Bernie Sanders is making it increasingly clear that his presidential bid is far from over, even as he faces long odds of winning the Democratic nomination.
Less clear, however, is whether his game plan is to pursue victory or to continue promoting his progressive agenda as nearly all aspects of American life — including the election — are upended by the coronavirus crisis.
While some former top advisers acknowledge the difficulty Sanders has in overcoming Joe Biden’s significant delegate lead, other allies of the Vermont senator note that his message and his agenda are well-suited to a moment when millions of people are filing for unemployment and losing their health care while large corporations seek billions in bail out funds.
James Zogby, a Democratic National Committee member who is on the board of “Our Revolution,” said in an interview that he saw no reason for Sanders to give up his national platform now.
“We don’t know what will befall us,” he said. “I mean, who knew two months ago that we’d be where we are with the virus. Who knows where we’ll be two months from now? Who knows what Bernie does, what Biden does, what else happens that will change the dynamics, so it would be irresponsible to leave the race, as some have suggested.”
Zogby said Sanders should not exit the race unless Biden becomes the presumptive nominee — which he could do by hitting the necessary threshold of 1,991 pledged delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination on the first ballot at the convention.
“But even then, don’t forget, Bernie Sanders is not just a candidate,” Zogby said, pointing to Sanders’ place atop the progressive movement. “He has every reason to stay in for that reason.”
The pandemic has scuttled traditional aspects of the 2020 election, forcing both Biden and Sanders to turn their operations digital. After disappointing showings in primaries that took place in early March, just as the outbreak was worsening, advisers said Sanders was assessing “a path forward” for his the campaign and larger progressive movement.
Longtime Sanders ally Larry Cohen, who chairs the board of the progressive political action organization “Our Revolution,” echoed Zogby, saying he expected Sanders would stay in the race.
“My sense is — and this is my belief – he will keep running,” Cohen said in an interview with NBC News, adding that many voters have not yet cast their ballots and the only way to know the strength of progressives within the Democratic party is to let people vote.
Sanders is a deft digital campaigner, particularly when compared to Biden’s operation, something that could boost his campaign in the coming weeks. The next major voting night, however, is likely more than a month away.
After so many states postponed their contests, June 2 is now shaping up to be a mini-Super Tuesday, with nearly 700 delegates on the line already in about a dozen rescheduled contests. Sanders’ campaign announced this week that he was preparing for the possibility of upcoming debates and staffing up in New York ahead of its primary, which the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, announced Saturday was being postponed until late June.
Biden, meanwhile, told reporters at a Wednesday news conference he thinks “we’ve had enough debates” and “I think we should get on with this.”
Pressed on whether Sanders’ refusing to cede the primary would detract from the coronavirus fight, Cohen dismissed the idea. “He would do that no matter what, and he will do that with as many allies as possible, including Vice President Biden,” Cohen said.
At his first social distancing rally, the Sanders campaign streamed highly-produced sets by Jim James from My Morning Jacket and the Free Nationals. Neil Young recorded a song on his cell phone while his dog wandered in and out of the shot. The session generated roughly 5.3 million views.
Even as some called for him to exit the race, Sanders turned his campaign into a vehicle to spread information about the outbreak and explain why he believes progressive goals like “Medicare for All” are even more urgently needed.He used his mailing list to raise $2 million for coronavirus, then circulated a petition to support Amazon warehouse workers. Earlier this week, Sanders streamed another event where he explained all the details of the more than $2 trillion Senate coronavirus stimulus package — what he liked and what he didn’t like, what he’d fought for and what Republicans had sought.
Then, Sanders went viral after a fiery speech on the Senate floor in which he criticized several Republicans who sought to amend the massive emergency coronavirus package because of a provision that may allow some unemployed workers to make more money in unemployment than what they were previously making in their jobs.
“Oh my god, the universe is collapsing!” Sanders said, arms waving. “Imagine that, somebody who’s making $12 bucks an hour now, like the rest of us, faces an unprecedented economic crisis with the $600 on top of their normal unemployment check might be making a few bucks more for four months. Oh my word! Will the universe survive! How absurd and wrong is that? What kind of value system is that?”
Zogby said that was an example of Sanders effectively using his platform to spread his message online.
“Joe Biden, on the other hand, has not been able to do that,” Zogby added. “And when he has, there’ve been times when it just hasn’t looked right, hasn’t come off well.”
Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser to Sanders’ 2016 campaign, told NBC News that despite Sanders’ digital prowess, the fully virtual nature of the race will still make it tough for “Sanders to turn around a huge set of defeats that have put him very far behind on the delegate count.”
Sanders currently trails Biden by about 300 delegates, and he will have to run up the score in all the upcoming races just to catch up.
“And I don’t really see how he does that,” Longabaugh said. “I just don’t see how he turns the whole game around and wins 65 percent of the vote on June 2.”
Longabaugh pointed to that Senate floor speech as classic Sanders, and an example of how Sanders will use his large platform to exert influence as the crisis continues.
But he doesn’t believe Sanders’ early advantage in digital communication over Biden will be long lasting. Biden is “going to catch up very quickly,” he said.
“I hope [Sanders] decides to get behind Joe Biden earlier rather than later, unify the party earlier,” Longabaugh said. “And I think that would be the best move for him. It’s the best move for the party. And I especially think it’s the best move for his political agenda, which I know he cares deeply about.”
Author: Allan Smith and Jane C. Timm