BURLINGTON, Vermont—After avoiding addressing his fate on election night, Bernie Sanders was suddenly in a hurry to explain his merits in the presidential race.
The 78-year-old Independent moved quickly to the front of a meeting space inside the Hotel Vermont in Burlington, more somber than angry, more of a realist than an optimist.
Speaking to reporters on a chilly afternoon, he started from the gate by announcing the obvious: he was not currently winning the 2020 primary from a “delegate point of view.”
There was no crowd of supporters or even much in the way of staff to cheer him on. His wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, and Faiz Shakir, his campaign manager, sat to the side in chairs watching the senator make what may be one of his final cases of the campaign. His message was straight to the point.
“We are losing the debate over electability,” he said, while claiming victory over “the ideological debate” of progressive ideas.
Sanders’ remarks came after a little over 17 hours of uncharacteristic silence, following losses in Mississippi, Missouri, Idaho, and Michigan. The Michigan loss was particularly devastating given its mathematical and emotional significance to the candidate.
The last message on Sanders’ official Twitter—usually buzzing with activity—was frozen at a more hopeful time, 7:44 p.m. on Tuesday, well before all results trickled in from several states. His last tweet on election night provided optimistic guidance for voters to stay put amid accounts of long lines to vote.
“If you’re in line at the polls, stay in line!” he tweeted.
With his scheduled rally in Cleveland canceled due to coronavirus concerns and no good news on the horizon to tell his supporters, the senator, at a critical moment in his second presidential campaign, went dark.
Sanders was taking stock of the race, absorbing the round of losses and what they meant for his future, a source familiar with his thinking told The Daily Beast.
“The senator is a very deliberate thinker,” the source who has been involved in high-level campaign discussions, said when asked about this decision not to speak Tuesday night.
“He defies convention in every single way.”
Before his press conference, on Wednesday morning, there were signs of life from the campaign with Sanders’ co-chairs, former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who were previewing lines about keeping the campaign going until at least the next Democratic debate, scheduled for Sunday.
“The point now is to move forward for the issues that Senator Sanders has been fighting for,” Khanna said on CNN’s “New Day” early Wednesday morning.
By early-afternoon, an aide to one senior Sanders official said they were still standing by to hear further guidance.
Sanders, himself, was in Vermont still reeling from what one person close to the senator described as “the whole force and weight” of the Democratic Party “coming up against one man.”
That weight had been shifting at a rapid pace from Sanders to former Vice President Joe Biden since South Carolina, where Biden scored a landslide victory that helped catapult him to success on Super Tuesday, when the lion’s share of the primary’s delegates were up for grabs. Then, dozens of endorsements rolled in, including the coveted backing of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, some of the party’s brightest stars and both contenders’ former rivals.
For Sanders, the Michigan defeat—36.4 percent to Biden’s 52.9 percent—was particularly painful. Four years ago, when, after winning the state’s primary by a slim margin against Hillary Clinton, he claimed a resurgence in support for his progressive bid. At the time, he remarked it was an “enormously successful night for us.”
This time around, the success was significantly harder to quantify. “From the numbers, it’s obvious the difference is dramatic,” Steve Marchand, an early backer of Sanders’ 2016 effort, said about the immediate aftermath of Michigan from the past election to present.
“Certainly at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. I thought it might be a precursor to a withdrawal today,” Marchand said. “When you’re having a good night, you like to crow about it, but when you’re not you tend to clam up.”
Natalia Salgado, political director at the Center for Popular Democracy Action, which endorsed Sanders this cycle, said his initial silence struck her as a much needed moment of “self-awareness” for the senator to “go in deep” with his team to assess the road forward. “I think the result of that thoughtfulness was reflected in his speech today,” she said.
At his Burlington press conference, Sanders was realistic about his current place in the race and signaled he would use the debate platform to hold Biden accountable on several of their biggest points of contrast, including rising health care costs and medical debt.
Sanders will also have a chance to deliver something of a monologue on Wednesday night, appearing on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon.
But beyond the bookends of late night television and Sunday night’s debate, the time in between is largely unknown. In Burlington, even the traveling reporters who follow his every move were unsure of Sanders’ next location.
Still, as the candidate plotted his way forward, other parts of the campaign continued to function as usual. At the headquarters, on the second floor of an office building on a popular street for shops and restaurants in the city, a street level sign encouraged visitors to volunteer, donate, and get free bumper stickers.
“This week: PIZZA+ calls,” the sign read, encouraging people to help out on Saturday.
Outside the office, a wooden piece of art portraying Sanders loomed over visitors with the tag line “KNOT FIR SALE.”