Sen. Bernie Sanders officially ended his presidential campaign Wednesday. The presidential hopeful said in a video address a path to be the Democratic nominee was "impossible" after a string of primary victories by his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. As Sanders exits the presidential race, we talk about his campaign, the ideas he's pushed into the mainstream and what the path now looks like to November's election.
Our guests are:
- Matt Dickinson, Middlebury College political science professor
- Linda Fowler, Professor of government at Dartmouth College
- Bob Kinzel, VPR political reporter
Broadcast live on Thursday, April 9, 2020 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.
The following has been edited and paraphrased for brevity and clarity.
What do you think went into the decision for Sen. Sanders to suspend his campaign yesterday, as opposed to two weeks ago or one month from now?
Dr. Linda Fowler: It's always hard to speculate about something that's such a deeply personal decision. We certainly had intimations that this would happen. About a week ago, the news media were beginning to say that there was a discussion going on among his advisors. He came close [in 2016] and felt like he was treated unfairly by the Democrats. Then he was ahead, it looked like, at the beginning of this primary season, and it may just have been really tough to finally let it go.
A couple of terms have been used to describe this news regarding Sen. Sanders' campaign. Is Sanders "dropping out?"
Bob Kinzel: I get the impression that he is dropping out of the race. We can argue about the semantics of 'dropping out' versus 'suspending,' but the reality is that he will still be on the ballot in the upcoming primaries. There are a whole bunch of them that are going to take place in June.
He will continue to amass delegates. He's now at up around 1,000 delegates — give or take 10 or 20. [As of Thursday, April 9, Biden had 1,382 delegates to Sanders: 924.] When he goes to the Democratic National Convention this summer, he's going to have a chunk of delegates, and he's going to be able to say, 'Hey folks. When we put this party platform together, let's make sure that there are some very progressive ideas in there."
So the official language is that he is "suspending" his campaign. What does that mean?
Bob Kinzel: I noticed that among the stories put out by the national press corps, that the phrase "suspending his campaign" came up relatively few times. "Dropping out" was used mostly by the national news media. We heard him say in clips that there is no path to victory here, but he still wants to fight for the progressive agenda. Encouraging people to vote for him in June gives him leverage at the Democratic National Convention.
Isn't there a financial distinction between "suspending" and "dropping out?"
Dr. Matt Dickinson: There are implications for delegates. Suspending your campaign means you hold on to your delegates. They do not become free agents at the Democratic National Convention. This is an important consideration as Bernie tries to amass more of them. The delegates he has and those he gains remain beholden to him.
It's an interesting message to voters: I am suspending my campaign, but I plan to stay on the primary ballot and I still want your votes, even though Biden will be the nominee. What do you make of that?
Dr. Matt Dickinson: It is a mixed message and if I am Joe Biden, I have to be troubled by this. There's the possibility that it's deja vu all over again. Remember, in 2016 there was a lingering criticism among the Hillary Clinton crowd that Bernie Sanders stayed in for too long and that once he conceded the race, he did not actively support her in the manner that she and her supporters expected.
You have to wonder if this sort of quasi-ending of the campaign, but meanwhile, 'Keep voting for me' is a reprisal of that.
It raises the critical issue: Will Bernie supporters eventually come around to supporting Joe Biden as the nominee, or will they sit this one [the 2020 Presidential election] out?
Dr. Linda Fowler: Bernie is not a Democrat. I find the idea that in the end, he would put the interests of that party ahead of his movement to be a stretch.
What do you think the strategic reason is for his making this announcement now? What changed in the last couple of weeks?
Dr. Linda Fowler: I wonder: was there a drop off in his fundraising? That would be interesting to see.
The great weapon he had against the Democratic establishment was the many small donors who were sending in weekly donations to his campaign. Given the enormous psychological, emotional and economic stress people have endured under COVID-19, and the fact that young people are likely among the groups most affected by this economic disruption, I wonder if it wasn't strategic [to suspend his campaign now].
