Were it not for the novel coronavirus, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would be barnstorming the country. He’d be traveling from one state to the next, holding rallies, doing interviews — and explaining, over and over, why despite Joe Biden’s all but insurmountable delegate lead, there was still a good reason for him to stay in the race.

But now Sanders is trapped like the rest of us, his campaign in a kind of suspended animation. It must be particularly frustrating for him and his supporters, since theirs was a grass-roots campaign, and that kind of organizing depends so much on person-to-person contact. You can’t mount a canvassing effort to knock on thousands of doors in the middle of a pandemic.

Which has meant it’s harder than ever for Sanders to justify not dropping out, as he did on an appearance on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” on Monday, insisting that it’s still technically possible for him to become the nominee:

“It is admittedly a narrow path, but I would tell you, Seth, that there are a lot of people who are supporting me,” Sanders said. “We have a strong grass-roots movement who believe that we have got to stay in, in order to continue the fight to make the world know that we need Medicare-for-all, that we need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, that we need paid family and medical leave . . . that we must address climate change and education.”
“Campaigns are an important way to maintain that fight and raise public consciousness on those issues,” he added. “So that’s, I think, one of the arguments for going forward.”

“A narrow path” is being optimistic; it’s more nanoscale at this point. But he’s right when he says that campaigns are an important way to raise public consciousness. After all, how much attention will he be able to get for his ideas when he’s no longer a presidential candidate?

I suspect that’s an important part of his calculation: He knows that once he drops out the media will lose interest in him, unless he’s going to say or do something unusually controversial.

There may be something else at work as well, something emotional. No candidate wants to admit that the enterprise to which they have devoted endless time and effort over the past couple of years is really done. But for Sanders, it may be particularly difficult. It’s one thing to say your candidacy has come to an end, but if you think that what you’re really running is a movement, you’ll be even more reluctant to see it shut down.

That was clearly how Sanders thought of his enterprise, that it was something deeper than a candidacy of one individual but represented a collective uprising, as millions of people rallied behind a vision that refused to accept the status quo and envisioned a profoundly different future.

Yet paradoxically, the Sanders campaign (by which I mean the long campaign that ran from 2015 until now) was intensely personal, with many of his followers angrily rejecting even the thought of supporting any candidate but him, no matter how much some other candidate’s views might resemble his. Other candidates have passionate supporters, but nobody’s getting a tattoo of Joe Biden’s face.

Of course, Sanders will return to his old job and perhaps be more influential in it than he has been before. Nevertheless, that step back isn’t easy for any candidate, and it could be particularly difficult for him.

At age 78, this is his last run for the White House. And over the course of the past five years, I imagine he came to see his story as both his own and the country’s. It was a journey leading to this point, from young activist to mayor to congressman to senator to (maybe) president, his righteousness a beacon leading the country to where he always knew it had to go. The country didn’t know what it could become, but he did, and his faith would be rewarded.

But now it won’t. To accept that, Bernie has to admit not only that his own ambitions will not be realized but also that his movement has fallen short.

When he eventually pulls out of the race, he’ll say what every losing candidate does, that his supporters’ efforts were not in vain and they must keep fighting for the purpose they took on. As Ted Kennedy put it in his own version of that speech, “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Politicians repeat that so often because it’s always what those supporters want to hear when a campaign ends. But the ones who speak it know that it’s only partially true. Bernie Sanders will make his peace with the end of his cause soon enough, but it may take him a little more time.

Read more: