The 2020 presidential general election has begun.
Joe Biden, who was Barack Obama's vice president, will face off against President Donald Trump in November's contest. The race between the two men in their 70s has long been expected but is now virtually guaranteed after Sen. Bernie Sanders exited from the Democratic primary contest, announcing Wednesday that he had suspended his campaign.
In some ways, the Trump-Biden general election has been long foretold.
Trump has never faced a serious primary threat, and Biden has been the leader in primary polls — with only brief exceptions — since he entered the Democratic primary nearly one year ago. He has been virtually assured to win the primary since his landslide victory on Super Tuesday early last month.
The likelihood of Biden becoming the president's 2020 rival was illustrated during the president's impeachment trial earlier this year.
The House of Representatives charged Trump with abusing his power and endangering national security by pressuring the government of Ukraine to open an investigation into Biden's family.
Rep. Adam Schiff, who led the prosecution, repeatedly made the case that the president's actions were spurred by a desire to smear "a political opponent that President Trump greatly feared." The Senate acquitted Trump of the charges in February.
But in other ways, the nation's most important political event is kicking off under extraordinary circumstances that no one could predict.
A pandemic has stalled the U.S. economy and forced Americans into their homes and out of work in order to mitigate a disaster that public health officials warned might have taken the lives of 2 million in the country. COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has ended campaigning and fundraising as it had been previously known.
For Biden, the pandemic has meant an end to an avuncular campaign style marked by hugs, back pats and whispers in the ear. For the president, it has halted the boisterous campaign rallies that marked his rise in 2016 and which he continued to host around the country as its leader.
For the country it has meant tragedy and devastation. Thousands of Americans have already succumbed to the virus, which is continuing to spread and has infected nearly half a million in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University data. Millions have lost their jobs, and unemployment could soar as high as 32%, according to estimates from the St. Louis Fed.
No one can say with certainty what the pandemic means for the November election. At least a dozen states and territories were forced to postpone their primary elections because of health fears related to COVID-19. Wisconsin, which held its primary on Tuesday, did so in the midst of a partisan battle over what should be done that escalated all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Given that the strength of the economy was one of the president's top reelection selling points, a massive contraction in the economy naturally weakens that argument, even given the circumstances," Kyle Kondik, a leading elections analyst, wrote in a recent analysis.
"But it may also be that perceptions of the economy aren't actually driving voting patterns as significantly in this era: The president's approval rating arguably should have been higher for much of his term based on relative peace and prosperity," Kondik wrote. "It may be that going forward, the president's approval should be lower than it might end up being, at least based on what one might expect from history."
Indeed, Trump's approval rating has hardly budged at any point during his presidency. An average of approval polls from the data website FiveThirtyEight shows that Trump's support has held firm in the low-to-mid-40s since early 2018, with only small and brief exceptions. The numbers put Trump just slightly behind where former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush were at the same point in their presidencies.
Despite a small bump in Trump's approval in recent weeks, polling has consistently shown Biden ahead of Trump in head-to-head matchups. Those polls are far from conclusive given the fluctuating nature of the race and the Electoral College system. Trump beat his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton despite Clinton securing a popular vote victory, for instance.
In an average of head-to-head polls compiled by RealClearPolitics, Biden is leading Trump by more than six points, 49.8% to 43.7%.
Larry Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said in an email that Sanders' exit was the "best news Joe Biden has gotten since the South Carolina primary."
"Sanders has dropped out early enough to give Biden a real shot at reuniting the Democratic Party before and at the convention — whether there is a real or virtual convention," he wrote.
The party recently decided to postpone its convention from July until August after Biden suggested doing so. He also said in recent days that the event might have to become virtual, as the country will still be contending with the spread of the coronavirus this summer.
While a certain percentage of Sanders supporters will never vote for Biden, Sabato said that Biden will be in "good shape" if he can keep the number to 20% or under.
"Here's where Sanders' good relationship with Biden has paid off. Sanders and Clinton couldn't stand each other. That mattered. So does the Biden-Sanders friendship," Sabato said.
Trump, for his part, has sought to capitalize on rifts between the liberal wing of the party, which Sanders represents, and the moderate element represented by Biden and the Democratic National Committee. On Wednesday, after Sanders announced his exit, Trump doubled down.
"Bernie Sanders is OUT! Thank you to Elizabeth Warren. If not for her, Bernie would have won almost every state on Super Tuesday," the president wrote in a post on Twitter. "This ended just like the Democrats & the DNC wanted, same as the Crooked Hillary fiasco. The Bernie people should come to the Republican Party, TRADE!"