BOSTON (CN) — In declaring that his withdrawal from the presidential race shouldn’t stop anyone from still voting for him, Senator Bernie Sanders put the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee in uncharted waters.
The move is “unprecedented,” said Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College. “It’s a reminder of how unusual Bernie Sanders is and the reason the Democratic establishment has always been suspicious of him — he puts his own interests ahead of those of the party.”
Saying their continued votes will help him politically, Sanders made the request Wednesday morning in a withdrawal announcement that might otherwise have sealed the 2020 nomination for former Vice President Joe Biden.
“I will stay on the ballot in all remaining states and continue to gather delegates,” said Sanders, who represents Vermont in the Senate as a registered Independent. “While Vice President Biden will be the nominee, we should still work to assemble as many delegates as possible at the Democratic convention where we will be able to exert significant influence over the party platform and other functions.”
Biden “must be quietly seething,” said Dickinson in an interview.
“It leaves Biden in a political limbo that is uncomfortable at best,” the professor added. “You want your opponents to tell their supporters that the race is over.”
Larry Bartels, co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University, struggled to come up with a historical equivalent.
“I don’t know of any previous instance in which a candidate has walked this line — ending the race but attempting to use the primary ballot as a vehicle for prolonging divisions within the party,” Bartels said in an interview. “But then Sanders has never really been a Democrat and has seldom displayed much concern for party unity.”
Ron Schurin, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut, likened what Sanders has asked to what, say, Hillary Clinton did in 2008, or George H.W. Bush did before her in 1980, which is to stay in the race after it became clear they couldn’t win.
These candidates were not trying to raise their own profile or seek leverage over the convention. Bush went on to become the winner’s vice-presidential nominee, and Clinton was the winner’s secretary of state.
With Sanders grasping for votes now, Biden theoretically could wind up devoting resources to remaining primaries such as New York — a state with a lot of delegates but not a general election battleground — to keep himself from being embarrassed by a strong Sanders showing.
Dickinson noted that this problem is mitigated somewhat by campaigning that has otherwise ground to a halt, to say little of the public’s political appetite, due to the national Covid-19 pandemic.
The bigger issue for Biden is what ideological concessions he will now have to make to placate Sanders. “It’s possible that there are already some behind-the-scenes negotiations taking place,” Dickinson said.
Schurin believes Sanders will demand that Biden change the party’s positions on health care, corporate regulation and worker protection.
In 2016 Sanders used his leverage to demand that the party change the rules to make it easier for him to run in 2020, such as by barring superdelegates from voting on the first ballot, noted Dickinson. Since Sanders is now 78 and probably won’t run again, he might demand that Biden support a higher minimum wage or Medicare for All as a long-term goal, he said.
Sanders could also ask for specific cabinet appointments, Dickinson noted, or some say over Biden’s vice-presidential running mate: “He might care if it’s Elizabeth Warren versus Kamala Harris versus Amy Klobuchar.”
It’s possible that Sanders’ continued efforts to pressure Biden to move left were prompted by the perception that he is already succeeding.
“Biden has already shifted away from his initial position that we should restore the status quo ante,” said Matthew Kerbel, a political science professor at Villanova University. “He saw that it wasn’t working for him in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Biden has begun arguing that he would be a transitional figure who would encourage newer voices in the party and act as a bridge, Kerbel said. “And the pandemic gives him cover for this and enables him to pivot,” because ideas such as Medicare for All might now seem more palatable.
Schurin said Sanders’ asking voters to continue supporting him at the polls could ironically work to Biden’s benefit, especially since there was a widespread perception that the Democratic establishment conspired against Sanders in 2016.
“It’s in Biden’s interest to keep Bernie supporters engaged and feeling like they had their opportunity,” he explained. “The more they feel like the process was fair, the better it is for Joe Biden.”
If Biden does end up making left-wing changes to the platform to placate Sanders, it’s not clear how important that would be.
Bartels doesn’t believe it would affect how Biden behaves in office. “If he is elected — a big if — he will govern just as he would have otherwise,” he said.
But Kerbel noted that “candidates are shaped by their platforms and, contrary to what many people believe, candidates do try to make good on their promises.”
“There’s academic literature to that effect,” Kerbel added.
The platform is also important because President Trump could use it to argue that the Democrats are too extreme, said Dickinson.
Platforms do come up in elections, said Schurin. In 1980 Senator Ted Kennedy mounted a primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter, and one of his arguments was that Carter had ignored the party platform.
Ultimately Biden will have to decide how many concessions he needs to make to placate not just Sanders but his base, said Dickinson.
“Sanders’ message lost, but it generated a lot of energy,” he said. “The question for Biden is, do you have to adopt the platform to get the energy?”