With the United States presidential election lurching through uncharted waters, one question keeps popping up: why is Bernie Sanders even bothering anymore?
Most of the upcoming primaries have been postponed. His Democratic rival Joe Biden has an almost insurmountable lead in the delegate count. The campaigns have all been sidelined, restricted to online fundraisers and virtual news conferences, with national media focused almost exclusively on the coronavirus pandemic.
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Why carry on, the pundits keep asking?
To which Sanders and the fervently loyal supporters of his democratic socialist revolution reply that they will soldier on – to influence policy and pursue the slim chance of a resurgence.
But John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says Sanders would be hard-pressed to overtake his Delaware rival from the left flank.
“Sanders’s significant underperformance thus far in the primaries, combined with his poor poll numbers against Biden, makes it nearly impossible for him to catch up to and beat Biden,” Hudak said.
The Sanders campaign faces three strategic options: to proceed full-speed ahead; running just to rack up delegates but not criticise Biden; or dropping out entirely.
By staying in the race – continuing to “advance his brand from the [virtual] campaign trail,” as Hudak describes it – Sanders remains better-positioned to shape the Democratic Party platform when, and if, the party gathers at its July convention in Milwaukee.
In sharp contrast to the more moderate Biden, Sanders wants far-reaching reforms to provide universal healthcare, guaranteed housing, free college tuition and a Green New Deal for the climate. And staying in the race despite the odds, his believers say, is the best way to keep those issues front-and-centre in the campaign.
Campaigns in the age of COVID-19
To be sure, the calculus has shifted for all 2020 contenders – including President Donald Trump. None can proceed with traditional campaigning, whether it be the mass rallies both Trump and Sanders crave or the retail politicking favoured by Biden.
Sanders insists he can still make a difference.
“People are beginning to rethink the nature of American society and the role that government plays in our lives,” he said in an interview that aired on National Public Radio Friday morning. “There is growing sentiment in this country that people now understand it is incomprehensible not to guarantee healthcare to all.”
When asked directly whether he would continue his campaign indefinitely, however, he was ambiguous.
“We are assessing the situation we are in,” he said. “We’re focusing on the healthcare and economic crisis facing the country.”
Unable to hold fundraisers due to state orders and the need for elderly candidates – Biden is 77 years old and Sanders is 78 – to self-quarantine to ensure their own health, online appeals are the only avenue to boost support.
Sanders’s supporters are hoping to find ways to redirect the coronavirus attention towards their flagship cause – specifically, healthcare.
“None of us are immune unless we have single payer #MedicareForAll,” Amy Vilela, the Nevada co-chair for the Sanders campaign, tweeted on Thursday.
None of us are immune unless we have single payer #MedicareForAll.
I agonize over the thought of families feeling helpless, as we did, watching their loved ones get sick.
— Amy Vilela (@amy4thepeople) March 26, 2020
‘He could build momentum’
Supporters of Sanders saw an opening in Biden’s conspicuous absence from the public spotlight in the days following the March 17 win in three major primaries. Aatif Rashid, a Los Angeles-based volunteer for the Vermont senator, said the US needs a strong progressive voice now more than ever.
He told Al Jazeera that exit polls show a majority of Democratic voters support Sanders’s vision for healthcare “in every state that’s voted so far”.
Rashid also said he believes “there is a small chance that Bernie could recover and retake the lead in delegates”.
“As more and more people hear Bernie’s message and see him fighting for things like the unemployment provision in the stimulus bill, they might be persuaded to switch from Biden to him,” he added.
“About half the states still need to vote and Bernie needs to win a little over 55 percent of the remaining delegates,” Rashid said. “So if the narrative shifts and people start to realise Bernie’s ideas are actually what will save America from this crisis, he could build momentum.”
‘Linger until then’
During an online coronavirus forum this week, Sanders argued that current policy failures highlight how his solutions could better serve the country. “I don’t intend to become very political tonight,” said Sanders. “[But] we have a president of the United States who downplayed this.”
Earlier this week, the Sanders campaign told the Democratic officials that the candidate would be willing to debate Biden in April if a showdown were scheduled, a notion that the latter quickly brushed aside.
“We’ve had enough debates,” Biden said. “I think we should get on with this.”
However, with voting lines the ideal place for infected people to share germs, primaries may not restart until at least May, suggested Hudak.
“[Sanders] has a base of voters who deeply believe in him and will continue to watch him perform online for as long as he wants the show to run,” Hudak said.
“Ultimately, the floor vote at the Democratic National Convention will be the hard stop for the campaign,” he added, referencing the July party gathering in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “He has to make a choice about whether he wants to linger until then or suspend his campaign.”