The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Campaign signals Sanders may be open to exit

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his wife, Jane.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his wife, Jane. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Bernie Sanders signaled Wednesday that he was open to ending his presidential run after another round of landslide losses to Joe Biden, and new signs emerged of communication between the two camps as some Democrats hoped for a swift end to a bruising primary.

Sanders campaign officials said the senator from Vermont planned to leave Washington and return home, where he and his wife, Jane, would talk to supporters and determine the future of his presidential run. The campaign also suspended its Facebook ads and, uncharacteristically, made no request for donations in an email to backers updating them on the situation.

Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said that aides to the two candidates have been in touch regularly to discuss the public health crisis that has gripped the country, disclosing talks that could form the basis of a broader agreement on policies and might make Sanders more comfortable leaving the race.

Former vice president Joe Biden won the Arizona, Florida and Illinois 2020 Democratic presidential primaries on March 17. (Video: The Washington Post)

The two campaigns “have been in regular contact at a senior level” since last week to discuss how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the campaigns, Bedingfield said in a statement to The Washington Post, “as well as to discuss both Vice President Biden’s and Senator Sanders’ ideas on policy responses to the virus.”

She added: “While the two campaigns obviously have their differences, they are working together to try to promote the health and safety of their teams, those who interact with the campaigns, and the American people.” Sanders communications director Mike Casca confirmed her characterization of the talks.

Biden campaign officials have also adopted an internal policy of no longer attacking Sanders, according to one of them, even as some surrogates for the former vice president increased public pressure on the senator to step aside. This person spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) used his March 17 primary night speech to outline his plan to deal with the coronavirus outbreak and the economic crisis. (Video: The Washington Post)

The moves are the clearest signs yet that Sanders is giving serious thought to ending his campaign, which fell further behind on Tuesday night after a drubbing in three more primaries, and that Biden’s team is eager to offer olive branches to ease a potential departure.

If Sanders does exit, the Democratic Party will immediately confront the challenge of avoiding the type of bitter split that damaged the party in 2016, when the Sanders and Hillary Clinton camps remained at odds after she captured the nomination. Many Democrats think that dispute contributed to Clinton’s loss in the general election and hope to unify more fully this time as they prepare to take on President Trump.

Sanders officials cautioned Wednesday that the senator had made no final decision and remained a candidate, leaving open the possibility that he might continue his campaign in the months ahead despite having little chance at the nomination. And tensions between supporters of both candidates raised doubts about their ability to come together quickly or smoothly.

“No sugarcoating it, last night did not go the way we wanted,” Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir said in an unusually solemn email to supporters that requested no money. After flying to Vermont, Sanders and his wife intend to consult supporters and seek “input and assess the path forward for our campaign,” Shakir added.

Biden won double-digit victories in Florida, Arizona and Illinois on Tuesday, continuing a dominant three-week stretch in which he has built a nearly insurmountable lead in delegates to the Democrats’ nominating convention in July.

Adding to Sanders’s challenges, those three contests could be the last in the near future, giving him little opportunity to change the narrative or trajectory of the campaign. The novel coronavirus has hampered the primary season and cast a cloud of uncertainty over the coming weeks.

Several states have pushed back their nominating contests in an effort to avoid large gatherings, and the candidates have suspended rallies and town halls.

Many Biden allies were anxious on Wednesday to bring an end to the competition, fearing that a prolonged battle would undermine the party’s ability to win in November and create unnecessary health risks for prospective voters.

“Bernie is the person — the one person — who can essentially give the Biden campaign permission to start the general election, to start talking to the [Democratic National Committee], to start building the general election operation we need,” said Rufus Gifford, a former ambassador to Denmark and a top Biden fundraiser. “That’s why it matters sooner rather than later.”

Sanders spent the day in Washington attending to business in the Senate, where lawmakers were working on legislation to soften the blow of the pandemic. He told reporters on Capitol Hill that he planned to evaluate his future, echoing the statement from his campaign.

Sanders brushed aside a question from a CNN reporter about his potential departure, snapping that he was dealing with a “global crisis” and appending an expletive at the start of his words.

