When Bernie Sanders ended his presidential bid last week, he conceded that he could not feasibly catch up to Joe Biden’s 300-some delegate lead to win the nomination but told supporters that he would stay on the ballot in all the remaining state primaries. “While Vice President Biden will be the nominee, we must continue working 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,” he said in a livestreamed video address.
At the time, Sanders had 911 delegates to Biden’s 1,226. Sanders picked up 24 more from Wisconsin’s controversial in-person election — which was held the day before he dropped out but whose results were announced this week — with the Vermont senator taking just 31 percent of the vote. He got seven more delegates from Alaska, where he won 45 percent of the vote. Alaska’s vote-by-mail primary was the first contest held after Sanders had dropped out, but only 15 out of the 3,979 total pledged delegates were up for grabs. Roughly 1,600 delegates remain, according to NBC News’s delegate tracker.
The party platform will be decided at the Democratic National Convention, which was postponed from July to August due to the coronavirus pandemic. To have more influence over shaping it, Sanders will need at least 1,200 elected delegates, which will require winning at least 15 percent of the vote in the remaining primaries. Some delegate-rich states are still up for grabs, like Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. (Many of the votes in Ohio have already been cast by mail; GOP Gov. Mike DeWine postponed the in-person election that had been scheduled for March 17.)
But it’s unclear how hard the Sanders campaign — or what’s left of it — will be working to get those delegates. Sanders has already said he would not actively campaign or spend money on advertising in any of the remaining contests, and he has made clear that he will be campaigning for Biden.
The Sanders campaign, which has laid off the vast majority of its organizing staff, told The Intercept that there’s “a team that works on delegates that is working the strategy” but declined to provide further detail, including how many staffers are staying on to do that.
As the senator deliberated the future of his campaign in recent weeks, Larry Cohen, chair of Our Revolution, urged Sanders to stay in the race all the way to the convention. He warned that if Sanders failed to amass at least 25 percent of the total, then all the democratic reforms his supporters had fought for after 2016, such as reducing the power of superdelegates and making caucuses more transparent, could be lost.
“The reforms were only put in place for one cycle,” Cohen told The Intercept. “It’s not what we set out to do, but it’s what we could get passed at the time.”
While Our Revolution, the group that formed from the remnants of Sanders’s 2016 campaign, says it’s prioritizing turning out voters to rack up Sanders’s delegate count, most of the other national groups that backed Sanders’s candidacy aren’t planning to direct much, if any, resources to that effort.
Our Revolution will be doing personal outreach to its most active supporters in the remaining states with requests that they volunteer to send get-out-the-vote texts to other voters. The group is not running any independent expenditures for Sanders.
Other Sanders-supporting groups don’t have plans to get involved or are planning to do just minimal outreach over email and social media. Evan Weber, political director for the Sunrise Movement, which endorsed Sanders in January, told The Intercept that the group hasn’t determined whether it will be phone-banking or doing other kinds of GOTV work for the remaining primaries. “It’s not in our organizing plans as they are developed thus far,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Democratic Socialists of America said that since Sanders has left the race, the organization has “shifted our work to focus on down ballot races,” naming a handful of local, state, and congressional candidates it is supporting.
Justice Democrats will also be focusing on down-ballot primaries, said spokesperson Waleed Shahid, and the Center for Popular Democracy Action is also not investing more in getting out the vote for Sanders. Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of CPD Action, said its stance is “folks can choose to vote for Sanders in the remaining primaries, and Biden should see those votes as an endorsement of the progressive agenda he’ll need to make room for to motivate key voting blocs needed to defeat Trump.” The group’s biggest focus now though, she said, is “defeating Trump and advancing bold progressive ideals.”
The Working Families Party, which originally endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren but then endorsed Sanders several days after she dropped out, will be encouraging members to vote for Sanders through email and social media, but is not planning to run a big persuasion effort. “We’re going to urge WFP members in the remaining primary states to cast a vote for Sanders, in order to send as many progressive delegates as possible to the convention,” said WFP’s national campaigns director, Joe Dinkin.
There is historical precedent for a losing candidate to focus on influencing their party’s convention even when their nomination was out of reach. When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988, he also used his position to push for rules reform in the Democratic nominating process, which he argued had unfairly hurt black candidates and other outsiders running as progressives. Jackson successfully pushed for abolishing the “winner-take-all” delegate standard, and now delegates are divided up proportionally according to a candidate’s share of the vote. It was these reforms that enabled Barack Obama to win his presidential primary in 2008.
Sanders reaching the 25 percent threshold is important, said Cohen, because under current Democratic Party rules, if a candidate has at least 25 percent, then those delegates can introduce minority resolutions on the floor — a sometimes long and dramatic process that convention leaders work very hard to avoid. The goal is always to reach a compromise among committee members beforehand so as to avoid that scenario. Sanders supporters say that having the leverage to bring issues to the floor, even a virtual floor, will be key to winning concessions from the centrist wing.
Five days after dropping out, Sanders endorsed Biden and has since emphasized that he will work to support the former vice president in the general election. “I will do everything I can to help elect Joe,” Sanders told the Associated Press on Tuesday. “We had a contentious campaign. We disagree on issues. But my job now is to not only rally my supporters, but to do everything I can to bring the party together to see that [Trump] is not elected president.”
Regardless of whether Sanders is able to reach the delegate threshold he seeks, Biden is facing greater pressure to unify the party and court Sanders supporters than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. This week the two men announced that they will be forming task forces to work on issues like education, immigration, health care, criminal justice, and climate change. On Tuesday night, during an Instagram Live conversation with rapper Cardi B, Sanders said Biden was “moving in the right direction” on immigration and criminal justice reform.
Under pressure to unify the party, it’s unlikely that Biden would come out explicitly against the rules reforms the DNC Unity Commission agreed to in 2017 — especially as Biden’s campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon co-chaired that commission. The Biden campaign did not return a request for comment.
Cohen, though, has his eye not just on maintaining those reforms, but expanding them and pushing the party to adopt more progressive positions. Examples of platform stances he said Sanders delegates could push for include allowing employers to join Medicare, which is how South Korea eventually got to single payer, and allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can.