During his 2016 run it wasn’t until July that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) formally endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s effort, allowing him to continue pushing his message and keep the so-called establishment on its toes.
Four years later, a crisis of pandemic proportions will likely make that path untenable.
The math is again against him, the momentum going the wrong way, and in a day and age where COVID-19 looms over the votes yet to be cast the stakes—and the pressure to drop out—have never been higher.
"It's not only just that it’s over, it’s there’s no way he's going to get anywhere," said Joe Trippi, who managed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run. "Regardless of coronavirus or not, it just doesn’t make sense to go on and continue the campaign."
The Associated Press projected Wednesday night that former Vice President Joe Biden led Sanders by 295 delegates giving him a total of 1,180 delegates, according to the AP. That’s still far shy of the 1,991 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, but because of the way the party allocates those numbers, Biden has a lead that is almost impossible to overcome.
"I think it hurts him to move forward," Trippi said of Sanders. "He may think it'll hurt Biden or that he'll get some leverage. I don't think that's going to be the way this plays out."
In interviews with Sanders endorsers across the country, there were no calls for him to drop out at this point. But there were concerns about the need to elevate the issues Sanders has made the cornerstone of his presidential campaign.
Dylan Parker, an alderman in Rock Island, Illinois, said that if Sanders drops, “Biden needs to be working to build a coalition.” Illinois, Florida and Arizona still held primaries Tuesday despite Ohio moving back its contest because of the pandemic.
"I think Joe Biden has to realize that he can’t win this alone, the general election," Parker said. "He's going to need Sanders supporters, and so I think Sanders has the ability to greatly influence the platform and sort of the direction just like we did in 2016."
Sanders hasn’t been able to capture the same sense of victory that invigorated his 2016 run. A Sanders upset over Clinton in Michigan became a Biden victory this time around. A narrow Sanders loss to Clinton in Missouri became a blowout for Biden. And in Washington state, where Sanders had a dominant showing in the 2016 caucuses, Biden narrowly won the state’s 2020 primary.
In a campaign memo Wednesday, Biden’s campaign painted a gloomy picture for Sanders’ chances.
“In order to close the delegate deficit he faces, Senator Sanders would need to win every remaining contest by roughly 40 points,” the memo said.
Drawn-out contests have been the case for Democrats in their last two contested primary cycles, with Clinton declining to end her 2008 presidential campaign until June of that year.
But the nature of the virus, and the fears and anxiety it’s caused among the public, have made this primary season undeniably unique as Sanders considers whether to continue chasing his dwindling White House dreams.
"I think the climate has just created a scenario where people are anxious and they're anxious for very real reasons, very day-to-day health and economic reasons," said Karen Finney, a senior spokesperson and senior advisor for Clinton's 2016 run. "It’s just not a good environment to have some of the battles that you would have in the context of a normal primary."
Sanders’ extended 2016 effort, and earning more delegates to gain leverage, helped influence the party "to write the most progressive platform in the history of the party," said longtime Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh, who previously worked for Sanders in 2016 but switched to businessman Andrew Yang this cycle.
The outlook is far different these days amid the pandemic, and it's difficult to make a comeback with attention turned to the virus.
"It’s not normal times," Longabaugh said. "...I don't think he can do or behave the same way he did in 2016."
Sanders spoke to supporters in a digital coronavirus address Tuesday night before any states were called for Biden, striking a confident tone and unveiling new proposals aimed at easing the economic pain already caused by mass shutdowns to stop the spread of coronavirus. But in a statement the next morning, Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir struck a less optimistic tone about the future of the campaign.
“The next primary contest is at least three weeks away,” Shakir said. “Sen. Sanders is going to be having conversations with supporters to assess his campaign.”
Talking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Sanders was reportedly not thrilled when pressed about the fate of his 2020 run.
"I'm dealing with a fucking global crisis. You know, we're dealing with,” Sanders said Wednesday, according to CNN’s Manu Raju.
The issues that Sanders focuses on will likely remain front and center for Democrats regardless of how long he stays in the race. His 2016 run helped weld progressive ideals into the party and the economic impact of the pandemic has drawn more attention to the problems Sanders has long bemoaned.
"The thing that’s most important to me, whether he is in the race or not, is that his issues and his platform remain in this race," said Megan Ellyia Green, a Democratic National Committee member from Missouri backing Sanders.
"If (Sanders) needs to stay in the race in order to push Joe Biden to implement these things, then I think he needs to stay in the race," Green added. "If Biden wants to take up some of these issues and be more intentional with them, I think it would go a long way in getting the confidence in him that a lot of us who supported Bernie just don’t have at the moment."
Whether or not Sanders stays in the race, Democrats remain determined that beating Trump is their main concern.
Sanders has also been clear about what he feels is the danger of another term of Trump in the White House and has already pledged to support whoever becomes the Democratic nominee.
That sense of doom surrounding another four years of Trump isn’t lost on Sanders admirers like Terry Tucker in Colorado, who would support Biden if he becomes the nominee but is calling for more of an effort to be made to woo young activists.
"I am not going to risk another four years of the sociopath," Tucker, a DNC member, said of Trump.