloomberg had a presence in Texas?
MS. LIVINGSTON: On the television and in direct mail, absolutely, and he’s been in and out of the state. But it is fascinating, and it’s a reminder how not everyone is a political junkie. And when I landed in Texas, there was a real unawareness that Mayor Bloomberg maybe didn’t have a great debate appearance, and there’s a real sense that he’s a formidable candidate. His advertising has worked. And so there’s – I actually had a friend say she voted for Bloomberg because she thought he was the most electable and she didn’t really feel good about it. Her heart wasn’t in it, but that was her perception.
MR. COSTA: Abby, Marisa, stay with us. When you look at the Super Tuesday map, Yamiche, it’s you have California and Texas, big, important states, but you have Arkansas, North Carolina, Mississippi. It’s not just South Carolina where voters who are of color are going to have a real say over the Democratic nominee, and many of the voters are also going this weekend to Selma, Alabama.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Oh, I also think it’s the super-est Super Tuesday that we’ve seen, the fact that you had states move up their primaries to try to have more of a say. California was a big one. Bernie Sanders – I remember being on the bus when Bernie Sanders lost California. They were very angry because the AP had already called the election for Hillary Clinton. He felt like that depressed a lot of his voters. So what we’re seeing now are candidates really looking at this landscape and saying this is what America looks like; if I can do well on Super Tuesday, I can go forward. And that means that you have to really look at candidates like Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, who are going to have to likely make hard decisions coming after Super Tuesday. And then of course there’s Joe Biden, who feels like he’s the person who can win, and he told me that he thinks that it’s going to ultimately come down to him and Bernie Sanders. But Michael Bloomberg is the X effect, and I’m not sure we quite understand the effect that Michael Bloomberg’s going to have until people really start casting their ballots.
MR. COSTA: Peter, Mississippi, just my apologies, is not a Super Tuesday state; Alabama is a Super Tuesday state. But you look at Vice President Biden, your paper had an excellent report about how the VP may not be prepared to go on to some of these Super Tuesday states in terms of infrastructure.
PETER BAKER: Well, you heard Jeff say right there he has spent his entire week in South Carolina, his entire campaign fortune, basically, in South Carolina. He moved a lot of money around, and he’s not necessarily competing yet for Super Tuesday. He only gets to compete there if he gets that big bounce out of South Carolina. Hard to put together an organization given that, but it is possible to build on that momentum, potentially, in some of these states. You would have thought that had been the opposite, right? You would have thought that of all people Joe Biden would be the one playing across the map. He was the establishment favorite. He was the frontrunner through much of last year. And yet, he’s now playing from behind.
MR. COSTA: Marisa, when you’re talking to voters in California, which issues are top of mind – climate change, health care, immigration?
MS. LAGOS: I would say health care and climate change are really what are pushing people. You know, this was the last – this last year was really the first time we’ve seen in statewide polls that climate change was up there at the top. It seems like immigration is still sort of animating Republicans in recent polls more than Democrats, but it’s certainly an issue. I think that in a lot of ways in California – this very deep blue state with such a huge immigrant population, especially from, you know, South America, Central America and Mexico – that a lot of that is sort of anti-Trump sentiment, not necessarily pushing these candidates for their plans.
Health care is definitely top of mind, the way it is, I think, nationally. I think this is really – in a state like this where we really embraced the Affordable Care Act and have really expanded health care aggressively, I think a lot of it is a question of sort of philosophically where do people want to go moving forward.
But certainly climate change is an issue, although I’ll say it doesn’t seem to be the one motivating factor. You know, I think we’ve heard across the country this question of electability. It does seem like in the primary Democrats really feel like they’re trying to pick the right horse that they think can beat Trump. And so while those are issues that are talked about a lot, it’s not as if you saw the fact that Tom Steyer, for example, a Californian, making that the centerpiece of his campaign, that that really, you know, bumped him up in the polls or got people excited about him.
MR. COSTA: Abby, when you look at the news out of another Super Tuesday state on Friday, Virginia, Senator Tim Kaine got behind Vice President Biden. There’s talk that former Governor McAuliffe in Virginia may get behind Biden. When you’re in there in Texas, is there concern about what Senator Sanders could mean down ballot for Texas Democrats? And will there be a move in the coming days to get behind Biden or Bloomberg?
MS. LIVINGSTON: It’s not a concern. It’s a full-blown panic among many officeholders in the state. There are no figures in Texas on the scale outside of possibly Congressman – former Congressman Beto O’Rourke who are a Terry McAuliffe or a Tim Kaine. But you’ve got a bunch of members of Congress and a bunch of state legislators who have already endorsed Joe Biden. It’s not blanket, but that is the most prominent folks.
And they know how to get the vote out in their primary, in their districts. And so they’ve been doing that for weeks, if not months, and they are very worried about what Senator Sanders will do. And one of the main reasons is because the state house of representatives is possibly in play, and that could set the table for the rest of the decade and the party building when it comes to redistricting.
MR. COSTA: When you look at other Super Tuesday states, is this a moment for people to think about dropping out, Peter, if you lose your own home state – Senator Klobuchar of Minnesota, Senator Warren of Massachusetts?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, this is a winnowing day. This is a day that decides who’s going into the final rounds. And there are these other storylines that are playing out in Minnesota, in Massachusetts in particular. If you don’t win your home state, there’s no point in going on for either of those candidates, you would think. You would think; I shouldn’t presume.
But the question about Super Tuesday is who does take on Senator Sanders? Assuming he comes out of that with the most delegates, is there a single contender to take that on? Does it become Bloomberg? Does it become Biden? Buttigieg, you know, outside chance; Klobuchar.
But we’re seeing a repeat, in a way, of four years ago, right? Donald Trump was not seen at the beginning as the dominant force that he became. And there was a chance, perhaps, early on for his contenders to take him down if there had been a one-on-one contest. He was winning 20, 30 percent of the vote in these Republican states. By the time it got to be a one-on-one contest, it was too late. He had built up too much momentum.
The question here for the Democrats is are they going to consolidate around one person to take on Senator Sanders, or is, in fact, Senator Sanders going to continue to exploit the divisions among the moderates?
MR. COSTA: Senator Warren faces a choice as well.
MS. ALCINDOR: Senator Warren faces a choice back to the idea of losing, possibly losing her home state. I think the word that Abby is using is panic, and I think that that’s such a good word to use when you talk to Democrats who are establishment Democrats. They say first that they are scared to have a Democratic socialist at the top of the ticket because they think that that’s going to hurt the House and hurt their chances to be able to have down-ballot success.
They also said that they’d changed the rules for Senator Sanders and that now he might be using that against them if he doesn’t end up with all the delegates he needs to secure the nomination outright. They’re worried that now he has this following that is really, really emotionally attached to Bernie Sanders in a way that other candidates don’t have their supporters. I would say anecdotally, based on my reporting, they’re very, very worried that Senator Sanders could be unstoppable.
MR. COSTA: Very quickly, Marisa, I know I’m a political junkie, but I’m asking this seriously. Are voters in California, are they talking about a possible contested convention and what it could mean?
MS. LAGOS: I think it’s early yet. But I will say, you know, it is a very different situation here. Obviously we have establishment Democrats. But Speaker Pelosi, Governor Gavin Newsom, Senator Kamala Harris, none of them have endorsed since Kamala Harris dropped out of the face. And you really see a wide split among elected officials here in terms of who they have endorsed. Bloomberg came in, got a lot of mayors, a lot of folks. But there is a wide split.
And I wouldn’t say quite the level of panic here, probably because we have so many safe House districts for Democrats, although I will note there are four districts that Republicans are targeting that Dems flipped in 2018, and they would really like – the GOP would really like to get them back.
MR. COSTA: And Abby, quickly, Speaker Pelosi said this week she would back Senator Sanders if he was the nominee, and she’ll help other members navigate that whole scene.
MS. LIVINGSTON: That is vintage Nancy Pelosi. And I’m sure she’s got her eye on the gavel and that is what she’s worried about, and she’s trying to keep this party together.
MR. COSTA: Well, thank you very much to Marisa Lagos, our friend in San Francisco, and Abby Livingston. Good luck with your reporting.
Now let’s bring in a friend of this program for a long time, a reporter who can put the noise and fury of this campaign in context, Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post. He joins us from Columbia, South Carolina.
Dan, you covered your first Democratic convention in 1968, when protesters clashed with Chicago police over the Vietnam War and civil rights. Over 50 years later, when you step back, are Democrats now facing a similar inflection point as Senator Sanders and his wing clashes with the establishment?
DAN BALZ: Well, I think these are separable issues, Bob; no question that ’68 was a terrible moment for the Democratic Party, but a very, very difficult moment for the entire country because of the assassinations and the antiwar protests, which were beyond the Democratic Party. And that’s what ’68 was really all about.
What we have now broadly, not just within the Democratic Party, is the deepest polarization that any of us can remember as the parties have kind of become homogenized. And this has become worse under President Trump, who has helped to kind of stoke these divisions. And I think they have become more intense and more passionate on each side.
What the Democrats are going through is a very important struggle. It is not just establishment versus Bernie Sanders. It is a young-versus-older kind of conflict. It is people who are affected, primarily younger voters, by what happened in 2008 and the financial crisis, and older voters, who have a different perspective on the kinds of things that Senator Sanders is talking about, particularly in the context of socialism.
