March 15, 2020

How Bernie Sanders went from frontrunner to the last-chance saloon
The Vermont senator seems to have failed to convince primary voters he was the best candidate to take on Trump – but the self-described socialist has still reshaped the ideology of the Democratic partyBernie Sanders had just dominated the Nevada caucuses, after strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, when the Vermont senator thundered on stage at the Cowboy Dance Hall in San Antonio to declare victory before a crowd of thousands.His speech that night was hardly different from the hundreds of speeches he had made before – and all the speeches he would make after. But he looked different. Famously irascible, Sanders smiled deeply and laughed easily. The future of his political revolution was as bright and clear as the big Texas sky.“Don’t tell anybody. I don’t wanna get them nervous,” the 78-year-old democratic socialist boasted, dropping his voice as if sharing a secret with the thousands of supporters waving placards with his name. “We are gonna win the Democratic primary in Texas.”But the next 10 days would wipe away every trace of that optimism. Sanders not only lost Texas but a string of other contests that stripped him of his briefly held status as frontrunner, returning him to a more familiar role: long-shot insurgent chasing the establishment favorite.In frank but defiant remarks on Wednesday, Sanders acknowledged that he was “losing” to Joe Biden after a stunning reversal of fortune. Biden, snatched only days before from the jaws of defeat, had just racked up four more victories, including in Michigan, a state that revived Sanders’ presidential bid four years ago and where he had pinned his hopes of a comeback.Later that evening, Sanders folded himself into an armchair on the set of NBC’s The Tonight Show in New York City.“How you feeling?” host Jimmy Fallon asked gingerly.“I’m feeling good,” Sanders sighed. “Could feel better.”***Bernie Sanders had promised to build an unprecedented “multi-generational, multi-racial coalition” of young people and working-class voters that would “sweep this country” and transform American politics.“You cannot beat Trump with the same old same old kind of politics,” he told supporters at a Super Tuesday rally in Vermont, where had expected a celebration. But that night, voters in 10 of the 14 states with primary contests chose a candidate who represents a return to the pre-Trump years. It was Biden, not Sanders, who expanded the Democratic electorate, bringing in non-voters and suburban voters while boosting turnout among African Americans.Sanders’ commanding support among Latinos helped him notch two consequential victories in Nevada and California. But his appeal among young people, liberal and politically independent voters was not enough to realize the revolution he envisioned.“Bernie Sanders’ challenge always in the race was to expand his support,” said Mark Longabaugh, a lead strategist on Sanders’ 2016 team who split with the campaign early last year. “And he just never found a way electorally to attract voters outside of his coalition.”In the critical 10 days between his victory in Nevada and Super Tuesday, Sanders continued to rail against old foes – the Democratic establishment and the “corporate media” – instead of reaching out to the members of a party he hoped to lead.In a 60 Minutes interview the day after the caucuses, Sanders told host Anderson Cooper that he didn’t have an estimate for the total cost of his sweeping economic agenda. In the same interview, he reiterated past remarks that were complimentary of certain aspects of Fidel Castro’s communist government, sparking backlash among Democrats in the battleground state of Florida.“One of Bernie’s strengths is his consistency – he’s been delivering the same message to some degree since the 70s,” Longabaugh said. “But it also inhibited him in the sense that it limited his potential for growth.”Sanders’ ascent set off panic among party officials and leaders. Battleground-district Democrats warned Sanders would hurt their chances of re-election, while members of the Democratic National Committee plotted to stop him if he arrived at the convention shy of the delegates needed to win the nomination outright.“From the beginning, we knew this was going to be the fight of our lives,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, president of the Center for Popular Democracy, which endorsed Sanders. “We’re taking on not only the corporate elite of this party but the billionaire class, the pharmaceutical industry, the prison industrial complex, Wall Street, the insurance companies.”Even so, the rapid alignment behind Biden, first by his former rivals and then by millions of voters, caught the campaign off guard. In a matter of days, the field shrank from seven top contenders to just two. Moderates, once paralyzed over which candidate to support, suddenly aligned behind Biden. On the eve of Super Tuesday, he won the endorsements of three former opponents and more followed in a dramatic show of force that Biden’s team compared to the Avengers assembling. Notably, Elizabeth Warren, Sanders’ closest ideological ally, has not yet backed anyone.“In candor, the consolidation of candidates behind Biden happened sooner than anyone expected ” said congressman Ro Khanna, one of Sanders’ national co-chairs. “There was simply not enough time to build more broadly.”***Bernie Sanders entered the primary with more built-in advantages than any of his rivals. His name recognition was sky high, he had an enviable list of small-dollar donors, an unshakable base of support and the experience of having just run a presidential campaign. Little changed from 2016, not the message nor the mission, not even the campaign logo. It would be a “class-conscious” campaign for people who felt left out of the political process.