The next day, I asked Sanders about the coming campaign. In 2016, there had been clear battle lines between his agenda and the cautious, deficit-neutral agenda of Hillary Clinton. In 2020, how would he compete against colleagues — like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, already in the race — who had embraced many of his policies?
“If I do run, it will have to be an unprecedented, grass roots effort, never before seen in American history,” Sanders said. “I'm proud of what we accomplished last time, in attracting hundreds of thousands of volunteers. But we'd have to do even better this time. And the reason for that is that we will take on the entire establishment.”
Yesterday, Sanders ended his five-year quest for the presidency. South Carolina, where black voters solidly backed Joe Biden, had doomed his campaign. Sanders did exactly what he promised, building the biggest volunteer and donor base ever seen in a Democratic primary. The result of it was the shortest Democratic primary process in 16 years, with the senator from Vermont winning just nine of the 30 primaries or caucuses held before his concession.
Together, both the 2016 and 2020 Sanders campaigns moved the Democratic Party to the left and trained tens of thousands of activists in the basics of electoral politics — donating, registering voters and canvassing. They embraced the philosophy of organizing everywhere, from the floors of meatpacking plants in Iowa to the grounds of historically black colleges. As the campaign closes down, Sanders and his key staffers argue that they had won the policy argument, pointing to exit polls that showed a majority of Democratic voters on board with Medicare-for-all.
But Sanders had set out to win, not just to change the conversation. His defeat grew out of a strategy that assumed he could take over an often-hostile party through the sheer power of organizing and turnout and that he could do so without winning a majority of the primary vote. Sanders made assumptions about the 2020 electorate based on the behavior and biases of the 2016 electorate, and it cost him dearly.
Sanders ended the 2016 primary in fantastic political shape, as strong as Hillary Clinton had been after her narrow 2008 defeat to Barack Obama. He began his 2016 race with a fervent following but low name identification. Over a year of campaigning, he became the most popular politician in the Democratic Party — which, importantly, he never actually joined.
Democrats went out of their way to capitalize on Sanders's brand. They tapped him for a series of swing-state rallies ahead of the 2016 general election. After their defeat, they added him to the party's Senate leadership team for the first time. While Sanders's opponents in the party defeated Keith Ellison, his candidate to run the Democratic National Committee, new Chairman Tom Perez added Ellison to his team, then went on a national “unity tour” with Sanders.
The crowds were there for the senator, not the DNC's new leader, and Sanders knew it. In an April 2017 interview, he recalled how the unglamorous party-building work he'd done in 2016 was dwarfed by the excitement for his own campaign.
“We’d have a rally with five or ten thousand young people out, a great deal of energy,” Sanders said, "then I’d walk into a room, and there’d be a thousand people from the Democratic Party.”
Clinton had won the nomination, but Sanders came out of 2016 with higher favorability and bigger crowds. In September 2017, Sanders rolled out Medicare-for-all legislation alongside 15 other Democrats, including all but two of the senators who would seek the party's 2020 nomination. In June 2018, a former Sanders organizer named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated Joe Crowley, a New York congressman who was third in line for the party's leadership.
Still, in ways that Sanders ignored at the time, the 2018 elections revealed the limits of his agenda, and of his organizing strategy. The goal wasn't just to win a blue state primary, but to expand the electorate so that white working-class voters, who had frequently picked Sanders over Clinton, would back left-wing Democrats.
In state after state, the strategy failed. Sanders personally campaigned for Kansas's Brent Welder and Iowa's Pete D'Alessandro; both lost swing-district primaries. He campaigned for Wisconsin's Randy Bryce, Indiana's Liz Watson, Pennsylvania's Jess King and Kansas's James Thompson; all of them won their nominations then lost as they struggled to win conservative voters with economic populism. The Democrats who flipped seats in 2018 were more liberal than the Democrats of five or 10 years earlier. But they did not model themselves on Bernie Sanders. Suburban moderates swung toward Democrats, but white men in rural areas didn't.
Yet, Sanders plowed ahead and designed a 2020 campaign on the optimistic strategy that had not quite worked in 2018. He was still one of the most popular politicians in the country, and the swing-seat challengers who'd come up short were not. He also saw an advantage in how the party's traditional establishment, which had rallied early behind Clinton, was flummoxed about what to do in 2020. Instead of a binary choice, there would be more than two dozen Sanders alternatives, against a candidate with massive advantages in fundraising and name ID.
