With presidential bid all but sunk, Sanders turns attention to COVID-19

Sanders Las Vegas Caucuses
Sen. Bernie Sanders projected confidence that he would win the night before the Nevada Caucuses at a rally in Las Vegas. Photo by Kit Norton/VTDigger

Just five weeks ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders strode confidently onto the stage in Las Vegas on the eve of the Nevada caucuses, holding an early victory rally before leaving to campaign in Texas. The next day, on Feb. 22, the Vermont senator received 46.8% of the Nevada vote while his closest competitor, former Vice President Joe Biden, only claimed 20%.

It was a high point for the campaign. Staffers celebrated into the night, optimistic that Sanders had the needed momentum to take the Democratic nomination for president. In reality, it would be the final victory lap before Biden’s campaign surged and left the Vermont independent’s campaign in limbo.

Over the past 30 days, Sanders has gone from being the clear frontrunner to being pressured to drop out and back Biden. And he remains unwilling to call it quits, even without a realistic path forward.

The Vermont senator suffered poor performances in South Carolina, the Super Tuesday contests and on March 10, before failing to pick up one state in the March 17 round of primaries. 

After the March 10 primaries, Sanders admitted he had failed on two of his major campaign promises: to mobilize a massive wave of young voters and to build up support among older African American voters.

But Sanders said he would remain in the race because he was winning the “generational debate.”

“The younger generations of this country continue in very strong numbers to support our campaign. Today I say to the Democratic establishment, in order to win in the future,  you need to win the voters who represent the future of our country and you must speak to the issues of concern to them,” he said.

“While our campaign has won the ideological debate, we are losing over electability,” he said just days before Biden’s overall lead in pledged delegates surged. The former vice president currently has 1,215 delegates while Sanders trails with 910.

Last month, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., had endorsed Sanders for president on the day the Vermont senator announced his bid, reached out to the campaign to ask that Sanders change his rhetoric to include a more welcoming tone, according to the New York Times

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“A lot of voters who are just everyday voters, who decided to vote for other Democrats,” may be turned off by Sanders’ attacks on the Democratic Party establishment, Welch said.

Sanders’s surrogates, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., have also begun to admit the situation for their candidate is grim.

During a discussion on social media last week, Ocasio-Cortez, who announced her support for Sanders soon after he disclosed he had suffered a heart attack in late September, said the Vermont independent had endured “tough” defeats. She called on young people to exercise more influence on the Democratic Party.

“There’s a generational divide within the Democratic Party on health care, on climate change, on foreign policy, pretty much every policy imaginable,” she said.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Even supporters like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., says Sanders’ chances look dim. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Experts say it’s unlikely Sanders will soften his rhetoric.

“He is not an adaptable candidate,” said Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College who has been closely following the primary.

“For him it was ‘this is the message, this is what I believe in, and you don’t modify it for political gain,’” he said. “Unfortunately, it meant an important part of the Democratic Party coalition did not have to reevaluate not supporting him.”

As the public’s attention has turned to the outbreak of coronavirus across the country, both Sanders and Biden have been forced to change their campaign strategies as national priorities have turned on a dime in just two short weeks.

“The delegate lead that the vice president has is solid and hard to overcome and the pause button on the race creates real difficulties both for Sen. Sanders and Vice President Biden — just to get media attention and the struggle for normal campaign activity,” Welch said. 

“None of us have been through this before,” he said.

As the COVID-19 crisis intensified, Sanders and his team quickly prioritized focus on the federal response, even as he retreated to Vermont to regroup and “assess” his campaign.

 The campaign put a moratorium on large in-person rallies, switching to virtual events, including almost daily discussions about COVID-19. On March 17, the campaign announced it had amassed 5.3 million views over three digital events in three days.

But despite that pivot, Dickinson said “barring some major turnaround he is not going to win the nomination.”

“He has this window to try to decide and I think he’s playing a waiting game to see how the dynamic is going to play out,” he added. “This is uncharted territory in terms of an election.”

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Anthony Gierzynski, chair of the department of political science at the University of Vermont, put it even more bluntly.

“From what I see, it’s over,” he said.

“Bernie can hang in there if he wants to, but it’s not over because of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s over because through the last few contests it’s pretty clear that Bernie’s message has limited  appeal — he really hasn’t built a majority in any of the states,” Gierzynski said.

“In the time of the Trump administration, I think the appetite for revolution has not been that strong and then you add the pandemic, and I don’t think people are looking for radical change right now,” he added.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at fundraiser and pig roast in Williston on October 14, 2018. Photo by Glenn Russell for VTDigger

But Sanders and his campaign disagree and have repeatedly made the case that his signature Medicare for All proposal is more necessary than ever to ensure people have access to health care during the coronavirus outbreak without worrying about the cost.

On March 18, after voting in the U.S. Senate on COVID-19 response legislation, Sanders returned to Burlington with Jane O’Meara Sanders, his wife and close adviser, to assess his presidential bid and how he would proceed.

But before leaving Washington, D.C., he snapped at a journalist who asked him about whether he would be dropping out of the race for president or not.

“You have to stop with this. I’m dealing with a f–cking global crisis. You know? We’re dealing with and you’re asking me these questions,” he said.

From Burlington, Sanders held virtual town halls to discuss COVID-19, away from D.C., but remained in contact with Senate leadership about the deal between Democrats and Republicans on the coronavirus economic stimulus package. Last week, Sanders missed a key vote on the coronavirus stimulus package, as reported by Seven Days.

On Tuesday, the Sanders campaign told the New York Times that the Vermont independent plans to take part in an April Democratic debate — if one is held.  

“Sen. Sanders is still running for president,” Mike Casca, a Sanders spokesperson, told the Times. “If there is a debate in April, he plans to be there.”

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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