US Senator Bernie Sanders announced on Wednesday that he was dropping out of the race to be the Democratic party’s nominee for president – clearing the way for former vice president Joe Biden, who is now the party’s de-facto candidate.
The move had been rumoured for some weeks. After a formidable start to his campaign, the senator from Vermont performed poorly in a handful of crucial state primaries including those of Michigan, Missouri and Washington on 10 March – and with the field of rival candidates declaring their support for Biden, Sanders’ path to victory narrowed perilously.
Days later a national emergency was declared in response to the coronavirus pandemic and, with the nation’s attention focused elsewhere, any slim chance Sanders may have had of sparking a revival of his campaign, or at least of using his platform to espouse his social-democratic agenda, seemed to vanish.
Biden then won Arizona, Florida and Illinois on 17 March, and the die was cast.
On Wednesday, Sanders embraced the inevitable. “I wish I could give you better news, but I think you know the truth,” he said in a live stream. “I cannot in good conscience continue to mount a campaign that cannot win and which would interfere with the important work required of all of us in this difficult hour.”
Since running against Hillary Clinton in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election – one that ended calamitously for the Democrats, with Donald Trump seizing the White House – Sanders has become the figurehead of America’s liberal, left-leaning movement.
His absence from the race now raises a critical question: will Sanders’ supporters – a vast coalition of young, university-educated citizens, as well as hispanic Americans, other immigrants, and working class voters – unite behind Biden?
Many Sanders supporters resent what they consider to be an establishment cabal that pulls the strings of power in the Democratic party. However, a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that, if Sanders dropped out, 15% of his supporters would vote for President Donald Trump, while 80% would vote for Biden.
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“In many ways, Mr. Sanders never overcame the widely held view among Democrats that he was a political outlier, a self-described democratic socialist who proudly proclaimed himself to be an independent senator from Vermont rather than a member of the party establishment,” reflects The New York Times.
Nevertheless, Sanders was keen to exalt his left-wing movement, which, he hopes, will help shift the party’s – and the country’s – center-ground to the left.
“While this campaign is coming to an end, our movement is not,” he said during his speech to the camera. “While we are winning the ideological battle and while we are winning the support of so many young people and working people throughout the country, I have concluded that this battle for the Democratic nomination will not be successful.“
Some, however, doubt Sanders and his two presidential campaigns had as much of an effect as he hoped.
“Sanders got beaten badly week after week, never changing his message. That message simply did not register with more than about 30 percent of the party,” writes Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post. “The party did not shift far left, as many in the media predicted. If anything, Biden’s wins show that the heart of the party rests with moderate African Americans… Sanders’s ‘movement’ is far smaller than he would have liked us to believe.”