“There’s a three-out-of-four chance we are not the nominee,” Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir told the Atlantic one year ago, summarizing his advice for the candidate. “But that one-in-four chance is better than anyone else in the field.”
The campaign made three fateful, incorrect assumptions. The one that fell apart the fastest: that Sanders's landslide losses with black voters would not be repeated, because he finally had time to introduce himself and because Biden, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris would be competing for their support. Booker and Harris did not make it to South Carolina, the first primary dominated by black voters, and Sanders never made inroads beyond the younger black voters who he'd won in 2016. Five years after chastising Democrats for not “engaging” in Mississippi, he would cancel his one 2020 rally in the state to campaign in Michigan.
A second assumption was that Sanders would remain the most popular politician in the country. Over the primary, Sanders's favorable ratings declined, as voters who had previously seen him as a protest candidate began to look at him as president — and as he went even further left than he had in 2016.
Sanders's own polling frequently misread what was happening, and the campaign made selective use of polling to dismiss its weaknesses, emphasizing how “Medicare-for-all” was supported by most Democrats while ignoring that a “public option,” which would create a new single-payer health plan without affecting existing insurance, was far more popular.
The third mistaken assumption was that white liberal voters, upon seeing the results from early states, would want to quickly coronate a nominee: him. Sanders imagined a slam-bang strategy of winning the first three contests, limiting his losses in South Carolina, and winning big enough on Super Tuesday that voters who wanted to wrap things up quickly would get behind the leader. Baked into this was another flawed idea: that voters who did not traditionally pay attention to primaries would be excited by Sanders's success and pulled in by his organizers.
Sanders got two of those first three wins and took the popular vote in Iowa. But that state's botched count obscured how Sanders's raw vote had decreased from 2016, as turnout actually fell outside of big suburban and urban counties. His narrow win in New Hampshire was celebrated on its own terms; the fact that he'd won only half as many votes as his 2016 campaign was written off as the effect of a more crowded primary. His triumph in Nevada revealed how successful he'd been in winning Latino voters but obscured the late movement in the state toward other candidates.
The problem was that Sanders was not changing the electorate and that, if the field did narrow, Sanders would run out of voters. When it happened, Sanders had no backup plan, instead describing the decisions of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to unite behind Biden soon after they dropped out of the race as “unprecedented.” It was unprecedented for candidates who'd done so well in Iowa and New Hampshire to quit so quickly. But both had put in weak, single-digit showings in South Carolina.
Over the next few weeks, as Sanders began losing to Biden by landslide margins, the campaign saw more culprits for what happened. Warren, who had been fading, was bailed out by a super PAC; Biden, who had never visited or organized in some Super Tuesday states, was benefiting from free media and bias against Sanders.
None of it would have mattered had Sanders changed the electorate, or had a plan to crack 50 percent of the vote. As of April 1, Sanders had raised at least $232 million, on track to hit $280 million goal the campaign had set for the primary. That compared with $86 million for Joe Biden and nearly $13 million for the pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country. Sanders ran exactly the campaign he wanted and got 8 million votes, but had no path to victory. His supporters were left with a blueprint that would not work in a Trump-era presidential primary, but that could work, and had worked, in some blue cities and districts.
“Whether we won or whether we lost the Democratic primaries or caucuses, we received a significant majority of the votes, sometimes the overwhelming majority, from people not only 30 years of age or under, but 50 years of age or younger,” Sanders told supporters on a live stream yesterday. “In other words, the future of this country is with our ideas.”
“Bernie Sanders ends his presidential campaign,” by Sean Sullivan, Matt Viser and David Weigel
The revolution is on hiatus.
“Joe Biden will have a very hard time winning over the Berniesphere,” by Matthew Yglesias
Why an independent left-wing media is not interested in party unity.
“Trump campaign greets end of Democratic primary with two distinct campaigns against Biden,” by Michael Scherer and Toluse Olorunnipa
A secret socialist? An establishment primary-rigger? Definitely one of those.
“Bernie asked us which side we're on,” by Meagan Day
A look back by a Sanders organizer and author.
“Biden makes his first big overture to Sanders voters,” by Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman
A lower Medicare age as the first attempt to convince some skeptics.
Dems in disarray
Sanders is no longer running for president, but he hasn't completely shut down his campaign. He'll continue to cover his staffers' health insurance through the election, and he's trying to win as many votes as possible in the 27 contests still remaining.
