The chatter started up again, stronger than ever, before caucus sites even opened across Nevada on Saturday. First, it was in the form of whispers among campaign strategists and donors, and as the week wore on, it became outright pleas in certain corners of cable news and Twitter. For Democrats desperate to nominate anyone other than Bernie Sanders, the time had come for some serious candidates to start dropping out.
The basic logic has never been in question: If Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer all stayed in the race, they would continue splitting the delegates needed for the nomination while Sanders built up a commanding plurality. Many of the candidates themselves agreed, and had started saying so in recent days. Some Bloomberg aides have called hosts of recent Biden fundraising events to dress them down for effectively boosting Sanders, according to Democrats familiar with the conversations. And before last week’s debate, a Bloomberg campaign memo warned, “If Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar remain in the race despite having no path to appreciably collecting delegates on Super Tuesday (and beyond), they will propel Sanders to a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead.” The next day, Buttigieg’s team shot back a warning that Bloomberg “will propel Sanders to a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead,” and then, later that day, Warren’s top surrogate, Julián Castro, called on Bloomberg to “drop out now,” too.
But the day after a decisive Sanders victory in Nevada, his rivals are all intent on staying in. Given the general agreement among anti-Sanders moderates that the field needs to shrink, why won’t anyone drop out?
To start, none of the candidates want to get out before any of their peers, if they can still conceive of some sliver of a path to victory. No one apart from Sanders has an especially convincing case to make about what his or her victory would look like — and each camp acknowledges that the party isn’t split into clear pro- and anti-Sanders lanes like many pundits imagine. After all, the Vermont senator is widely popular in the party, so he would likely continue to pick up a substantial share of support from any candidates who stepped aside. Still, all the campaigns are convinced they are the one that’s best positioned to take on Sanders one-on-one. Some of the Biden donors, for example, told the Bloomberg aides calling to scold them that the former mayor is hardly one to talk if he’s accusing Biden of helping Sanders.
Beyond all this, there’s no organized effort to shrink the field, and none is coming.
“People have this idea — and Sanders stokes this — that there’s a Democratic establishment that’s meeting and figuring these things out. [The truth is] there’s a bunch of people who have different interests,” one top party operative explained after Sanders’s wide margin of victory in Nevada became clear. The only pressure being exerted right now is informal, through statements made on cable news or to reporters. For example, many strategists have sought to highlight the point made by former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe on MSNBC Saturday night: It’s time for each of the candidates to define for themselves what their realistic path to victory looks like. But, of course, that’s not much of a political-pressure campaign.
What about the possibility that some party leader could seriously influence any candidate’s ability to stay in the race? “The only people it could be, in theory, are Obama, Schumer, and Pelosi,” the operative continued. “They have the stature to do it.” But there’s less than no indication that they will do so — or would even consider it — or that the candidates would even respect any effort to push them aside. The former president, for one, has made it clear to the campaigns that he won’t weigh in.
On Sunday, I checked in with a wide range of plugged-in Democrats of different ideological stripes to gauge whether any had heard stirrings of any organized, backroom efforts to try and shrink the field — or if that was just a tweet and chyron fantasy. The only people talking about it were “Twitter world & Dems who think they have power & don’t,” one texted back. Matt Bennett, the vice-president of the centrist Third Way think tank that’s been trying to galvanize anti-Sanders efforts since at least 2018, replied, “I have heard none, and if there were any, I would know about them.”
Third Way, for one, has been sending memos to early-state Democrats urging them to vote against Sanders. (“Democrats and Independent voters in South Carolina can come out en masse and overwhelm [GOP wishes] by voting for anyone — and that means anyone — other than Republicans’ preferred choice: Bernie Sanders,” read the South Carolina version, circulated late last week.) On Saturday, they sent another to Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Warren, urging them to go after Sanders during Tuesday’s debate. But this, of course, still risks splitting the non-Sanders vote. “Sure, we’re worried about that!,” Bennett admitted, but “there isn’t an obvious person to rally behind” — especially after Bloomberg’s debate fiasco. “We have some real affection for, and some worry about, all of [the candidates], but our job is limited: to try to make clear to voters that voting for Bernie is pretty risky, politically.”
