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The Week Bernie Sanders Realized He Was Losing

Interviews with nearly two dozen aides, allies, and progressive operatives reveal a campaign struggling to reconcile reality with the emotions of a movement that simply fell short.

Last updated on March 11, 2020, at 8:05 p.m. ET

Posted on March 11, 2020, at 4:18 p.m. ET

BURLINGTON, Vermont — The hard reality of Tuesday night wasn’t losing.

And he did lose. He lost Idaho. He lost Missouri. He lost Mississippi so badly that he may only barely pick up delegates. And he lost Michigan, the state that revived his first presidential campaign four years ago. The hard reality, evident days earlier, was much tougher to accept.

You could see it last week, when his motorcade arrived for a rally at the fairgrounds in Salt Lake City, and all they could do was watch as a seven-person field rapidly shrunk to a two-man race, with candidates flying in secret to line up behind Joe Biden in Dallas. As the news broke, a senior aide stood in the fairgrounds parking lot near a line of SUVs, visibly shaking with nerves.

You saw it back in his Washington headquarters, where staffers reassured themselves by digging back in, as if by muscle memory, to an old trench: “Did we really think they were going to let us have it?” they told one another. You saw it after Super Tuesday, a loss across 10 states, when some senior aides began to worry that Biden wouldn’t even show up to the next debate, simply because he wouldn’t have to. And even as the campaign made a hard last play for Michigan, some aides said they could see “the writing on the wall” — and wondered if the boss did, too.

Bernie Sanders promised a singular and unprecedented ability to bring young and working-class people into the political process, an antidote to the “same old, same old status quo,” a campaign of “energy and excitement.” But it was Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders, who was expanding the electorate. It was Joe Biden who was turning non-voters into new voters. Everyone knew who Bernie Sanders was. The other guy was just getting more votes — and how could he explain that?

A few days ago, when reporters asked in Phoenix, he couldn’t.

He hadn’t had a chance to dig into the numbers yet, he said. “I honestly have not,” Sanders told his press corps, standing at a podium in the conference room of a private terminal at the airport.

“I mean, I like doing those things, but I've been kind of frantically running around,” he said.

But Biden was bringing in new suburban voters, a reporter noted. “Are you running out of time to—”

Sanders cut in. “Well, we’re doing the best that we can.”

“All I can say is we’re working as hard as we can,” he repeated.

Maybe there was nothing else to say. The 78-year-old Vermont senator, who is a stubborn and irascible candidate, a well of resentment for the “clique” in the Democratic Party and of empathy for the working class and poor, set out to do one thing, give one speech, and lead one kind of movement. He was as single-minded in his mission as in the way he wanted to pursue it. He resisted change, most often at the urging of his own aides, including over the last few weeks as some begged him to be more aggressive in his attacks against Biden. From the start of his second presidential bid almost 13 months ago, his team liked to tell reporters that, unlike his race four years ago, this campaign was his campaign. And maybe it just wasn’t working well enough.

Before Michael Bloomberg’s collapse at a debate in Nevada, before Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg dropped out to lift up Biden, Sanders had a strong chance to come out of last week with a lead in the delegate race that, in a crowded field, candidates could chase but never catch. But after Tuesday, when voters across six states cast their ballots, Biden was leading by well over 100 delegates, with favorable states such as Florida and Ohio slated for next week.

At a hotel in downtown Burlington — where senior aides prepared to leave for New York ahead of a previously scheduled appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon Sanders did not at any point say the words “I am staying in the race,” but said he looked forward to attending the upcoming Democratic debate on Sunday. His wife, Jane Sanders, and members of their senior campaign team looked on from the side of the room, all of them in matching stolid expressions.

He knew he was losing the delegate race, he said. And knew he was losing the “electability debate.” His position, delivered in 10 minutes of prepared remarks, was not one of a candidate who expects to win — and Sanders, often mistaken by his critics as a movement politician with no interest in governing or institutionalizing change, wanted more than anything to win.