I wonder: if the money was drying up, if the path just wasn't there, if he might have ended up embarassing himself by staying in the race. This way, if he shoes up at the Convention with delegates, Biden will have to be polite to him.
Michigan did him in. That's where this really went from being a multi-candidate race, to a two-person race. I don't think he was ever going to win a two-person contest for the nomination. The support for more moderate candidates always significantly outnumbered the support for Warren and Sanders in the primaries we saw.
This is a time when Sen. Sanders can redouble his efforts on behalf of Vermonters. Do you see signs that Vermonters will see more of him as a Senator now that he has suspended his campaign?
Bob Kinzel: Absolutely. I don't think there is any question about that. I think his office will be working with small businesses across the state, certainly with folks that have applied for unemployment benefits. When you think that the unemployment rate in Vermont could be somewhere between 20 % and 25 %, this is the kind of thing that Sen. Sanders office has done.
In terms of national politics, what do you think the big takeaway is from Sen. Sanders' announcement? What does this spell for the Democratic Party?
Bob Kinzel: I think the most important question is: Can Bernie persuade his supporters to vote for Joe Biden? I think the Democrats' worst nightmare is a repeat of 2016.
When you consider that three states were decided by roughly 75,000 votes, this is really important.
Some people are arguing that this won't happen again in 2020 because the Sanders supporters who voted for Trump now know what they are getting themselves into. They have the Trump record over the last three or four years. I think we are going to need to see Joe Biden reach out to Bernie supporters and convince them that he backs some of the key elements of Bernie's platform. I think there is a huge degree of responsibility on Joe Biden's shoulders right now and that the election could fall either way on how successful he is in convincing Bernie supporters to support his campaign.
How does Biden reach out to Bernie supporters and get them on his side when Sen. Sanders is still telling them, 'Vote for me?' for the rest of the primary season?
Dr. Matt Dickinson: That's a great question. I think your point that this is the opening gambut in what could be a months-long negotiation between the Biden camp and the Sanders camp is an important one to keep in mind.
Right now, Biden and Sanders are probably trying to work out a framework in which Biden says, 'I can go this far on raising the minimum wage, I can go this far on expanding eligibility for free college tuition, I can go this far towards Medicare for all, but Bernie, I have to keep my eye on the ball.'
As Bob correctly pointed out, Hillary Clinton lost the electoral college in part because more than 70,000 votes went against her in key three states. If I'm Joe Biden and I want to recapture those White, working-class voters who defected, I have to be careful about how far I go in embracing elements of these progressive policy programs.
Sanders right now has laid down the gauntlet. He's said, 'I have this political leverage and I will continue to use it, unless you start publicly coming in my direction.' Let's see what happens a month from now, two months from now, three. You might see Sanders softening his position. Right now, no need to do it.
Do you see Joe Biden getting close enough to what Bernie Sanders has advocated for that we could expect to see full-throated support for him from Sen. Bernie Sanders?
Dr. Linda Fowler: He has already moved quite far on healthcare — not to medicare for all — but for a single-payer option that is essentially, medicare for anyone who wants it.
I would say that Sanders is taking some risks here. He hasn't appealed to the hard core of the Democratic Party, the older blue collar voters, black voters among a number of other groups. What if the young people don't show up? What if they decide the race is over, that they lost their jobs, they're worried about their families, and they decide not to vote? In some ways that weakens Bernie's hand at the convention.
Further, I think women are the key group in this race where the Electoral College is concerned. Biden knows that in addition to the working class voters that voted for Sanders in 2016, one gettable group of voters that Trump got in 2016 was suburban women. They are not interested in revolution or even in radical ideas. Biden has to be very careful about not antagonizing the group that put Democrats over the top in the 2018 Congressional races.
Bob Kinzel: I wonder if the COVID-19 emergency might be shifting the way people view the role of government. Within the last few weeks along, Congress approved unanimously a $2 trillion stimulus package... with more on the way to expand benefits for unemployed people and create cash payments for Americans impacted by the virus. I wonder if people are looking at government and saying, 'There are emergencies where government should be doing more for people, not less.' It will be interesting to see how that will influence political debate when we think about issues like medicare for all.