It’s this line of thinking that’s led some anti-Bernie Democrats to conclude that their best hope is for Bloomberg to start spending tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on a negative ad campaign against the senator. That would presumably drive Sanders’s support down, but not necessarily position any of his rivals to pick up enough delegates to mount a serious challenge, especially if no one leaves the race. Nonetheless, a Bloomberg-funded barrage might keep Sanders’s ultimate delegate plurality lower than he’d like.
“I do think there is a difference between winning 35 percent of the delegates and winning 45 percent of the delegates, and that’s basically where we are right now: Is there going to be someone like Obama was in ’08 — not in a majority, but so clearly ahead that it’s a foregone conclusion? Or a muddle in the delegates, like the state results?,” asked Addisu Demissie, a longtime Democratic strategist and Cory Booker’s 2020 campaign manager. “That’s the question.”
No candidate is publicly admitting that they’re hoping for a muddle — each still professes to see a path to victory. But some candidates’ aides are still wondering, under their breath, whether they should be actively preparing to compete on the second ballot at the convention in Milwaukee. A second ballot could occur if Sanders’s final delegate total is too small to carry him to the nomination on the first ballot. Bloomberg’s aides have quietly started wooing elected officials and other superdelegates with this specific scenario explicitly in mind.
Still, for everyone but Sanders, a serious short-term concern is avoiding being the subject of public calls to step aside. The memory of Scott Walker dropping out in September 2015, urging his rivals to follow suit in order to weaken Trump — only to get his reputation steamrolled — remains searing for them.
Klobuchar, for one, has been the subject of hushed speculation that she’s aiming to win enough delegates in upcoming contests in her home state of Minnesota and neighbors like North Dakota to be influential at the convention. But in Fargo on Sunday, she insisted she’s still trying to win, comparing her campaign to Bill Clinton’s, which also didn’t win any statewide contests until Super Tuesday. Warren, meanwhile, has been trying to position herself as a Sanders alternative by becoming the field’s foremost Bloomberg attacker, even as a disappointing result in Nevada makes her road to victory look especially daunting. Biden, too, has a tough path ahead, but is convinced a clear win in South Carolina could set him up as the non-Sanders portion of the party’s best bet. And Buttigieg, who effectively tied Sanders in Iowa and came in second in New Hampshire, is using those results and his recent attacks on Sanders to claim that he is the obvious choice. “Pete has shown he’s the only candidate who can beat Sanders. In the first two contests so far, Pete is the only candidate who provides any real competition,” read his campaign’s postdebate (but pre-Nevada caucus) memo.
If any one candidate is facing the pressure more than the others, though, it’s Steyer. The California billionaire has yet to win a delegate, but he’s polling in third in South Carolina on the back of his massive investments (of money and time) there. Steyer’s critics argue that he has no shot at winning the nomination, and that his double-digit support in the state must be keeping Biden’s down. If he were to drop out, their theory goes, Biden might win the next primary by a comfortable margin instead of wrestling for it with Sanders.
Steyer, though, has consistently dismissed this idea, and on Sunday morning, a new CBS News–YouGov poll put him at 18 percent support in the state. So much for winnowing: It was enough to qualify him for this week’s debate in Charleston, adding a seventh body to the stage.
A few hours later, I caught up with a leading Democratic strategist who made the case that rival campaigns may not want to admit out loud that it’s Sanders’s race to lose unless something dramatic changes in the next few days, but that they know it. For all the talk about pressuring candidates out to force some kind of moderate consolidation, he said, “We’re nine days away from this talking point being thrown out the window.”
“People are lying now about their ability to win, what they’re actually in the race for. If people keep lying for the next nine days, we’re going to end up in a position where Sanders is probably going to be the nominee by default. And people are going to say, ‘What happened?,’” he continued. “You were faking it for all of February. That’s what happened.”