Greg Guma, a Vermont progressive who has followed Sanders for decades, had no trouble in an interview last year naming the biggest difference between this campaign and his first four years ago.

“He wants to win,” Guma said. “He wants to win as badly as a person can want to win.”

Interviews with nearly two dozen aides, allies, and progressive operatives over the last week reveal a campaign struggling to reconcile the reality of the delegate math with the emotions of an entire progressive movement that now rests on the shoulders of a man who has pursued his aims with a single-minded focus for more than 50 years, who built a vast and obsessive following from almost nothing in 2016, who doesn’t easily back down — even when he knows he’s lost.

“He was never able to expand his coalition,” said Mark Longabaugh, a top adviser who split with the campaign early last year over strategic disagreements with the candidate. “He just didn’t succeed at it.”

Joseph Prezioso / Getty Images

Sanders after speaking to the press in Burlington, March 11.

Now, Sanders has a legacy to consider. But over the last week, as he sought to reframe the race into an argument of ideas with Biden, the Vermont senator fell back into the familiar rhythms of his first presidential bid, brooding over moderates racing to “anoint” their preferred candidate and complaining about a corporate media he believes isn’t even trying to understand his cause.

“'How do we stop Bernie Sanders!'” he said last week of recent “Stop Sanders” coverage, feigning panic and alarm in his mock impression of the TV networks. “That’s the frame. Not 'My god, you have a candidate who’s trying to bring working people [into] the political process.’”

All week, on his plane, in hold rooms backstage, Sanders would approach aides in his gruff, matter-of-fact tone to tell them, sometimes apropos of nothing at all: We’re in a fight.

Even as anxiety grew in Sanders’ Washington headquarters, the tight circle that travels around him mirrored the straightforward and laserlike focus of the candidate. Sanders is tough on his staff and prone to angry outbursts, but in pursuit of his “political revolution,” he is almost even-keeled — a temperament matched by his quiet campaign manager, Faiz Shakir. “He’s like Faiz,” communications director Mike Casca once told reporters. “He’s always at a 5 out of 10.”

But for many outside the senator’s small retinue of staff, the past week unfolded as if in slow motion, a muddle of frustration and sadness as they came to terms with what was happening.

On the road, Sanders and the senior aides around him pressed as if little around them had changed.

“The divide isn’t between the traveling staff and headquarters,” one progressive operative close to the operation said this week. “The divide is between reality and the candidate's head.”

Last weekend, a few days after Elizabeth Warren dropped out, Shakir and one of his deputy campaign managers, Ari Rabin-Havt, started contacting her top staffers and supporters to see what could be done to bring together the two camps before the primaries on Tuesday.

Sanders spoke to Warren a “handful” of times throughout the week, a campaign aide confirmed, but she has declined to offer her endorsement.

Several figures in Warren’s circle balked at the outreach effort — Sanders and his aides, they said, had months to lay the groundwork for that kind of partnership, but only did so this week from a position of desperation. About a month ago, when it was clear that Warren had little chance to win, one person inside the campaign said they put out feelers to Sanders’ operation in an attempt to create new lines of communication. At the time, senior Sanders officials showed little interest, the person said, in reciprocating.

Others questioned whether Sanders could have prevented such a swift consolidation of the field had he reached out to candidates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar in a more concerted way.

“That's the Sanders model — they were gonna do it themselves,” said Adam Jentleson, a Democratic strategist who supported Warren. “His challenge from day one was to reach out to people who weren't with him in 2016 and build a bridge to the rest of the party.”

“I would feel differently about it if the other half of the equation was present for them: a wave of new voters and unprecedented youth turnout,” Jentleson added. “But it’s not there.”

Meanwhile, a small group of senior aides had been pushing Sanders for months to go harder on Biden.

