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Analysis

Why Bernie Sanders lost the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination

Senator Bernie Sanders announced Wednesday that he was suspending his 2020 Democratic presidential campaign over a video livestream from his home in Burlington, Vt.Handout/Getty

When it mattered the most in the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination cycle, Senator Bernie Sanders was the best-positioned candidate to win.

In December, it looked like Sanders would win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. He was picking up momentum in the next state to vote, Nevada. Sure, Joe Biden had a big lead in South Carolina, but, the thinking went, once he started losing in the first three states, his lead there would soon dissipate. Sanders would win there or get close enough.

But then he didn’t. Biden won big in South Carolina. The rest of the field dropped out and endorsed Biden. And with neck-snapping speed, in fewer than three days, Sanders went from essentially winning the nomination to losing it.

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Sanders ends presidential campaign
Bernie Sanders announces he is ending his bid for president, pledges to work with Joe Biden. (Photo: Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff, Video: Handout)

Sanders didn’t lose the nomination because of something he did in that moment. Rather, it revealed the structural cracks in the foundation of his campaign and everything came tumbling down.

That was over a month ago. And now, even with 27 states and territories yet to vote, Sanders called it quits Wednesday and all but endorsed Biden in remarks to his supporters.

“While we are winning the ideological battle and while we are winning this support of so many young people and working people throughout the country, I have concluded that this battle for the Democratic nomination will not be successful,” he said on a livestream. He later said that he could not in “good conscience” continue a campaign he was set to lose anyway, amid the coronavirus outbreak.

There will be books and academic dissertations written about the past six weeks, a stretch that changed the course of the Democratic nomination and the trajectory of the entire 2020 campaign.

But the focus on such a short period misses just how improbable Sanders’ rise was from a quirky, unknown independent Senator five years ago to one of the most prominent leaders in American politics. He changed the Democratic Party while not even being a member of it. At the same time, Sanders lost the nomination for reasons that existed long before the few days before Super Tuesday, when Biden took a commanding lead in the contest.

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Here are three big reasons why Sanders lost:

His 2020 campaign was so non-traditional that it ended up hurting his ability to win a traditional election.

Several candidates for their party’s presidential nomination have come in second place only to turn around, run again, and be the nominee the next time. George H.W. Bush did it. John McCain did it. Mitt Romney did it. Hillary Clinton did it.

There is basically a playbook for what they all did between their first and second campaigns. They used their newfound status to broaden and deepen party connections, with voters, leaders, and donors. They make themselves useful to the party. They helped incumbents. They become thought leaders and created the sense early on that they were the inevitable nominee.

Sanders did none of this. He was not in the friends-making business. He has never been in the friends-making business. Instead, his first moves were to fight the party on issues ranging from superdelegates to cutting down on how many states can hold presidential caucuses. He won those fights.

But when a newly installed Democratic National Committee chairman asked for Sanders to go on a road tour of sorts to unite the party, Sanders agreed to attend the events (kicking off in Maine), but not share any information about his supporters, a step to bringing his team into the party fold. The roadshow turned into a disaster. And when Sanders ran for reelection for Senate in 2018 he didn’t do it as a Democrat. He still remained apart.

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Instead of expanding his circle, Sanders saw his coalition getting smaller. True, he did incredible outreach among the Latino community and it paid off in Nevada, California, and Texas. But older Black voters were a problem for Sanders in 2016, and became even more of a problem for him in 2020.

He was a protest candidate that didn’t match the moment

In poll after poll, Democratic primary voters agreed on one thing: they wanted a candidate who could defeat Donald Trump. And while Sanders was right that poll after poll showed him beating Trump, he would still go out and talk about the need for a dramatic revolution. It wasn’t the right message.

Biden only talked about his ability to win. And, for whatever reason, the democratic socialist who wants to radically restructure the American economy was unable to convince Democrats that he was the electable choice. As the campaign progressed, he was offering revolution, while Biden, former mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Amy Klobuchar were offering a path to 270 electoral votes.

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Unlike with Republicans in 2016, other candidates dropped out

Even with his nontraditional candidacy and his revolutionary message, Sanders could have become the nominee, just like Donald Trump became the Republican nominee in 2016.

But that year, multiple candidates stayed in the GOP race and allowed Trump to continue to be the front-runner with a third of the vote. But Democratic candidates dropped out, and consolidated behind Biden in a matter of days.

That created a lot of momentum and voters responded in turn. Then, Biden had a lead that was too hard to overcome.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.