The Writing Is on the Wall for Bernie Sanders

He’s vowing to stay in the race but pledging party unity.

Paul Sancya/AP

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Let’s back up for a second.

Remember February? Life was a lot different then. It was colder. No social distancing. You were touching your face all the time. And Bernie Sanders, for a couple fleeting weeks, was the Democratic frontrunner.

In Nevada, Sanders finally showcased the young and diverse coalition he hoped to build. National polls, which Sanders led as he headed into Super Tuesday, showed him neck-and-neck with former vice president Joe Biden among African American voters and broadly popular among the Democratic electorate. At the debate a few days before his Nevada win, Sanders was the only person to argue that the candidate with the most delegates heading into the convention should be declared the winner.

In the interest of full disclosure, this is what I wrote at the time:

It’s rare for politicians themselves to cut through bullshit like that, and to effectively acknowledge in front of 19.7 million television viewers that for all of the bluster, no one but Sanders actually expects at this moment to be the person with the most delegates. The other candidates are increasingly acting like none of their opponents can beat Bernie. And after Saturday, it’s starting to look like they’re right.

It would actually be pretty difficult to be more wrong. But in fairness, Biden made a lot of other people look like idiots too. In the 10 days following Nevada, basically the exact opposite scenario unfolded: Biden won a convincing victory in South Carolina, then notched an even bigger win on Super Tuesday. Yesterday, he more or less ended whatever suspense was left in the Democratic presidential primary. 

Biden scored blowout wins in Missouri, Mississippi, and, most importantly, Michigan, where Sanders’ 2016 upset victory had served as a symbol of his electoral strategy. Biden won every single county in those three states. He flipped Idaho (which Sanders won by 56 points four years ago when it was a caucus) and, as of Wednesday morning, was trailing by a fraction of a percent in Washington state (which Sanders last won by 46 points, again when it was a caucus). When February started, Biden had never won a primary in any of his three separate presidential campaigns; now, after doubling his delegate lead, his advantage over Sanders is almost insurmountable.

Biden still has a long way to go to reach a majority of delegates and there are still opportunities here and there for Sanders to make a statement. If there is one glaring weakness for Biden in his stunning comeback, it has been the enduring age gap between his supporters and Sanders’. In exit polls in Michigan on Tuesday, Biden lost voters under 30 by 57 points, lost 30–44 year-olds by 10, and won everyone else handily. Sanders won Latino voters easily too. Arizona, which votes next Tuesday, might offer a test of Sanders’ enduring strength and Biden’s weakness, particularly among young and Latino voters out West.

But Arizona votes on the same day as Florida, which has way more delegates and where a recent poll showed Sanders down 50 points. You can start to see the problem. Sanders has his strengths, but they’re nowhere near as formidable as Biden’s strengths—and half the states have already voted.

As the returns started to come in on Tuesday, some leading Democrats began to signal that they had seen enough. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, whose endorsement helped power Biden’s South Carolina resurgence, said that the Democratic National Committee should step in and shut the primary down if Biden swept all six Tuesday contests. Sanders would eventually win North Dakota, and might still win Washington, but the sentiment was out in the open.

After Michigan was called on Tuesday, two major pro-Democratic outside groups, Priorities USA and American Bridge, announced they were beginning their general election campaign against Trump with the understanding that Joe Biden would be the nominee. American Bridge released its first TV ad shortly thereafter, a 60-second spot featuring a senior citizen from Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, who said she voted for Donald Trump and regretted it: 

It’s not the place of super-PACs and the congressional leadership to determine when the primary ends, but with Biden cruising and the spread of coronavirus causing the cancellation of campaign events in upcoming states, the primary has entered a new stage altogether.

Sanders, for his part, is staying in, but what kind of campaign he runs from here on out will be important for the future of the party and his movement. Addressing reporters Wednesday at a hotel in Burlington, Vermont, he acknowledged that “last night obviously was not a good night for my campaign from a delegate point of view” and that his campaign had struggled all year to win over voters whose main concern was “electability.”

“I cannot tell you how many people our campaign has spoken to who have said, and I quote, ‘I like what your campaign stands for, I agree with what your campaign stands for, but I’m gonna vote for Joe Biden because I believe he is the best candidate who can beat Donald Trump,'” Sanders said. “End of quote. We have heard this all over the country.”

That’s not just anecdotal. Exit polls in Michigan found that “electability” was a much higher concern for voters in 2020 than it was in 2016, and for all the “Bernie Beats Trump” signs and favorable head-to-head polls, Biden won that argument. Still, Sanders found hope in exit polls showing high support for reining in inequality, single-payer health care, and a $15 wage—all core Sanders campaign issues. In announcing his eagerness to debate Biden on Sunday, Sanders laid out a list of questions he promised to ask his opponent: What would Biden do about people going bankrupt “because of medically related debt”? Would he really veto a Medicare for All bill if it showed up on his desk? What would he say to scientists who say we need to transform our energy system in 10 years? What is he going to do to make sure anyone can go to college or trade school “regardless of their income?” What would he do to end mass incarceration? And so on.

This wasn’t a scorched-earth approach. Sanders, who began and ended his remarks with a call to unity, was offering Biden a roadmap to eventually bring Sanders’ own, younger coalition on board. As he said moments earlier, “to win in the future you need to win the voters who represent the future of our country and you must speak to the issues of concern to them.”

How did we get here? The short answer is that an extremely scrambled primary became really orderly, really fast. The path that opened up for Sanders in February was a temporary one—the thinking was that the field would stay fractured just long enough for Sanders to run up the score on Super Tuesday. But in South Carolina, none of Biden’s other challengers won a significant number of black voters, and they heeded the call to drop out before Super Tuesday rather than after. If large numbers of voters hadn’t already voted early for candidates who’d dropped out, Biden’s rout would have been even greater.

The bigger answer is that Sanders didn’t build the coalition he needed to win. In 2016, his struggles with black voters, particularly older black voters in the South, doomed his candidacy. Those voters set the dominoes in motion in South Carolina and gave Biden commanding margins in successive contests. Among black voters over 60 in Mississippi, Biden beat Sanders 96 to 3. You read that correctly. Sanders made a real effort to improve his standing among older black voters over the last four years, and it just didn’t work. (Read The Atlantic’s Adam Harris if you want to understand why.)

The future of Sanders’ movement is less clear because it is not just about Sanders. The senator can’t win in places like Mississippi, but an unabashed “radical,” Chokwe Antar Lumumba, got elected mayor of its largest city in 2017. Sanders lost Michigan and Minnesota, but two Muslim democratic socialist women now represent those states in Congress. His supporters were instrumental in putting a reformer in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office and, you may have heard, powered a mini-revolution in New York City.

This is almost certainly Sanders’ last presidential campaign, but it might just keep puttering on without him. After Sanders canceled his Tuesday night rally in Ohio due to coronavirus fears, one surrogate did address the nation, in her familiar way: New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, herself a product of the excitement and frustration of Sanders’ 2016 campaign, recorded an Instagram Live video from what looked like her kitchen table. It was a strikingly personal message from a top surrogate, in the absence of any other official response from the campaign, as Ocasio-Cortez sought to place the setback in the broader context of the movement:

“There’s no sugarcoating it: Tonight’s a tough night,” she said. But she wanted her allies to think big. Its policy agenda was pushing the Democratic Party and it would prevail over time not by lashing out but through empathy and persistence. Nodding to Biden’s commanding margin with older voters, she said, “we don’t blame voters, we don’t dismiss voters, and we don’t think of people as disposable.” 

And for voters who were taking the results hard, Ocasio-Cortez offered some advice: “Never, ever, ever, ever let your heart turn black,” she said. “You can’t do that. We cannot afford to do it. There are too many people’s hearts who are on the line.”

The movement wasn’t just about Sanders, and its brightest future wouldn’t be about any one figure either. “We can’t swing from one savior to another,” she said. “There’s a lot of saviorism in politics, like ‘Who’s next, who’s going to save us?’” 

“The answer is you.”

The revolution didn’t turn out like it was supposed to in 2020. But don’t expect it to end.


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