When Bernie Sanders suspended his 2020 Democratic presidential candidacy on April 8, he said, “As you all know, we have never been just a campaign. We are a grassroots multiracial, multigenerational movement which has always believed that real change never comes from the top on down, but always from the bottom on up.”
Sanders will no longer be actively campaigning for the presidency. But that does not mean that the people who share that belief that real change comes from the bottom up are finished trying to move the Democratic Party to the left.
Within hours after Sanders announced that he had “concluded that this battle for the Democratic nomination will not be successful”—and offered his congratulations to “Joe Biden, a very decent man, on his victory”—the movement made its move.
“Thank you, Bernie. We’ll take it from here,” announced Benjamin Dixon, the host of a popular political podcast who has been an outspoken Sanders backer. When I asked him what that meant, he said, “So many states didn’t get a chance to vote. I’m in Georgia, so I’m one of the ones who got left out. I’ll be voting for Bernie in the primary both for principled reasons but also to equip Sanders with the delegates he needs to leverage a more progressive platform out of Biden.”
Dixon says he’ll share his personal strategy with his listeners, while encouraging them to make their own choices in the almost two dozen Democratic primaries and caucuses that will come between now and June—many of them delegate-rich states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. More than 1,700 delegates to this summer’s Democratic National Convention have yet to be chosen. The more that the Sanders movement wins, the more influence it will have over the selection of a vice presidential candidate, the writing of the platform, and the forging of rules for running the party in the years to come.
Sanders currently has 914 delegates—compared with 1,217 for Biden. To keep collecting delegates, Sanders simply has to win 15 percent of the vote in coming contests. Veteran campaign aides such as Steve Cobble, who helped run the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, are certain that the candidate will increase his delegate total. “Sanders will win a lot more delegates,” said Cobble, who works with the group Progressive Democrats of America. “I expect that he’ll have more than a quarter of the delegates, perhaps a good deal more, and that will give his supporters a real say on the platform and rules committees.”
Plenty of Sanders backers are enthusiastic about voting for the senator in order to advance the progressive agenda of the now-suspended campaign. Ben Jealous, the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Color People who delivered a well-received unity speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, says he is ready to campaign for Biden once the former vice president’s nomination is confirmed by the convention. But with the primary in his own state of Maryland yet to come on June 2, Jealous declared on Wednesday, “I am #StillSanders. I will vote for him in the primary. His values are the best reflection of my own.”
“I’m absolutely voting for Bernie, and so is everyone in my household,” said Nina Turner, a surrogate for the Sanders campaign who just applied for her absentee ballot to vote in Ohio’s April 28 Democratic primary. “We need to elect delegates who are pledged to Bernie, because that’s how we raise up the issues that Bernie ran on: Medicare for All, free college education, all of it.”
Sanders won’t be holding rallies or mobilizing any grassroots campaigners. He has made it clear that he wants to focus in the weeks and months to come on his work in the Senate to develop bolder responses to the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it has spawned. But he still wants the movement politics of his candidacy to influence the party and its eventual nominee.
The senator, like many of his supporters, believes that the Democratic ticket will be stronger, and the party more united for the November campaign against Donald Trump and the Republicans, if it embraces progressive positions on issues such as health care reform. “During the primary elections, exit polls showed, in state after state, a strong majority of Democratic primary voters supported a single government health insurance program to replace private insurance,” notes Sanders. “That was true even in states where our campaign did not prevail.”
This is why, in his April 8 announcement, the candidate said, “I will stay on the ballot in all remaining states and continue to gather delegates. While Vice President Biden will be the nominee, we should still work to assemble as many delegates as possible at the Democratic convention where we will be able to exert significant influence over the party platform and other functions.”
Sanders backers heard that message. “While we disagree with and are disappointed by Bernie’s decision to suspend the campaign today, we will continue to battle for the vital progressive agenda that is supported by most of those who voted in Democratic primaries and caucuses this year. And we will keep working to elect Bernie delegates,” declared RootsAction.org co-founders Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon. “We take very seriously Bernie’s statement today that ‘we must continue working to assemble as many delegates as possible at the Democratic convention.’ The Bernie 2020 campaign has never been about one person or one election cycle. Our work to create a progressive future will continue unabated.”
The “People for Bernie” team that played a critical role in building grassroots support for the senator from Vermont, has since Wednesday been alerting its hundreds of thousands of social media followers, “You can and should still vote for @berniesanders.”
“Let’s get those delegates!” the group declares.
Can they? History records that plenty of candidates have won delegates after they have quit campaigning. Famously, in 1992 former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas scored some of his strongest finishes weeks after he suspended his “A Call to Economic Arms” bid for that year’s Democratic nomination race—gaining 29 percent of the vote in the New York primary and 22 percent in Wisconsin. He kept winning delegate spots that were filled by his supporters, including his aging aunt and uncle, who joined the New York delegation. “Let me say, the message survives and the message lives,” announced Tsongas, who ran so well as a non-candidate that he briefly considered reentering the race. “The message has real power.”
In 2000, long after former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley quit running for the Democratic nod, he won dozens of delegates in late primaries in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and other states.
There is no telling how well Sanders will run in the primaries to come. But Alan Minsky, the executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, says, “I expect he will cross the 15 percent threshold in most of the states, maybe all of them.” PDA, a group that started urging Sanders to run for the presidency long before he entered the 2016 race and that has always been ardent in its support of the senator, plans to campaign hard in the contests to come.
“Our base is very enthusiastic. We will use our phone banks before the primaries to tell people that we need those delegates,” says Minsky. “This is a movement-based campaign and the way to advance the movement is to keep voting for Bernie, get the delegates and move the party in a progressive direction.”