And that is a powerful argument that’s playing out. And we’re going to see it clash again on Super Tuesday, as we’ve seen it in some of these early primaries. It’s too early to say exactly where things are going to end up, but there’s no question that right now Senator Sanders has an advantage. And the hope of the establishment wing of the party is, as Peter was saying, that there will be consolidation after Super Tuesday and that this becomes a one-on-one contest. But even in that, Bernie Sanders might have the advantage.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, are we living in a populist time? Dan talked about polarization. You covered Senator Sanders closely in 2016 and again in 2020. We started this program talking about President Trump; Senator Sanders – both populists, perhaps.
MS. ALCINDOR: That question makes me think of a voter that I talked to in South Carolina. He’s someone who is a Joe Biden supporter. But he admitted that he’s very, very worried, because he says Bernie Sanders has his hand on the pulse of America and he’s reading it very well. And he says that he thinks that people want change. They see President Trump. They see him doing what he wants to do. They see Republicans backing him. And that has pushed a lot of people, including Democrats, farther to the left, saying, well, why don’t we just demand what we want on the left instead of being moderates, instead of wanting to tweak systems?
So I think Bernie Sanders has this feeling of a populist. And it would be interesting to see both of those – both President Trump and Bernie Sanders use their idea of what populism is on their side to make a case.
MR. COSTA: Dan, when you look at the left, and Senator Sanders is a Democratic socialist – that’s how he describes his politics – are we looking at a new left or a return to an old left, a Franklin Delano Roosevelt-style Democrat?
MR. BALZ: Well, one could say that the kinds of things that Sanders is talking about are old Democratic or New Deal kinds of policies, a much bigger role for government to deal with these things. But we’re in a different period right now. I mean, obviously Roosevelt came in during the Depression and had to battle through that.
What Senator Sanders is talking about really is at root the vast gulf between the wealthiest and the rest of the country. And he has put his finger on that as a fundamental core issue that is not being dealt with by the political system. And so the solutions he’s promoting are, in fact, much more government intervention, much costlier kinds of government spending. But the diagnosis is one that rings true with a lot of people, and I suspect with a lot of people who were attracted to Donald Trump in 2016; that, in one way or another, the system that we have is not working for the vast majority of the people.
MR. COSTA: Peter, when you think about Vice President Biden coming out of South Carolina, should he win there, where will the moderates go – toward Bloomberg, toward Biden, or will it just be muddled in this long slog toward Milwaukee?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, that’s the big question right now. I think had Bloomberg done better in those two debates that he had, he might have been a more viable alternative for knocking Biden off. But suddenly Biden, who looked very weak in those first two contests – finishing, you know, deep, deep down in the – in the fourths and fifths kind of range, suddenly had kind of a comeback, right? Some of the establishment said, OK, well, we’re not thrilled about how well he’s done, but maybe this Bloomberg thing isn’t going to work. Let’s go back to plan A. And Biden was plan A.
So it’s a big question. But Bloomberg has resources that Biden doesn’t. He just doesn’t have the party ties that Biden does, right? I mean, he’s not really a Democrat. If it’s Bloomberg versus Sanders, as Pete Buttigieg says, you’re talking about two people – one of them still doesn’t consider himself a Democrat and the other one only recently became a Democrat. What a transformation of this party.
MR. COSTA: Dan, who could bring together the Democrats? Is it President Obama? Who could actually, if it goes to Milwaukee without a clear picture of who the nominee’s going to be, who actually stitches together the Democratic Party?
MR. BALZ: Bob, that’s a question that everybody is asking right now. I think that there is a sense that it is not likely to be President Obama, because that’s not in his nature. I think Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader from Nevada, recently said to our colleague Paul Kane that he did not think that that was the kind of thing that Barack Obama would undertake, if it goes to a contested convention. And as others have said, I think we’re a little way from knowing about that. I think a lot of people would look to Speaker Pelosi. She has been the strongest force within the Democratic Party since they took the majority back in 2018. And I think that she would be pressed to play some kind of a role. But exactly what that would be, and who else would be involved, it’s too early to know that.
MR. COSTA: Dan, quickly, what’s the state you’re looking at in terms of Super Tuesday? What’s the place on the map that matters to you, as a reporter?
MR. BALZ: Well, I think California, for all the reasons that you all were talking about earlier. It has 415 delegates, 53 congressional districts, that will award the majority of the – of the delegates. At this point, only Bernie Sanders is broadly viable in all of those districts. Everybody else may be on the cusp of viability, but not necessarily viable. How that shakes out – and, frankly, we’re not going to know perhaps for another week or 10 days after Super Tuesday because of the way they count the votes in California – but that’s going to be the ultimate crucial state in terms of knowing what kind of a lead Senator Sanders has after Super Tuesday, and whether it is possible to overtake him.
MR. COSTA: Thank you very much, Dan. Always a pleasure. And thank you, Peter and Yamiche, for being here for the whole hour. It means a lot to me, for your time and insights. And we appreciate you for joining us for this special edition. We will be back next week. In the meantime, visit PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. I’m Robert Costa. Good night.