BURLINGTON, Vt. (CN) — Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign Wednesday, marking his second runner-up finish in the race to lead a major political party he otherwise does not represent and setting the stage for former Vice President Joe Biden to secure the nomination.
Sanders made the announcement during a staff conference call this morning, one day after the Wisconsin primary. Though the final results will not be released until next week, many polls predicted he would lose by a wide margin.
“While the campaign ends, the struggle for justice goes on,” Sanders said in a livestream, going on to thank his 2 million contributors. He said their 10 million individual donations averaged $18.50 each.
Even in losing, the 78-year-old Sanders achieved what many assumed was his real goal when he began his improbable campaign for president in 2016: to move the Democratic Party far to the left on economic and social issues.
He called his effort “an unprecedented grassroots political campaign that has had a profound impact on changing our nation.”
“Our movement has won the ideological struggle,” Sanders added, because ideas that had once been considered radical and fringe are now mainstream.
“That is what we have accomplished together … The future of our country is with our ideas,” Sanders continued.
Biden quickly responded, praising Sanders’ advocacy with regard to universal health care, income inequality, climate change and college debt. “While Bernie and I may not agree on how we might get there, we agree on the ultimate goal for these issues and many more,” he said.
The presumptive nominee addressed Sanders’ supporters, saying: “I see you, I hear you, and I understand the urgency of what it is we have to get done in this country. I hope you will join us.”
Meanwhile Brad Parscale, President Trump’s campaign manager, tried to divide the Democratic Party and attract disaffected Sanders supporters. “The Democrat establishment got the candidate they wanted in Joe Biden,” Parscale said. “Democrat elites shoved Bernie Sanders to the side for a second time, leaving many of his supporters looking for a new home.”
A registered Independent and self-described democratic socialist, Sanders’ signature issue was Medicare for All, a plan for free comprehensive government-paid health insurance. Few other Democratic candidates embraced Sanders’ exact vision, but all of them reacted to Sanders by claiming that their plan accomplished a similar goal of providing health insurance to all Americans.
This represented a major sea change. Only a few years earlier, the health care law enacted by President Barack Obama represented the Democrats’ singular legislature achievement of the decade. Yet in 2020, every Democrat running proposed scrapping the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or, as Biden did, making major changes such as adding a public option. In effect, pushed by Sanders, many Democrats ironically adopted the Republican talking point of needing to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Another key Sanders plan was free tuition at public colleges and universities and the cancellation of all student debt. Sanders once again forced the party to address his issue, with almost every other candidate adopting a plan for lowering tuition. Biden, for instance, proposed making two-year community colleges tuition-free, dramatically expanding Pell grants, halving federal undergraduate student loan debt, and offering $10,000 a year of loan forgiveness to government employees and people who work for nonprofit organizations.
The most audacious of Sanders’ proposals was the Green New Deal, a resolution that would eliminate fossil fuels, retrofit every building in the U.S. for energy efficiency, and guarantee all Americans a job capable of supporting a family along with paid vacations, retirement security and affordable food and housing.
Even moderates such as Biden embraced the Green New Deal, despite the fact that its lead House sponsor said it would cost at least $10 trillion, an estimate many analysts called far too low.
Many of Sanders’ other positions, once deemed radical, have moved closer to the mainstream of Democratic thinking, with Biden coming around on ideas such as much higher tax rates for the wealthy, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, the elimination of cash bail, studying reparations for slavery, and offering health care to undocumented immigrants. Other positions Sanders has taken include eliminating the Electoral College, banning fracking, slashing the defense budget, reducing income inequality and decriminalizing illegal entry to the U.S.
Sanders was often dismissed as a fringe candidate in 2016 before he demonstrated a surprising strength among younger and working-class voters and challenged Hillary Clinton all the way to the convention. That year the senator won more than 13 million votes, or 43% of the total, against a candidate who had been widely perceived as invulnerable.
This year Sanders faced off against more than 20 candidates, including five other senators, three governors and two self-funded billionaires. The Brooklyn native also suffered a heart attack in October.
Yet Sanders once again surprised pundits by standing out in the field. Sanders won the popular vote in the first three states — Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — before losing to Biden in a landslide in South Carolina and then watching Biden dominate in the 14 contests that followed on Super Tuesday.
When Sanders lost Michigan to Biden on March 10 — a state where Sanders had defeated Clinton in a surprise win that kept his 2016 campaign alive — it began to appear that he wouldn’t be able to overcome Biden’s delegate lead.
Sanders proved to be a shrewd debater, largely avoiding attacks on other candidates and effectively and often humorously parrying criticisms of his own positions. Frequently ignoring the topic brought up by the moderators, he used the debates to relentlessly drive home a few key talking points — that the U.S. was the only industrialized country without universal health care and that he would “go after” billionaires and the pharmaceutical, insurance and fossil-fuel industries.
To a great extent, Sanders also revolutionized the way campaigns are funded, eschewing wealthy donors, high-dollar fundraisers and Super PACs, and instead relying on large numbers of small donations. Sander raised an eye-popping $34.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2019 with the average donation amounting to only $18.53. He followed that by raising $25 million in January and $46 million in February.
But Sanders struggled with the perception that he couldn’t win a general election and that the presence of an avowed socialist at the top of the ticket would drag down Democrats in other races. When he became the frontrunner after Nevada, many leading Democrats publicly worried that he would harm the party’s chances in the House and Senate as well as in state contests.
Sanders’ response was that he would inspire large numbers of new and disaffected voters to come to the polls. But his predicted turnout boost failed to materialize. Despite narrowly winning the popular vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, for instance, he didn’t significantly increase his popularity there from 2016. When other candidates began to drop out and Biden became the consensus moderate favorite — as Clinton had been four years earlier — Sanders once again came up short.