Bernie Sanders is continuing his presidential campaign despite a rapidly diminishing chance of victory. Liam Glen writes on how strategically bowing out could advance his progressive agenda.
March 10 was a pivotal day for the Democratic presidential primaries. After suffering major losses on Super Tuesday, Bernie Sanders hoped to rebound with an upset in Michigan, just as he did in 2016. Instead, Joe Biden took the state by a wide margin, along with other primaries on the same night.
Mathematically, Sanders still has a chance of winning. Both he and Biden have a long way to go before achieving the required 1,991 delegates to win the nomination. But the probability of him receiving enough votes in the remaining contests to get those delegates is increasingly thin. The Michigan results show that a majority of Democrats have settled on Biden. He polls so well in the remaining states that the FiveThirtyEight model gives him a 99 percent chance of winning the nomination.
This presents a dilemma for Sanders supporters who can list detailed reasons why they believe Biden is a weak candidate that would make a poor president. But if their goal is to defeat Donald Trump in November, he is now their only shot. And they can win key policy concessions by getting behind him sooner rather than later.
The Weak Case for Staying In
Sanders’s most devoted supporters want him to stay in the race until the bitter end. He himself has not made such a commitment, but he has stated that he will remain at least until the March 15 debate, the first one that will feature only him and Biden.
There is a small chance that this could make a difference. It is not out of the question that Sanders, who is a clearer and more passionate speaker, will out-perform Biden. But debates are rarely impactful this late in the primary season.
Voters have endured nearly a year of campaigning. They have had plenty of opportunities to evaluate each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, and most of them have decided that Biden is their best option. The idea that this single debate could make them change their minds en masse is wishful thinking.
There are others who recognize this, but want Sanders to remain in the race so he can keep emphasizing key issues. Maria Langholz of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee suggests that putting scrutiny on the frontrunner would help the party’s cause. But as long as Biden is the presumptive nominee, the continuation of Sanders’s campaign would only help Trump.
Each individual race has its nuances, but high-profile and divisive primaries usually hurt the eventual nominee in the general election. If Sanders spends his energy now emphasizing all of Biden’s flaws to voters, it will be more difficult to get those same voters to support Biden in November.
Bargaining to Drop Out
All of this is reminiscent of the 2016 primaries, when Sanders stayed in the race against Hillary Clinton long after his campaign stopped being viable. This was done in the hopes of gaining enough delegates to shift the party platform to the left, a goal that was largely successful.
At the time, however, it was assumed that Clinton would inevitably win against Donald Trump in the general election. Many – including Clinton herself – have suggested that her eventual loss was in part due to Sanders’s continuation of the divisive campaign. Whether or not this is true, it ups the pressure on him to avoid running another futile race.
In addition, there are multiple ways to move the party to the left. Politics is full of backroom deals. If Sanders endorses Biden now and spares him the pain of a lingering primary, he would surely be willing to accept some of the Vermont Senator’s demands.
Biden’s campaign is currently fluctuating between left and right. For instance, his picks for Treasury Secretary reportedly range from Elizabeth Warren to Jamie Dimon. The former is a leading crusader against Wall Street excess, while the latter is highly controversial for his role as a major banker during the 2008 financial crisis. This leaves a lot of opportunity for Sanders to push leftwards.
Of course, this also depends on how willing Biden’s campaign is to acquiesce to demands from the losing side. But if he seeks to win in November, he will have to see the value of party unity.
For instance, there is no chance that Biden will endorse Medicare for All, the hallmark progressive policy which centrist Democrats harshly criticize as impractical But he could get behind the Green New Deal. This would be a major victory for Sanders’s cause. Meanwhile, it would help Biden by exciting young and progressive voters while clearing up accusations that his stance on climate change is too weak.
In any case, Sanders is likely to continue his last-ditch efforts to turn the tide at least until the next debate. Some interpret his refusal to step down as a sign of his unique stubbornness. But it is common in politics for candidates to stay in the race longer than they should. Hillary Clinton herself continued her 2008 campaign against Barack Obama into early June.
His chances, however, are increasingly running out. Meanwhile, he has a greater ability to bargain if he leaves earlier. The loss in the primaries is doubtlessly a defeat for Sanders’s cause, but the entire point of his campaign – with the slogan of “Not Me, Us” – is that he is building a movement that is larger and more durable than any individual candidate. The true test of his success is whether it continues to have influence even if he loses the nomination.