Bernie Sanders ends presidential campaign

Sen. Bernie Sanders departs after addressing a news conference in Burlington, Vermont, U.S. March 11, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Sen. Bernie Sanders announced he is ending his presidential bid on Wednesday morning in a conference call with his staff. Sanders’s campaign subsequently announced his decision and said he will be speaking to supporters via livestream before noon. 

Sanders’s exit came after an abrupt and stunning turnaround in the presidential race that saw him go from a frontrunner to a distant second place behind former Vice President Joe Biden in less than three weeks following the Democratic primary in South Carolina. That shift was fueled by other candidates dropping out and coalescing around Biden and then accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, which led to the cancellation of campaign events and the postponement of voting in some states. 

His decision to leave the race came one day after Wisconsin held its primary election as planned following decisions from state and U.S. supreme courts. That vote featured voters risking infection in long lines. Many wore masks in accordance with federal guidelines. Results in the state are not set to be announced until April 13. Wisconsin was something of a final shot for Sanders. It was the last state set to vote this month that Sanders won when he first ran for president in 2016. While Sanders initially led the polls in Wisconsin, Biden vaulted ahead there in recent weeks following his victories in the “Super Tuesday” primaries on March 3. 

The quick shift in the primary was a painful one for Sanders, particularly since the senator and many of his allies believed the coronavirus spotlighted the need for the aggressive expansion of public health programs that was a core part of his platform. Nevertheless, in the final days of his campaign, Sanders’s decision to remain in the race as the possibility of a victory slipped away frustrated even some of his senior staff.

Despite ending his second and presumably last presidential campaign, Sanders has unquestionably changed the landscape of American politics. Since Sanders’s run in 2016, several ideas that he brought to the fore have become part of the core platform of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing including Medicare For All, free public college, a fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage, and aggressive spending to combat climate change. Recent elections have swept many Sanders allies into office including some — notably Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.— who cited him as an inspiration and cut their teeth organizing on his campaign. 

It’s a far cry from Sanders’s early days. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Sanders moved to Vermont as a young man, and was first elected mayor of the state’s largest city, Burlington, in 1981 by a margin of just ten votes. Sanders ran and governed as an unabashed “Democratic socialist.” 

When he entered the House of Representatives and later the Senate, Sanders remained an independent though he caucused with the Democrats. From this position, Sanders was often a lone voice advocating for progressive positions. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., arrives at the Capitol for a vote on a coronavirus bill amendment on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., arrives at the Capitol for a vote on a coronavirus bill amendment on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

In 2016, Sanders mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary that saw him go from a longshot to a close contender. While he ultimately backed Clinton, Sanders kept his campaign going through June of that year leading to divisions that played out at the Democratic convention the following month and lingering resentment among some within the party. Sanders’s bid also cemented his status as a leading progressive voice and led to reforms in the primary process after his team raised concerns it was designed to allow the party’s leadership to block insurgent candidates.  

During his presidential campaign this year, Sanders began discussing his politics in far more personal terms than he had in the past. He framed his policies as rooted in his experience growing up as the child of working class Jewish immigrants from Europe. However, even as he opened up more on the campaign trail, Sanders stopped short of discussing one experience that his close friends believe is a fundamental driver behind his focus on health care — losing his mother to illness as a teenager. 

Similar to 2016, Sanders faced accusations his supporters were largely young, white “Bernie Bros” who sparred with supporters of his rivals online. Yet Sanders also had significant support from African-American voters, though not nearly as much as Biden. 

While he criticized Biden on their differing policy positions as the race came down to the two men, Sanders refrained from engaging in personal attacks and pledged to back his opponent if it was clear he won the nomination. Sanders also repeatedly disavowed anyone who might engage in personal attacks on his behalf. 

However, there is no question that his rise has helped highlight the differences and sharpen the divide between progressives and centrists in the Democratic Party. 

Though Sanders came up short, there were some encouraging signs for the senator and his supporters in the 2020 race. Sanders overwhelmingly won the support of Latinos, who could become a transformative part of the progressive base. And exit polls show that, even as Sanders lost to Biden, the majority of Democratic voters do support universal health care. 

Throughout his campaign, Sanders said he would support whoever won the Democratic nomination in their effort to defeat President Donald Trump. With Sanders’s exit, a key question is what that support might look like.  As the de facto leader of the Democrats’ progressive wing, Sanders is in a position to help bridge the divides in the party. How he and Biden come together will be a defining moment for the campaign going forward. 

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