Rather than speak about the primaries Tuesday night, Sanders had unveiled a plan to combat the coronavirus, laying out a $2 trillion proposal he later posted on his campaign website that would enable Medicare to cover all related medical bills and force the government to provide $2,000 monthly payments to Americans.

For many Sanders supporters, the crisis has become a real-life example of why the suite of liberal policies he has long championed — including a Medicare-for-all government insurance program — is so urgently needed.

If anything, they say, the coronavirus gives him more justification to stay in the contest and promote his ideas. And regardless of Sanders’s decision, his most fiery supporters may be slow to join the Biden bandwagon.

“Just think about the difference it would have made had we had single-payer health care in this country when coronavirus hit,” said Derrick Crowe, a spokesman for the pro-Sanders group People’s Action. “We need to see [Biden’s] platform rise to that occasion.”

Some Sanders confidants have said that beyond the policy pulpit an extended campaign would give them, there is an added incentive: collecting delegates and building leverage at the national convention to shape influential committees and press for the party to adopt liberal positions on health care, climate change and the economy.

But other Democrats said that continuing the campaign could undermine Sanders’s credibility, particularly as the delegate math is so daunting. Biden has opened up a lead of 234 pledged delegates over Sanders, with fewer than half of the total left up for grabs.

“I think there’s every reason in the world for Bernie to assess and get out,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a Biden supporter, including the health and safety of older voters more susceptible to the coronavirus.

“I definitely think it is” irresponsible if Sanders stays in, Beyer added.

Former congressman Steve Israel of New York, who once headed the House Democrats’ campaign organization, said that prolonging the party’s divides could endanger its efforts in the fall. “The bigger risk is that we go into the fall facing Donald Trump with an unlimited checkbook and as a dispirited and divided Democratic Party,” Israel said.

Some Democrats said that instead of Sanders remaining a candidate, he could assert his influence by securing an agreement from the Biden campaign to adopt some of his positions before pulling out. Already, Biden has embraced a Sanders plan to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for students whose families make less than $125,000.

And Biden extended an olive branch to Sanders supporters in a Tuesday speech: “Let me say, especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Senator Sanders, I hear you. I know what’s at stake,” Biden said as the results came in. “I know what we have to do.”

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in the primary, said bringing together the two wings of the Democratic Party would require careful choreography. He said Biden’s recent announcement that he’d select a woman as his running mate, and endorsing Warren’s recommended overhaul of bankruptcy rules, were a good start.

But Levin said he was disappointed that Biden told progressives that he knew what needed to be done. “That’s not it,” Levin said. “This is work that needs to be done to bring people together.” Levin added that he wanted Biden to “back away from” attacks on Medicare-for-all and frame it at least as a goal.

The Biden and Sanders camps, representing the final two major candidates in the race, opened lines of communication some time ago. Before the last Democratic debate, Anita Dunn and Jeff Weaver, senior advisers to Biden and Sanders, respectively, discussed the arrangements, according to a person with knowledge of the talks. This person also spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. The pair decided not to have an audience and discussed how the stage would be set up.

The coronavirus outbreak has given the campaigns an area for negotiation that encompasses many of the fights Sanders cares most passionately about — providing health care to more Americans, reducing economic inequality and curbing the power of wealthy corporations.

Still, many Sanders supporters are distrustful of Biden, citing his history of working with Republicans. They have been unimpressed by his coronavirus response, favoring the more dramatic measures Sanders has advocated. Some Sanders supporters signaled that they are beginning to accept the reality of Biden’s likely victory.

Alan Minsky, executive director of the pro-Sanders group Progressive Democrats of America, said Biden has a history of “not coming down on the progressive side of the party.” Still, he added, “Biden is a savvy politician, so it’s not hopeless to think that he might really shift his approach.”

Shakir, the Sanders campaign manager, indicated in a statement that Sanders was in no rush to decide. “The next primary contest is at least three weeks away,” he said, adding that Sanders would be laser-focused on the coronavirus.

Annie Linskey, Michael Scherer and John Wagner contributed to this report.