In 2016, when Bernie Sanders was beaten by Hillary Clinton for the Democrat nomination, he took his time in acknowledging the fact. Sanders remained a candidate for the whole of the primary season and only endorsed Clinton in late June.
But a lot has changed in four years. With Donald Trump in the White House, the Democrats are hungry, even desperate, for victory. They know it won’t be easy, and that they need to work together as never before. “Party unity my ass!” – initially the cry of the diehard Clinton supporters from 2008 – was never going to cut it this time.
So it was in that spirit that Sanders overnight suspended his campaign and effectively conceded the nomination to his rival, former vice-president Joe Biden. “I cannot in good conscience continue to mount a campaign that cannot win,” he said, “and which would interfere with the important work required of all of us.”
Biden’s chances of winning the election will depend in part on how well Sanders’s example is followed by his supporters. Some, no doubt, will remain irreconcilable, but at least there is now plenty of time to work on the rest.
Whatever one thinks of his ideas (and I don’t like most of them), there’s no doubt Sanders is a genuine idealist: both of his campaigns have been the product of a real desire for change, not just personal ambition. And while there are some disturbing similarities between his program and Trump’s, there’s no real doubt about his commitment to unseating the incumbent.
As Biden himself put it, “Bernie has put his heart and soul into not only running for president, but for the causes and issues he has been dedicated to his whole life.”
Could it have been different? There was a point, after Sanders had won the New Hampshire primary and Biden had come fifth, when Sanders was the clear front-runner in the race. But Biden recovered to run (albeit distantly) second in Nevada, and then win a landslide in South Carolina. That set him up for triumph on Super Tuesday, and he has not been troubled since.
Perry Bacon, at FiveThirtyEight, considers the question of whether poor tactics from Sanders (or his occasional ideological ally, Elizabeth Warren) ensured his defeat, or whether it was more due to factors that were beyond his control. Not surprisingly, he finds that “the truth here probably lies somewhere in between these two arguments.”
With hindsight, it now seems that the mainstream of the party was always likely to rally to whoever was left standing against Sanders, and that his failure to expand his base since 2016 was always going to be fatal. As Bacon says “Sanders’s campaign apparently planned to win the nomination by getting a plurality of the vote (30 to 35 percent) in a crowded field and it didn’t appear to have a real plan for a one-on-one contest against Biden.”
But similar things could have been – and indeed were – said about Trump four years ago. He too seemed to have a ceiling of support, but against divided opposition, and with the advantage of winner-take-all primaries later in the season, it was enough.
Back in February, Jon Chait took on that comparison, arguing that Democrat leaders were not afraid of their own mad supporters in the way that their Republican counterparts were, and therefore had greater reserves of power to swing the nomination towards the centre:
Most Democratic voters, unlike most Republican ones, want their party to be more moderate, not less, and believe in compromise over confrontation. The Democratic Party elite is much less afraid of being seen as squishy than the Republican elite.
At the time, this seemed like wishful thinking, particularly to those who had witnessed the dysfunctionality of the Democrats over all-too-many electoral cycles. But it turned out to be correct.
I confess that I am not much of a Biden fan; I think there were stronger candidates in the field, and while I am optimistic about his chances in November I am far from confident. But Democrat voters decided that he was their best shot, and it’s their party. Let’s hope they were right.