In his remarks to supporters Wednesday, Sanders said he would “stay on the ballot in all remaining states and continue to gather delegates” as a way to influence the party’s platform. Our Revolution, the organization founded by Sanders after his 2016 defeat, had been lobbying for him to do so, pointing out that it takes 25 percent of all DNC delegates — pledged delegates and so-called “superdelegates” — to force debate on the party’s rules and platform at the convention.
“What we got out of the rules committee last time was that they put the reforms in" for the 2020 cycle, said Larry Cohen, the chairman of Our Revolution and the vice chair of the Sanders-backed DNC commission that wrote new rules after 2016. “They did not amend the charter. They did not even do a resolution memorializing the new rules. They’re gone at the end of the convention unless they’re voted back in.”
Sanders would need the support of at least 1,189 delegates to hit the magic number. According to Edison Media Research, Sanders won at least 846 pledged delegates before suspending his campaign. That number is likely to grow based on the results in several states that held primaries, or started early-vote periods for their primaries, before the suspension: Alaska, Hawaii, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
It’s not unusual for voters to continue casting protest votes in primaries after the contest is effectively over. In 2016, for example, nine states held Republican contests after Donald Trump’s final opponents bowed out, and in each one, at least 20 percent of voters marked their ballot for someone else.
Under DNC rules, Sanders will win delegates in every state or congressional district where he clears 15 percent of the vote. He would need to secure at least 343 more delegates to hit the threshold for influencing the platform; four years ago, he won 694 delegates across the 27 states and territories that have yet to hold primaries or count votes. And today's CNN poll, likely the last to ask Democratic primary voters about their choice, found 30 percent of them still supporting Sanders before he quit.
Sanders also has some support from superdelegates, with endorsements from 27 of the 775 Democrats who get automatic votes at the convention; it's expected, but not certain, that they will stick with him over Biden. But he has always struggled to win over the party leaders and elected officials who make up the superdelegate pool. Every Democratic governor, and every Democratic member of the House and Senate, is a superdelegate. Just 10 of these 292 elected officials have endorsed Sanders.
That leaves Sanders with two routes to changing the platform and the rules — keep adding delegates through the primaries or lobbying delegates for other candidates to embrace his ideas. In 2016, he frequently succeeded at that, forcing the creation of the aforementioned Unity Reform Commission even though Hillary Clinton's delegates theoretically had the votes to stop it. And the chair of that commission, Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, has a new title: Joe Biden's campaign manager.
Win the West, “Alternative Facts vs. Facts.” This pro-Biden PAC, like every other organization running ads at the moment, is focusing on the debate about coronavirus's impact on America and whether it could have been minimized. Over nearly two minutes, it plays back quotes from the president's more optimistic moments ("a lot of people think that goes away in April") and contrasts them with experts, usually from NIH.
Donald J. Trump, “Hope.” The president's own operation, and outside groups, have begun telling the coronavirus story a different way: as a drama of national uplift and grit. In this spot, which began running before the primary ended, the Trump campaign cuts together some praise for his news conferences with footage of people working through the pandemic.
2020 presidential election (Quinnipiac, 2,077 registered voters)
Joe Biden: 49%
Donald Trump: 41%
Biden has led Trump in every edition of this poll, going back to 2015, when the Democrat considered a run for president but opted against it. There has been a little movement in Trump's direction, but not enough to change that dynamic; by a nine-point margin, voters believe that Biden would be better at handling a crisis than the president. That's down from the result in March, when the question was first asked. But a continuing, ominous trend for the president is that while some foreign leaders have seen 20-point poll bumps during the pandemic, his approval has remained stable, or ticked up by a few points.
Are you more enthusiastic about this election than past elections? (Monmouth, 743 registered voters)
Democrats: 28% (-7)
Republicans: 25% (-11)
Independents: 17% (-4)
Since mid-March, when this pollster last asked voters about their enthusiasm, there's been an overall bump for gloom. Republican enthusiasm had the steepest drop, and elsewhere in these results, the president saw a slight downtick in both his favorable rating and in a trial heat against Biden. But polling “enthusiasm” is tricky and can lead to discussion of an “enthusiasm gap” that might not show up on Election Day. The latest example: a run of primaries in which greater enthusiasm did not save Bernie Sanders from losses to Biden.