“He represents the people who have been written off for much of their lives,” Khanna said. “For the people who feel they haven’t been heard, who feel marginalized, who feel the system hasn’t been working for them, he is their voice.”A heart attack in October nearly derailed his campaign. With Warren on the march and Sanders slumping, his candidacy appeared to be in freefall. But his supporters rallied to his side. A strong debate performance and a coveted endorsement from congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez paved the way for a remarkable comeback.It was a clarifying moment. Sanders used the experience to connect more deeply with his supporters. At intimate town halls and on social media, the campaign elevated the economic struggles of people who couldn’t afford medical treatment of prescription drugs. It was the foundation of the campaign ethos, “Not me, us.”But political reality set in after voting began. Despite his success in the initial early voting states, in a fractured field Sanders struggled to retain the support he garnered four years ago. After the centrist vote coalesced behind Biden, he was losing contests he won in 2016, when he was far less of a political force than he is today.Democrats’ overriding priority in 2020 was to defeat Trump. And on that front, Sanders was losing to Biden.“I cannot tell you how many people our campaign has spoken to who have said – and I quote – ‘I like what your campaign stands for,” Sanders said soberly from his hometown of Burlington last week. “‘I agree with what your campaign stands for. But I’m going to vote for Joe Biden because I think Joe is the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump.”***Black voters have decided the Democratic nominee in every primary election since 1992. And this year, as in 2016, African Americans have overwhelmingly chosen Sanders’ opponent. In South Carolina, black voters propelled Biden’s triumph there and set in motion a turnaround that greatly narrowed Sanders’ path to the nomination.Supporters believe that Sanders’ efforts to make inroads in the black community over the past four years were obscured by Biden’s longstanding relationships with African American leaders and his eight years as Barack Obama’s loyal lieutenant. Ahead of last week’s contests, Sanders’ campaign released an ad that featured Obama praising the senator and saying emphatically “Feel the Bern!” But it did not yield the results he hoped.“There’s a fundamental disconnect if folks still don’t feel like he’s the one who they can put their faith in after four years,” said Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund.Ahead of the Michigan primary, Sanders earned the endorsement of the Rev Jesse Jackson, in what those close to him said was a deeply meaningful moment. In 1988, Jackson became the first black presidential candidate to win millions of votes on a similar platform of universal healthcare, a federal jobs guarantee and taxing the rich. Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, was one of the few white public officials to endorse him.“The ideas resonate with black folks,” Albright said. “Medicare for All, free college, debt forgiveness, criminal justice reform, on those issues black folks are far closer to Bernie than to Biden. So it’s not the ideas. It’s this issue of electability.”***Sanders now faces a legacy-defining decision: does he stay in a race that is becoming increasingly difficult for him to win or does he bow out now to begin the delicate process of unifying the party?Many supporters are not ready to see Sanders exit. Larry Cohen, a longtime Sanders confidant and chairman of his political non-profit, Our Revolution, acknowledged that the senator faces long odds but urged him to keep competing. Every delegate Sanders accumulates in the primary, he argues, will be “critical to negotiations over the rules and party platform” at the convention in Milwaukee this summer.“If he drops out now, those ideas are left with the delegates that he’s won,” Cohen said. “They’re the voice for these issues.”Further complicating the course ahead is a new challenge: running for president in midst of a global health emergency. The coronavirus outbreak has forced Sanders to abandon the stadium-size rallies that are a feature of his campaign.“This coronavirus has obviously impacted our ability to communicate with people in the traditional way and that’s hurting us,” he told reporters during a brief press conference in Burlington, where he has spent his time since cancelling an election night rally in Cleveland last week amid concerns about the virus.Yet the senator has signaled in recent days that he is unlikely to battle Biden to the bitter end. But he also made clear that there are issues he still intends to confront Biden over, and that he has the leverage to push him.On Sunday he will appear at the next presidential debate, a long-sought one-on-one with Biden. At a press conference, Sanders previewed a litany of policy questions that he planned to press Biden on: “Joe, what are you gonna do?” he intends to ask on issues from income inequality to student loan debt.When Sanders launched his campaign in February 2019, he was asked what would be different this time. “We’re gonna win,” Sanders replied, with the blunt assurance that thrills so many of his supporters.By his own admission, he is falling short of that goal. Though many supporters aren’t ready to see Sanders depart the race just yet, there is also the sense that Sanders has already accomplished more than he could have imagined in his nearly 50-year political career.Michael Kazin, a historian and co-editor of Dissent magazine, said Sanders has already achieved what many nominees and presidents never do: he has fundamentally shifted the ideology of the Democratic party on everything from healthcare and climate change to raising the minimum wage and taxing the rich. Sanders, Kazin said, was likely the “most leftwing candidate” to make it this far in American political history.That a 78-year-old democratic socialist has come within striking distance of the nomination is an “astounding success” in its own right, marveled Bill Press, a progressive talkshow host who helped launch Sanders 2016 campaign from the living room of his Washington home.“In a very real sense,” he said, “Bernie has already won the primary.”
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