“I wish I could give you better news, but I think you know the truth,” Senator Bernie Sanders said during his live-streamed address on Wednesday (8 April). His campaign is 300 delegates behind that of the former vice-president Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination. “While we are winning the ideological battle… I have concluded that in this battle, for the Democratic nomination, we will not be successful,” Sanders said. And so he had made the “difficult and painful” decision to drop out of the race. Biden will be the Democratic nominee.
Sanders stressed throughout his speech that it was his campaign, not Biden’s, that put forward the more compelling vision. He described it as an “unprecedented grass-roots political campaign”, with an average donation of just $18.50. He won, as he noted in his address, the majority of voters not just under 30, but under 50, meaning, “the future of this country is with our ideas”.
“Few would deny that over the course of the past five years, our vision has won the so-called ideological struggle,” he said, pointing out the policies that were considered fringe before he ran for the nomination in 2016 – raising the minimum wage, healthcare as a right to all, making higher education available to all – that are now considered mainstream.
How mainstream they actually are is obviously up for debate given that it is Sanders, not the more moderate Biden, who is dropping out today. There will be some who say that the game was rigged, and the fact that the other Democratic candidates lined up to endorse Biden proves it. There will be others who note that Sanders bet he could transform non-voters into voters for him, and that he didn’t, or that he needed to broaden his support – specifically to include more African-American voters, the party base without whom one cannot win the Democratic nomination – and that he didn’t manage that, either.
But throughout his campaign and parallel work in the Senate he did give people the strong sense that he was fighting, and fighting for them, taking on pharmaceutical companies and the prison-industrial complex and huge corporate interests. Sanders, even as the country and the world reeled from the election of Donald Trump, never talked about going back to the way things were before.
And so it was Sanders, and not Biden, who first addressed the nation via live stream during the coronavirus pandemic. It was Sanders who threatened to hold up the coronavirus stimulus bill after four Republican senators pushed for cutting unemployment aid. Biden, by comparison, said he didn’t want a political fight with Trump over the coronavirus pandemic, and had a phone call with the president that Trump later described as “warm”.
There are a wide variety of questions that Americans will wait to have answered. Can Biden win younger voters? Can he bring Sanders’s staunch supporters along for the ride, or will they vote for Trump, or simply stay at home? Can he translate broad support from other Democratic candidates and politicians into broad support from voters, particularly those voters who live in swing states, and enough of them to beat Trump?
That is now the singular question: can a Biden campaign, with the vision that it is putting out for the country, win? Will it be enough to promise Americans that things can go back to the way they were? That there was a normal worth returning to? That we can, and should, stop fighting?
To Sanders, even as he threw in the towel, the answer was obviously no. He vowed to keep his name on the ballot to rack up as many delegates as possible, so as to have as much influence as possible in shaping the party platform, and to work to elect progressives at every level of government in the US.
“Please stay in this fight with me,” he said. “The struggle continues.”