A small group of Bernie Sanders’ top aides and allies – including his campaign manager and his longtime strategist – have encouraged the independent senator from Vermont to consider withdrawing from the presidential race, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.
The group includes campaign manager Faiz Shakir and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a top Sanders surrogate and ally, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive private discussions.
Sanders himself has become more open to the prospect of dropping out, according to one of the people with knowledge of the situation and another close ally, especially if he suffers a significant defeat in Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary, which polls suggest Joe Biden will win handily.
Beyond Shakir and Jayapal, longtime strategist Jeff Weaver has privately made a case that exiting the race more quickly and on good terms with Biden would give Sanders more leverage in the long run, according to one of the people; the other said Weaver has used a light touch in presenting his case. Weaver and Jayapal did not return calls and messages seeking comment. Shakir declined to comment.
Sanders has not a made a final decision, the people said, and other close allies have privately urged him to keep running, such as national campaign co-chair Nina Turner, while Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., is also said to favor him remaining in the race. Larry Cohen, a longtime ally who chairs a nonprofit aligned with Sanders, is waging a public campaign for him to stay in until the Democratic National Convention.
The Sanders campaign declined to comment on internal deliberations.
The split in Sanders’ inner circle to some degree reflects the hybrid nature of his political identity as both a traditional politician and a movement leader. Advisers with stronger ties to the Democratic Party have been more vocal in urging him to contemplate a withdrawal, while independent activists have been pushing for Sanders to remain in the race.
Cohen, for example, is one of the latter. “Millions of people are counting on him to be on the ballot so they can vote for that alternative vision that they support,” Cohen said. “And if he was not on the ballot, they will feel abandoned.”
One of the people with knowledge of the situation said they believe Sanders has warmed to the idea of bowing out in the near future, since he has been unable to make up any ground on Biden and is bracing for another potential landslide loss in Wisconsin, a state he won four years ago. One of the people predicted that if Sanders loses Wisconsin by more than 15 points, he probably would get out of the race and get behind Biden.
Beyond Wisconsin, this person said, there are concerns among at least some in the campaign about criticism in the press of Sanders as a spoiler who’s making it harder for Democrats to defeat President Donald Trump. They also believe it will be difficult to change the dynamic in a race that has been frozen in place by the coronavirus crisis.
Close Sanders associates have long said the senator and his wife, Jane Sanders, are the ultimate deciders, and they are expected to reach any decision jointly. Sanders believes strongly that people in his movement need to be consulted, however, according to one of the people with knowledge of the situation.
Sanders said Friday on MSNBC that he was acutely aware of his massive deficit to Biden and was taking a “hard look” at his future. Earlier in the week, he told late-night host Seth Meyers that he still had a “narrow path” to victory.
There have been no primaries held since March 17, when Biden won decisively in three states and built an almost insurmountable lead in delegates. Sanders campaign officials said after the losses that the senator would assess his path forward in consultation with close allies, signaling he was in no rush to reach a decision.
Indeed, Sanders has taken his time, offering no definitive statement about his plans. A raft of states postponed their primaries due to concerns about the novel coronavirus, sparing him what many expected would have been an ongoing drumbeat of damaging defeats.
As he’s deliberated, Sanders has shifted his campaign’s focus to the coronavirus pandemic, arguing the crisis shows why his Medicare-for-all and other sweeping liberal proposals he has promoted are so desperately needed. He has held roundtable discussions broadcast online and raised money for charities battling the outbreak.
Yet the overall contours of the contest have not changed. Polls have consistently shown Biden with a commanding lead over Sanders. A survey of Wisconsin, which has opted to move forward with its primary this week, showed Sanders trailing the former vice president by 28 points.
Sanders’ failure to gain traction in Wisconsin reflects his struggle to find support even in states where he performed well four years ago. Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin with a populist pitch that resonated strongly in the upper Midwest.
Much of that energy has evaporated against Biden, who trounced Sanders last month in Michigan and beat him soundly in Illinois.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, abruptly reversed course on Friday and urged a delay in the primary, citing the risks presented by the coronavirus. He summoned the state legislature for a special session Saturday to consider a plan to cancel in-person voting, but leaders of the GOP-led legislature have signaled they are unlikely to heed Evers.
Biden has already begun mapping out his process for choosing a vice presidential running mate. He told campaign donors Friday that he has spoken to Sanders about his plans to move forward.
“He’s a friend. I don’t want him to think I’m being presumptuous, but you have to start now deciding who you’re going to have background checks done on as potential vice presidential candidates, and it takes time,” said Biden.
Asked at a virtual fundraiser the day before that whether Sanders will concede to him and rally behind his candidacy, Biden responded that their staffs had been in touch, but “whether Bernie gets out or stays in remains to be seen.” He added that the coronavirus “is making things more complicated for him and everyone else.”
Some Democrats have become more worried in recent weeks about Sanders’ continued presence in the race, fretting that it could reignite the divisions that plagued the party in the spring and summer of 2016. Back then, many Sanders supporters refused to back Clinton and made visible shows of their distaste for the party establishment.
Biden, for his part, faces animosity from many of the left-leaning activists who back Sanders. Some have said they want Sanders to stay in until the end and have indicated they are not inclined to fall in line behind Biden.
However, associates of both men said the dynamic between the two candidates and their aides is much better than it was between Clinton and Sanders, raising hopes among some in the party for greater cooperation.
Much of the party’s original timeline for finalizing its presidential ticket has been disrupted by the coronavirus. Democratic officials said this week they will delay the Democratic National Convention to allow time to recover from the pandemic. Originally scheduled for July, officials are now eyeing an Aug. 17 start.
(c) 2020, The Washington Post · Sean Sullivan