Bernie Sanders is within his rights to remain in the race for the Democratic nomination until the bitter end. Under normal circumstances, I’d counsel him to keep campaigning, giving voters in remaining primaries a choice and trying to influence the process by winning as many delegates as possible.
But Sanders was crushed in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona yesterday, much as he was crushed in the last two clusters of primary contests. His opponent, Joe Biden, has amassed an almost-insurmountable lead in delegates. Sanders has almost no chance of winning many upcoming states, including Louisiana, Georgia, and Delaware. And surrounding circumstances could hardly be less normal.
The next contests are highly likely to coincide with coronavirus quarantines, surging hospitalizations and deaths, and a nationwide effort to practice various degrees of social distancing.
Already yesterday, “there were reports of primary voting mishaps,” Jessa Crispin notes at The Guardian. “Polling places were not open, workers and volunteers did not show up, and there did not seem to be safety precautions in place in several locations to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”
And one could hardly conceive of a worse time for septuagenarian candidates to be out campaigning, for “get out the vote” workers to be knocking on doors, or for young, able-bodied volunteers to be dedicating their time and effort to a primary contest with an all but forgone conclusion when they could be delivering meals to the elderly or providing child care for medical workers.
That isn’t to say the decision is straightforward or easy, as The New York Times underscores in its reporting:
RoseAnn DeMoro, a close friend of Sanders and the former head of an influential nurses union, said earlier Tuesday that the current social and political volatility is alone justification for Sanders to stick it out. “Anything can happen within the next several months,” DeMoro said.
Sanders could conceivably win Wisconsin and outperform expectations in Ohio. He could perform better than expected overall and perhaps wield a bit more leverage at the Democratic National Convention. Then again, Sanders’s ability to negotiate concessions may well be strongest now, when he can offer Biden months more to focus on beating Donald Trump. That influence could wane in coming months with each successive primary contest that he decisively loses.
As Congress weighs emergency relief measures, Sanders could exert more influence focusing on policy in Washington, in his capacity as a sitting senator, than in debates with Biden, repeating calls for a democratic socialist future as the public is focused on the next year … or week.
Dropping out doesn’t prevent Sanders from continuing to speak out.
And “deepening the association of Bernie-ism with a failure to accept political reality and disinterest in the Democratic Party’s greater good seems counterproductive to its long-term goals,” Jonathan Chait argues.
Against the uncertainties of staying in the race are several likely, salutary effects of dropping out: less likelihood of chaotic election irregularities, more time for the presumptive nominee to focus on beating Trump, more money with which to do it, and fewer Sanders volunteers putting themselves at risk or squandering precious time and effort on behalf of a lost contest.
Holding a presidential election as scheduled is worth a risk to physical safety far greater than any the coronavirus presents. A primary campaign that alters the future of the country is similarly worthwhile. But an effort to amass a few more delegates for a flailing campaign that’s suffered a series of huge losses and has no realistic chance at the nomination? Even then, I’d normally say, “Keep at it if you want!” The abnormal costs and benefits of this moment counsel getting out now.