How should the 2020 election be conducted? (CNN/SSRS, 1,002 voters)
Option of voting in person: 54%
All voting by mail: 41%
There's no partisan breakdown here, but the phrasing of this question gets at the ongoing argument over absentee voting, and how some approaches will have more momentum than others. Warren's proposal for mail voting, for example, would have every registered voter receive a ballot without requesting it and provide enough funds for every state to adopt an Oregon-style system, where in-person voting is a thing of the past. Klobuchar's proposal would let every state offer a mail ballot, while creating early-voting periods even in states that don't currently have them.
Even the president's opposition to mail voting is a bit muddled so far. The president himself tends to cast absentee ballots, as he did for last month's primary in Florida, where he now holds a voting residence. He has argued not that all mail balloting is unsafe; instead, he's tried to argue that the most popular current absentee system, which allows voters over 65 to request ballots but requires younger voters to prove their inability to vote in person, should stay in place.
In the states
The Democratic presidential primary is over, but the legacy of Sanders’s first campaign is playing out across months of upcoming primaries. From now through September, there will be contests between incumbent Democrats and left-wing challengers, many of them backed by Justice Democrats, a group founded by Sanders veterans. And the primary season will close with the forces of the left working to beat a member of the Kennedy family in Massachusetts.
“These are not normal times, and we’re calling for a new generation of leadership that's going to fight for solutions that match the scale, scope and urgency of the problems we're facing,” said Justice Democrats president Alexandra Rojas. “That’s the most pragmatic thing I think we can do in this moment, in addition to defeating Donald Trump.”
April 28: The Ohio primary, halted over fears that voting March 17 could spread the coronavirus, will take place unless the state goes for another delay. The marquee race will be in the 3rd District, a seat that’s gerrymandered to include the bluest parts of Columbus, and where activist Morgan Harper is challenging Rep. Joyce Beatty.
May 12: The Nebraska primary is still scheduled for this day, with the state switching to mail ballots. In the 2nd District, the only one that’s competitive between Democrats and Republicans, 2018 nominee Kara Eastman is running against Ann Ashford, the wife of former congressman Brad Ashford, whom Eastman defeated for the last nomination.
June 9: All federal primaries will take place in West Virginia, where the Democratic contest for U.S. Senate pits 2018 Joe Manchin primary challenger Paula Jean Swearingen against former state senator Richard Ojeda, who ran for the House two years ago as a populist. But there’s been more left-wing attention paid to the race for governor, where nonprofit executive Stephen Smith is running a Sanders-style campaign in a crowded field.
June 23: The presidential primary in New York will now be held alongside other federal races, including Ocasio-Cortez’s attempt to fend off more moderate challengers. But that’s just the highest-profile race: Rep. Jerry Nadler is being challenged by a field that includes liberal Lindsey Boylan; Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Rep. Yvette Clarke have rematches with Suraj Patel and Adem Bunkeddeko; middle school principal Jamaal Bowman has the Justice Democrats' endorsement in his race against Rep. Eliot Engel; and 14 Democrats are scrapping for the right to succeed Rep. Jose Serrano in the deep, deep blue 15th District.
Aug. 4: There’s a rematch in Missouri, where activist Cori Bush is making a second run against Rep. William Lacy Clay. Bush, like Swearingen, co-starred in “Knock Down the House.” And there’s another rematch in Michigan, where Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the narrow winner in a 2018 race for the Detroit-area 13th district, is facing a one-on-one contest with Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones. In 2018, the district held a special election and a primary for the November election on the same day; Jones won the less crowded special election, briefly serving the district in December.
Sept. 1: Deep blue Massachusetts will hold one of the biggest intraparty contests of the year, with Rep. Joe Kennedy’s challenge to liberal Sen. Ed Markey, who helped shape the Green New Deal. Justice Democrats are also focused on the race in the 1st District, where Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse is running against Rep. Richard Neal, who’s faced criticism for not moving faster against Trump as chairman of the Ways & Means Committee.
The first 24 hours of the two-man presidential race were somewhat uneventful. From the White House, Trump tweeted and monologued about the end of the Democratic primary, noting that Sanders would "keep his delegates" ("that's not dropping out") and continuing to suggest that something about Biden's win was unfair.
Biden, meanwhile, endorsed a change to Medicare that would let people come into the system without penalties at age 60, five years younger than current law, and forgive student debt for lower-income borrowers.
… three days until the votes will be counted in Hawaii
… four days until the votes will be counted in Wisconsin
… 19 days until Ohio tries to continue its primary
… 130 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 137 days until the Republican National Convention
… 207 days until the general election