‘Who is going to advise him to drop out?’: Bernie may not be ready for quick exit
Many of the Vermont senator’s aides and allies expect him to press onward — regardless of Tuesday’s election results.
Bernie Sanders’ path to the Democratic nomination is closing, but a quick exit is far from guaranteed — even if he gets wiped out Tuesday.
From his debate posture to staffing moves to the “virtual rally” he convened Monday evening, the Vermont senator is signaling that he may not be ready to concede.
If Sanders remains in the race, it will be in part to keep his “political revolution” alive. According to people familiar with his thinking, Sanders will not only consider what’s best for his campaign, but also the progressive movement.
Many of Sanders’ aides and allies also expect him to press onward after Tuesday. They see a benefit in amassing as many delegates as possible in order to influence the party platform at the Democratic National Convention this summer — even if Sanders himself can’t win the nomination.
“I think there’s a very good chance that he will stay in,” said Larry Cohen, chair of Our Revolution, a group founded by Sanders in 2016. “The number of delegates you have, the number of people on the platform committee is absolutely critical.”
Notably, Sanders has staff in place for states that vote as late as April 28, according to a campaign adviser, including New York. Sanders’ aides have long thought that he would have a good shot in the Empire State, which is rich in delegates. Earlier this month, Sanders’ team announced it was opening five offices in Pennsylvania, a state seen by many local and state officials as Joe Biden’s second home.
A former aide close to the Sanders campaign said that a senior staffer argued as recently as last week that there is still a path to victory even if Sanders suffers major losses Tuesday.
“I think he’s in. Who is going to advise him to drop out?” the person said, adding that current aides can “work for whatever group Bernie starts next.”
At Sunday’s debate, Sanders not only tried to push Biden’s agenda to the left, but also litigated his past votes extensively. When the former vice president offered him an olive branch by adopting a plan to make college free for families earning less than $125,000 annually, Sanders said it didn’t go far enough.
“What I know about Sen. Sanders’ thought process and focus is, it’s all about representing the movement and leading what he initially called the political revolution,” said Kurt Ehrenberg, Sanders’ longtime political strategist in New Hampshire until last year. “And not letting down the people who have been with him all along. I think that’s the most important consideration for him.”
The fact that states are postponing their primaries to combat the coronavirus outbreak could provide Sanders more incentive to stay in the race. Georgia, Louisiana and Kentucky, which had previously been scheduled to vote in March, April and May, respectively, have rescheduled their primaries. Party officials in Puerto Rico are in the process of requesting a delay.
If Puerto Rico reschedules its March 29 primary, it will be more than two weeks until the next regularly scheduled primaries.
At the same time, the pandemic and looming possibility of a recession — or even a full-fledged depression — could make it more likely that Sanders stays in because the stakes are so high.
“In these very uncertain times, we need a president who is going to put the interests of everyday people over every other consideration — and that’s Bernie Sanders,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ senior adviser. “How do we know that? Because that’s been his consistent life’s work.”
If Sanders continues his bid after Tuesday, he will face an onslaught of pressure from establishment Democrats and even some progressives to drop out. Many are wary of a long, divisive primary after 2016, and eager to take on President Donald Trump with the benefit of a united party. Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement helped fuel Biden’s comeback victory in South Carolina, said on the day of the March 10 primaries that the Democratic National Committee should “shut this primary down” and cancel debates if the former vice president swept the races, which he went on to do.
Sanders’ electoral prospects are bleak. Momentum — and the delegate count — have shifted to Biden, who looks poised to win another string of contests decisively on Tuesday.
“I think it could be much, much more constructive if he gets out earlier,” said Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser to Sanders during his 2016 campaign. “He’s still going to have roughly 1,000 delegates going into the convention, and that’s all the leverage that you need to influence the platform.”
But Sanders often doesn’t follow the unwritten rules of campaigning that other politicians abide by. When he had a heart attack last year — the kind of event that would force most candidates out of an election — he stayed in the race. He also declined to bow out of the 2016 primary even after it was mathematically impossible to win the nomination, instead successfully pushing for a more progressive party platform and major rule changes.
And at the same time that Sanders faces pressure from mainstream Democrats to exit, many on the left are encouraging him to stay in. Some Sanders supporters still remember when Biden was badly down in the primary before South Carolina, and envision a turnaround for their own candidate.
“My urging to the campaign has been, ‘We’ve got to play this out,’” said Gil Cedillo, a Los Angeles city councilman and prominent Sanders ally. “We’ve got to play the whole game … I’m suggesting we don’t quit simply because now they’re up. Why should we?”
Progressive activists see Sanders’ continued candidacy as significant to their movement, even if his chances narrow to almost impossible margins.
Charles Chamberlain, chairman of the political action committee Democracy for America, said there is a “real question” about whether either Biden or Sanders can reach the delegate threshold necessary to secure the nomination outright and that the tumultuous nature of the race suggests Sanders should stay in.
“I don’t think anyone can predict for sure what’s going to happen between now and the end of this primary contest,” he said. “There’s plenty of time, plenty of delegates left, and this game can change at any minute.” The Democratic Party, he said, “shouldn’t be about shutting it down” before more states vote.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is closely aligned with Elizabeth Warren, urged Sanders to remain in the race through at least March.
“Not only should Bernie stay in, but it would actively hurt Democrats’ chances against Trump if he got out prematurely,” he said. “Because especially during this crisis, we need to know that our candidate is tested and stands for bold ideas like paid sick leave, free universal health care and canceling student debt as the right way to put money into the economy.”
At the same time, Sanders loathes Trump and considers Biden a friend, which will also likely factor into his decision of whether to continue his bid for the White House after Tuesday.
One thing is certain: Only Sanders and his wife, Jane, who has played an instrumental role in his 2020 operation, know for sure if he will carry onward.
“All of the important decisions come from Bernie and Jane, as they should,” said Ehrenberg.