In what ways do you see COVID-19 changing or not changing the tone of debate at the Democratic National Convention this year?
Bob Kinzel: I've felt all along that the differences between the major leading Democratic candidates over healthcare were not that great.
In 2010 when Obamacare was passed, there wasn't enough support for a public healthcare option. Back then, a public option was considered too radical to pass in Congress. Fast-forward to 2020 and almost all of the candidates were talking about a medicare option.
Even for Sanders with his plan, there would have been a transition period, so it's not as though we would all wake up one day with medicare. Biden has been talking a lot about a public option, and other candidates did too. Some said, OK, let's do the public option for a few years to test it out and ammend it. In short, I don't think that there is a huge bridge to cross between Bernie and Biden over healthcare.
Do you think Biden and Sen. Sanders are talking about strategy moving forward for how to bridge that gap?
I believe that over the last 72 hours, Bernie and Biden had a heart to heart. I don't think there is any question that they, somewhere in the last couple of days said, 'OK, this is what we are going to do.'
I bet Bernie is getting assurance that some of the key issues from his campaign — healthcare for all, income inequality, college tuition, raising the federal minimum wage — that those issues will have more currency as we are getting battered as a country by COVID-19.
I think Biden and Sanders came to a general outline of what Biden can expect from Sanders and vice versa.
They don't want a repeat of 2016. That's the Democrats' worst nightmare. I think the Democratic platform will reflect a lot of those progressive ideas, and I think we'll see Bernie campaigning for Biden with enthusiastic support.
Dr. Linda Fowler: I think enthusiastic support is a stretch. I think the ideas Bernie is talking about are still pretty out there for the core of the Democratic party. I think they will find away into the platform, but they will be substantially less well-represented than what he would want.
Increasingly, I think we have to think about the Sanders campaign as a third-party movement. I think Democrats will co-opt as much as they think they need from his platform to get a majority. The idea that Sanders' people will be calling the shots at this convention doesn't feel plausible to me.
However, the climate is so different than it was even a few weeks ago. Insurance companies will soon be on the ropes to pay coverage for all of the people who are sick. They may be less aggressive. Some of the main opponents to a more progressive insurance plan may have changed their tune.
Dr. Matt Dickinson: This is the second time Bernie has chased the brass ring and fell short. Why? Is it his message? Is support for his embrace of progressivism not as widespread as it appears? Is his strident approach offputting to suburban women and other constituents, for example, black voters, who simply did not come to his side?
It's important to consider in evaluating the strength of his message. I think we can all agree he has changed the conversation, but it's not clear that the end result of that conversation will be a more progressive set of polices embrace by the Democratic Party.
What do you hear and see from voters about this and what should we all consider?
Dr. Linda Fowler: The Democratic Party has been in a 15-month slugfest with 16, 20 different people advocating views. It's a lot to take in that it's actually over. I think people really don't know yet how the virus is going to affect the way the Fall campaign evolves.
I am very sympathetic to people who put their hopes in Bernie and how deflated they feel right now. But I would also say that a lot of things could happen. We just don't know how this race will play out in the short run.
We also don't know what Biden is going to be able to do to pull the party together. There's been a lot of talk about appointing a unity government before the race starts and that might do a lot to bring people together.
Dr. Matt Dickinson: We were all in love at one point in life, and Bernie supporters have entered the grieving phase. The question is: will they reach acceptance by November or be mired in their anger and if so, how will that anger will play out? Coronavirus adds an extra wrinkle here. This is a time of peril for the Democratic Party and it will be intersting to see if Biden can unify it.
Bob Kinzel: How many times in the last few days have you heard people say, 'When is life going to go back to normal?' It's such a huge question for everybody right now. Given that reality, I wonder if people feel a candidate like Biden might offer enough to support in the November election.