Though many states have not not yet held nominating events, the battle for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination effectively came to an end today with Senator Bernie Sanders’ announcement that he is ending his campaign, leaving former Vice President Joe Biden as the presumptive nominee.
Sanders announced his decision in a conference call with his campaign staff on Wednesday morning, and then explained his decision to his supporters via a live address. (You can watch the whole thing right here on the Cascadia Advocate.)
It is an ignominious end to one of the most dramatic and suspense-filled presidential candidacies of recent history. Rocketing to national prominence during his bid to wrest the 2016 Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton – and reinvigorating the left wing of American politics in the process – he came surprisingly close to beating the former Secretary of State and First Lady.
After losing the primary, he campaigned for his former rival against Donald Trump, encouraging his base of young progressives to support Clinton, a candidate about whom many of them had serious reservations.
After Trump’s election, Sanders (as arguably the most progressive member of the Senate) became a de facto leader in the opposition to Trump: laying into the Republican administration on the floor of the Senate, holding mass rallies, and releasing three books on his political vision for the future.
When he declared his renewed run for the presidency in February 2019, Sanders was in a strong position. He was one of the best-known and most popular political figures in the country, and he was able to quickly re-mobilize his coalition of supporters from his first presidential campaign in 2016.
However, the 2020 race proved to be very unlike 2016. In a field of over two dozen candidates, Sanders had to stand out both from well-known Democratic figures like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, and from charismatic, popular new figures like Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Kamala Harris. Sanders held onto a solid base of dedicated followers, but much of the support he might have commanded in a less crowded primary field went to other candidates.
Sanders remained at the front of the pack throughout the primary season thanks to the loyalty of his base, but he sometimes struggled to gain attention, particularly in some of the early debates, which featured ten candidates at a time.
At the start of October 2019, the Sanders campaign faced a major setback when the Senator suffered a heart attack, putting him out of action for weeks and prompting serious discussions over whether continuing to the campaign would be viable. However, by the end of the month, Sanders was back on his feet.
His strong performance in the Ohio debate, along with a group of high-profile endorsements from prominent progressives like U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, fueled a comeback narrative.
By the start of 2020, Sanders was the strongest remaining candidate in the race; both Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren seemed to have peaked after early surges, while Sanders’ coalition of support remained solid.
The early-voting states bore this out. Sanders won the popular vote in the Iowa Caucus (although Mayor Pete Buttigieg edged him out in the state’s arcane delegate system), then narrowly won New Hampshire’s primary.
In Nevada, his campaign’s efforts to galvanize Latino voters produced an overwhelming victory, with Sanders lapping the field.
At that point, his campaign appeared all but unstoppable.
However, South Carolina’s primary at the end of February changed everything. Joe Biden – powered by an incredible show of affection from the black community – was able to win the state by a comfortable margin.
This victory (which followed an embarrassing slew of losses) proved decisive. It demonstrated that Biden that could win and that he was viable.
An astonishing series of events followed: all of the remaining neoliberal candidates dropped out in quick succession and endorsed Biden, along with a flood of influential Democratic figures. Their support – along with the positive media it generated – gave Biden momentum going into Super Tuesday.
On March 3rd, Biden won nine states (but was denied the greatest prize of all, California), and put himself squarely back in the front of the race.
The stage appeared set for a lengthy war of attrition between Sanders and Biden, with Sanders relying on his field operation and an army of young activists, while Biden would rely on an increasingly consolidated base of support from multiple wings of the party, as evidenced by his many endorsements.
However, a few days after Super Tuesday, both Biden and Sanders were swept up in a phenomenon of even grander proportions than the race for the White House. COVID-19 hit the USA in early March, throwing American politics into chaos.
The last televised debate between the two men starkly demonstrated the impact of the pandemic on Democratic politics.
Instead of a crowded auditorium in Arizona, the candidates faced each other in a small CNN studio in Washington D.C. to avoid risk of infection. In that debate, Sanders threw everything he had against Biden, but – through an unusually strong performance and some fibs – Biden emerged pretty much unscathed.
The remainder of the contest was anticlimactic. Sanders believes strongly in retail politics. He loves to speak to large crowds; rallies are his preferred way of galvanizing people to take action. The physical distancing restrictions imposed to counter the pandemic put an end to the campaign’s ability to hold rallies.
Although Donald Trump carried on with his rallies well after it was clear that it was unsafe to do so, Sanders responsibly switched to live-streaming speeches to his followers and raising money on behalf of charities battling the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Biden struggled to stay visible, but rode a sense of inevitability to easy victories in later states. When Biden crushed Sanders in Illinois, Florida, and Arizona on March 17th, the Senator reportedly began consulting his top advisors about the future of the campaign, which led to him dropping out on Wednesday.
Bernie Sanders will not be the next president of the United States, but he will undoubtedly go down in American history as an important political figure.
When he first began his primary challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2015, he was a virtual unknown, seen as a radical outsider on the fringes of American politics.
In the subsequent half-decade, his two presidential campaigns and relentless activism have changed the very landscape of American political life.
As a self-professed democratic socialist, Sanders unapologetically challenged the neoliberal consensus that has dominated political discourse in the United States for four decades. The socialist movement is the United States has found new life, with groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) increasing their membership tenfold and polls showing that the Cold War-era stigma around the term “socialism” is being rejected by huge numbers of Americans.
Sanders also managed to overhaul the policy priorities of the Democratic Party. Before his campaigns, Democratic politicians competed to outdo each other over who could be more hawkish on foreign policy and more stingy with the budget.
The 2020 primary saw candidates trying to outdo each other with big ideas: there were multiple competing versions of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, massive immigration reforms, and radical racial justice programs.
Sanders’ campaign of 2016 proved that his policies were popular and possible, and the Trump presidency proved that they were necessary.
And there’s no going back.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden has made it through one of the most grueling primaries in political history, but he faces an even greater challenge in uniting the Democratic Party to take on Donald Trump. The quality of his campaign to date has been less than impressive, and many progressive voters have little love for him.
Beating an incumbent president is a challenge even at the best of times, and the COVID-19 crisis has handed Donald Trump the opportunity to exploit the “rally round the flag” effect by pretending to be a national leader (and playing down his own incompetence and denial). There is fresh evidence, however, that Trump’s daily performances in the White House briefing room are not resonating.
Biden will have his work cut out beating Trump, and could benefit from the electoral talents, loyal supporters, and campaigning experience of Sanders.
Biden is well aware that without Sanders and his supporters, he will struggle mightily to win against Trump. To earn the support of Sanders voters, Biden will have to meet them where they are, especially on policy. He will have to make good on his promises to reach out to his former rival in a meaningful way that can unify the party and ensure Donald Trump’s defeat this November.