To Linger, or Not to Linger?

Bernie Sanders is done. Cooked. Flambeed. Fricasseed. Idaho was his fifth best 2016 state. Yesterday he lost it. Washington was #6. If he manages a narrow escape, it’s only because many ballots were mailed in before his non-Biden opponents dropped out. He almost won Missouri last time. This time, he lost every county. As he did in Michigan, a state where he won 73 of 83 counties in 2016. I can go on, but you get the point. A candidate who lost by an average of 10 points nationwide in 2016 is performing worse in 2020.

If Joe Biden can get through Sunday’s debate with nothing worse than a minor stroke, he’ll win Arizona, Illinois, and Ohio next Tuesday, while decimating Bernie in Florida. Then on the 24th, Biden will prove more successful in Georgia than General Sherman. It’s questionable at this point whether Bernie can win any normal primary in any state where voters didn’t begin voting until March. Yes, he took North Dakota yesterday. A state that had 14 polling places. Total. Bernie’s 5 million most committed supporters are way more in to him than Biden’s top 5 million. If there were as many caucuses as four years ago, Sanders would still have nomination math against him, but would have several opportunities for victory.

So far, the only 2016 loss to 2020 win after South Carolina voted is California. Maine, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Idaho, Michigan, and probably Washington were wins that became defeats four years later. The remaining March contests are 2016 losses. Today, Sanders declared his intention to participate in the debate and see what happens on the 17th. At which point he’ll have another decision to make. Should next week go as expected, and should Bernie continue to linger, he’ll be making an unprecedented decision.

Some candidates exit when it becomes clear they can’t win the nomination. We just saw this from several candidates. It frequently happens even when a candidate can win more states. Rick Santorum got out of the GOP contest in 2012 when he was still posting an occasional win. So did Mike Huckabee on that side in 2008. Each knew the math was impossible, and didn’t see the benefit of sticking around to grab another state or two. But they were also out of money. Bernie won’t ever be. They had their futures to think of. Bernie does not.

Some candidates stay in, even when the numbers don’t work, because they can win several more states, and think remaining is better for their future. That’s what Hillary Clinton did in 2008, and Bernie duplicated last time. Unlike Santorum and Huckabee, they were winning frequently, and though they were beat, it was going to require super delegates to officially put their opponent over the top. Gary Hart made a similar choice in 1984. But again, they were winning regularly.

Yes, Bernie could win Puerto Rico on March 29. Wyoming has a caucus on April 4, and you’d figure he’d get that one maybe. Alaska, Hawaii, and Kansas are running their primaries similarly to North Dakota. This is not the stuff a continuing campaign is made of. There’s another consideration. We don’t know how bad the coronavirus situation will be in another few weeks. The normal argument for sticking around is to stay in the news, push Biden leftward so that he can’t completely abandon progressive goals in the fall campaign, etc.

Part of that is holding large rallies and reminding the media younger voters are both invested in Bernie and highly Biden-skeptical. If you can’t hold music festivals, if sporting events are getting cancelled, you’re definitely not going to see a giant political rally. Even if the country were virus-free, it would be hard for Bernie to get continued media attention when it’s clear he doesn’t have a chance. The media likes a horse race. Even if the nomination is mostly/completely settled, if Sanders could win a few key states, that would make it interesting. A narrative of Biden getting embarrassed, of doubts within the party, yada, yada, yada.

Add COVID-19 and forget it. Bernie is just not going to be top of mind for the media. Then there’s how to actually hold primary elections if we wind up in an Italian-style quarantine at any point during the process. In some instances, state and local nomination contests are handled concurrently. But in many states, the presidential primary is separate from others. How does that look if at a time were resources are stretched thin, state governments need to figure out how to make a presidential-only primary happen remotely when the nomination result is a foregone conclusion.

All logic points to Bernie needing to exit soon. Fine, knock yourself out in a final debate. See if by some bit of alchemy, great results with Latino voters, and just enough others who threw away early votes on Buttigieg or Bloomberg, he can somehow eek out a victory in Arizona. Then, when March 17 proves his third straight debacle, exit stage left, endorse Biden, promise to keep him accountable, but remind Berners stopping Trump is the most important thing.

Here’s the thing though. It might make more sense for him to stick around. As long as the primary is at least mildly contested, more voters will turn out (or mail in ballots.) There is a big voter turnout story right now. And it’s on Biden’s side. Suburban moderates are showing up in droves. As much as everyone likes to point out how Hillary couldn’t draw enough young voters and/or African Americans to the polls in November 2016, had she run better among suburban moderates, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin would have remained blue. Florida too.

There’s a conventional argument that a prolonged primary is bad for Biden in November. The longer he’s forced to respond to Sanders, the more he has to say or do, the more odds of a fatal gaffe or clip to be played in perpetuity by the Trump campaign. Apparently 12% of Sanders 2016 primary voters did not manage to vote for Hillary that November. The thinking is the longer this goes on, the more likely deja vu.

I disagree. Based on what I’m hearing from the very millennials who make up Bernie’s base, and are the least enthused about Biden, missing out on the chance to vote for Bernie/against Biden in the spring is more detrimental than letting that protest happen. They’re under zero illusions. They hate Trump and are beyond uninspired by Biden, but will, far more frequently than not, vote for Joe in November anyway.

If Bernie leaves when it would normally make sense, acts in a way to preserve his dignity, goes along with conventional expectations, plays nice for a change, it may harm the very establishment that would be happy he did it. Biden will stay mostly in hiding regardless. He knows his best path to the presidency is the one that requires the least, and coronavirus will give him good cover. While he’s used fear of Trump to unite Democrats over a certain age in record time, those under that age aren’t even slightly on board. He’ll get their votes only as a lesser of two evils. Ironically, Bernie is the one who can best protect Biden, by staying in longer, and getting the five stages of grief to the acceptance part.

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1 Comment

  1. A minortypo: How does that look if at a time were resources are stretched thin

    I didn’t understand this:

    So far, the only 2016 loss to 2020 win after South Carolina voted is California.

    This is a neat thesis, but you kind of buried it in the last sentence:

    Ironically, Bernie is the one who can best protect Biden, by staying in longer, and getting the five stages of grief to the acceptance part.

    My counterargument, which I’m not sure I believe entirely, is that even if Bernie is continuing halfheartedly and only to help Joe, his followers may not realize that, and they may be digging their heels in further, getting more agitated and bitter, and a prolonged fight might make them more likely to lash out, to refuse to vote, to even vote for Trump. It’s not clear to me how that dynamic will play out. Will 90 days of campaigning with the writing on the wall help them get over their loss or embitter them further? Nevertheless, it is an interesting thesis. I would have encouraged you to move it up a lot.

    Jim Kee Austin, TX 818-669-3180

    “It is better to be both right and consistent. But if you have to choose—you must choose to be right.’ -Winston S Churchill, 11 October 1952


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