The only surprise in Tuesday’s Democratic primaries was that former Vice President Joe Biden only won three blowouts — including a nearly 40 percentage-point romp in Florida — rather than the four originally scheduled. But that’s just because Ohio postponed its primary until June.
After the contests in Florida, Illinois and Arizona, the schedule now calls for at least a one-month break. Little is scheduled until April 28, and even that minimal activity could easily be moved back further in response to the coronavirus epidemic. That, along with Biden’s commanding lead, is producing a lot of calls for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to drop out. It won’t matter much whether he does or doesn’t. Biden has essentially won the nomination, and with the coronavirus dominating the news and normal campaigning suspended, no one is going to pay much attention to Sanders whether he’s technically a candidate or not. Nor will it make much difference to the fall campaign whether Sanders endorses Biden now or later.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Sanders’ decision is irrelevant, because it may affect how influential he is within the Democratic Party. On the one hand, if he drops out now, he’ll only have a quarter of the delegates at the Milwaukee (or, perhaps, virtual) July convention, while if he sticks around, he’ll probably wind up with something like 40% of the delegates. On the other hand, insisting on competing once the nomination is wrapped up could alienate a lot of party actors — especially if Sanders keeps attacking Biden, as he has for the last two weeks. My guess is that making friends within the party will improve his standing far more than accumulating delegates. Whether that’s how Sanders sees it is something I wouldn’t even speculate about.
The take-away from Sanders 2020 is pretty straightforward. After shocking everyone by doing well in 2016, Sanders ran a carbon copy of that campaign this time. It turned out that a fair number of Sanders voters in the first campaign didn’t especially like him, but rather disliked Hillary Clinton and voted for the only other choice on the ballot. Sanders got about 43% of the vote in 2016; he’s going to wind up well below that in 2020.
The political scientist David Hopkins is fond of saying that there are no “lanes” in nomination politics in which candidates fight for advantage among identifiable party factions or subgroups. There’s nothing inherent about which lanes exist at the start of the contest; they are created by candidates and by party actors (and perhaps by the media as well) over the course of the campaign as they try to structure the choices in order to reap advantages. If we think of it that way, then Sanders helped create two lanes for Democratic voters in 2020, only to discover that most voters were more comfortable in the mainstream liberal lane than in his democratic socialism lane.
It’s going to take a while to assess the full effects of the two Sanders campaigns on the Democratic Party. His efforts have put some policy choices on the map that wouldn’t have been live options otherwise, particularly on health care. If Sanders had not run, then it’s likely that the party would have unified behind the Affordable Care Act, with the main argument being whether it was more important to enhance it (with, say, a public option to buy insurance offered by a government program) or to administer the private markets better. But without Sanders pushing hard on that issue, it’s possible other policy questions, especially climate, might have moved higher on the Democratic agenda. Sanders can claim some victories within the party, such as the formation of a party-wide consensus on raising the hourly minimum wage to $15. What’s less clear is whether Sanders himself was responsible.
It’s also less clear whether the second Sanders run was the best way to help his cause. Instead of losing to Biden, who sits in the center of the Democratic Party, he might have been able to help engineer the nomination of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Or perhaps one of the other candidates who are closer to Sanders ideologically than Biden might have wound up emerging as winner. Without Sanders, the contest was less likely to become a referendum on socialism that he couldn’t win, and more likely to become a test of whether one his allies could win key policy debates. That might have been a harder contest for Biden to win.
That said, Biden always moves to the center of the Democratic Party, and it’s surely true, Sanders and his supporters have moved that center in their direction — whether or not they’ve always made the best choices to maximize their influence or not.
The next test for Sanders will be how effectively he can rally his supporters behind Biden and the rest of the Democratic ticket. And that’s going to be the question whenever he fulfills his promise to endorse the nominee and work hard to get him elected.