Bernie Sanders is battling to stay relevant, with the political world increasingly shifting its focus to a general election match-up between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Having acknowledged for the first time this week that Clinton will likely be the Democratic nominee, Sanders has undertaken a publicity blitz that seems aimed at staving off his marginalization
He delivered a speech to supporters in New York City on Thursday and appeared on CBS’s “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” the same day. He gave interviews to several news shows Friday morning, with additional campaign events in Syracuse, N.Y., and Albany, N.Y., also planned.
Sanders also penned an op-ed for The Washington Post, headlined “Here’s what we want.” In it, he laid out his policy prescriptions for income inequality, reforming the criminal justice and campaign finance systems, and putting increased focus on climate change.
But amid the whirl of activity, it was one word from the left-wing Vermont senator that attracted the most attention. Asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” whether he would vote for Clinton in November, he replied, “Yes.”
He has neither formally endorsed Clinton nor suspended his own campaign, however. In the MSNBC interview, he emphasized that the goal was “to fight for the strongest possible platform [at] the Democratic convention,” which is to be held in Philadelphia next month. He has also expressed a desire for broader reforms of the party in recent speeches.
But insiders say he has a tough task if he hopes to bend Democratic officials — and the Clinton campaign — to his will, particularly since Sanders is an outsider who remains a registered independent.
“Look, I think the point of maximum leverage was way, way back. It dissipates every day,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who managed Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “As the country, the party and the media all turn their attention to Trump versus Clinton — and the various speeches, ads and attacks — he is diminished greatly.”
Sanders’s supporters do not see it that way, pointing to the more than 13 million votes he received over the course of the primary process. Activists on the left argue that the reverberations of his run will be felt even beyond November.
“Bernie Sanders will return to the Senate with exponentially more influence than he had before and a grassroots network that is capable of having an ongoing ripple effect throughout the country for years to come,” said Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group.
But in the shorter-term, Sanders is in a tricky position. Major figures in the party who stayed neutral while the primary was competitive, from President Obama on down, have now backed Clinton. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) will campaign with Clinton in Cincinnati on Monday.
More broadly, patience for Sanders is wearing thin among many Democrats.
On Friday, pollster and Clinton loyalist Geoff Garin tweeted an excerpt of remarks Clinton made in the course of rallying Democrats behind Obama after he defeated her in the 2008 primary. “This is what doing everything to defeat Trump looks like,” Garin wrote.
Other strategists expressed similar annoyance with Sanders.
“In the real world, his leverage is somewhat limited because he has made a spirited run of it but, ultimately, he lost by a wide margin. In the alternative reality that some of his supporters live in, they secretly won the election but it was stolen from them,” said Evan Stavisky, a New York-based Democratic strategist who did not work for either candidate but personally supports Clinton.
“At some stage Bernie Sanders has to decide it he lives in the real world or a fantasy world.”
On Wednesday, Sanders conceded that it “doesn’t appear” that he will be the Democratic nominee. But giving up on a hard-fought presidential campaign is easier said than done, party insiders acknowledge.
“He is reluctant to let go of the national movement that he created, which is more like a social moment than a purely political one. And his most dedicated followers are certainly not happy to let go, either,” said another Democratic strategist, Hank Sheinkopf.
“He has got to find a way to keep the movement alive while ensuring that Trump does not become president. So, the onus is on him, not on the Clintons.”
Sheinkopf also noted that, in the modern media environment, Sanders would lose the spotlight faster than he might like if he does not make a point of giving TV interviews and holding rallies.
There is an additional complication, too. Even as it was becoming obvious that Sanders’s chances of beating Clinton were diminishing in recent months, a lot of attention was paid to the whether his supporters would back her in a general election.
Most opinion polls within the past two weeks have given Clinton a lead over Trump. That has eased Democratic nerves because it suggests that her fortunes in November might not hinge upon winning over every last Sanders supporter.
“These polls are presumably reflecting whatever number of Sanders supporters are saying they won’t vote for her,” said Trippi. “Trump is the great unifier — I think he’s such an over-the-top opponent from the Republican Party that very few Democrats, progressives…won’t come together against him.”
But some progressives, such as Green, believe that voter intensity matters, too — and that the ardor of Sanders’s backers will keep him relevant, even now that his chances of becoming the nominee have all but evaporated.
“It’s not that [Clinton] needs a Bernie Sanders endorsement, per se. It’s that she needs his millions of supporters, yes, to vote for her, but also to be energized to volunteer and donate,” Green said. “And that isn’t really about him flipping a switch one way or another. It’s about her signaling that the Democratic Party is unified around big, bold progressive ideas.”