The problem: Sanders actually liked him. Personally, they got along better than he ever did with Hillary Clinton, aides have said. (The former vice president falls into an exclusive category for the Vermont senator: the people who were nice to Sanders before he mattered, as two aides put it recently.) Back in January, it was the candidate’s decision to personally apologize to Biden after one of his surrogates, Zephyr Teachout, wrote an op-ed about Biden’s “corruption problem.”

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Sanders and Biden speak during a break during the Democratic presidential primary debate in Las Vegas, Feb. 19.

David Sirota, the hard-charging senior adviser who has frequently made attacks on Biden go viral on Twitter, became so enraged by his unwillingness to budge on the matter that he laid out his concerns in a starkly worded email to the candidate and senior aides after Super Tuesday.

The message, two people familiar with the email said: We do this or we lose.

At campaign events over the next few days in Arizona and Michigan, Sanders turned his stump speech into a long list of policy disagreements with Biden, on everything from trade and social security to LGBTQ rights and abortion, threading in obvious nuggets of opposition research, citing decades-old Senate votes and a 1974 quote from Biden about Roe v. Wade.

In his remarks to reporters in Burlington on Wednesday, Sanders said he would like Sunday’s debate with his “friend” Biden to be about questions concerning the future — asking a series of questions about what kind of change the former vice president would bring to working people.

“Joe, what are you gonna do?” he said over and over, backdropped by four US flags.

Off the side of the room, Jane nodded along.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Sanders and Rev. Jesse Jackson wait to be introduced at a campaign rally in Calder Plaza in Grand Rapids, Michigan, March 8.

In private conversations over the last week, Sanders staffers were already starting to talk about their mission beyond “winning.” Several pointed to a rally last Sunday in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Rev. Jesse Jackson came off the sidelines of the race to endorse Sanders — a personal victory the candidate described privately as the most meaningful moment of the campaign.

Nina Turner, the campaign’s cochair, described in a phone interview the feeling inside the Sanders operation on Wednesday morning with a single word: “heavy.”

“People are talking about this campaign as if we didn’t know what we were bumping up against,” she said. “We’re bumping up against an entire world — a system, if you will — that doesn’t want to bend.”

In a sense, neither does the candidate.

Over the last 13 months, Sanders has held a firm, at times unyielding grip on his own strategy.

Jeff Kowalsky / Getty Images

Sanders speaks at a rally in Detroit, March 6.

That’s led to a presidential campaign that’s spoken to working-class voters in ways never seen before, turning his massive digital following into a platform for individual stories of struggle through an unexpectedly emotional series of town halls this summer and fall on subjects such as medical debt. Sanders has described the effort as a kind of support network for people left out of mainstream politics — an effort to help millions of people, in his words, “feel less alone.”

It’s also meant that Sanders, a candidate rarely willing to budge, served as his own press secretary, digital director, pollster, advertiser, and campaign manager. The true inner circle around the senator is already exceptionally tight — limited to his wife and five or so staffers — and even smaller still is the group of aides on his 2020 payroll who are willing to tell him “no.”

Longabaugh, the former adviser who was a central member of the 2016 campaign, recalled urging Sanders to spend the three years in between his presidential bids building relationships inside Democratic Party structures like the big unions or the Congressional Black Caucus.

More often than not, he said, the senator resisted.

“He was never gonna be one of those Walter Mondale– or Hillary Clinton–esque figures who would be able to wire up the entire party. There was a potential for him to make some inroads,” he said. "He got 42% of the vote last time. I always told him, ‘If you make small inroads, you're not too far from 50.’ But that stuff just never came naturally to Bernie Sanders."

More recently, in late February, some Sanders supporters watched in amazement as he claimed victory in the first three states, including by a massive margin in Nevada, and then proceeded to do very little to reach out to voters not already in his movement — instead continuing to rail against the establishment forces that soon after lined up against him.

“It’s a fair question,” Larry Cohen, a longtime Sanders supporter who sits on the board of his political nonprofit, Our Revolution, said of whether the candidate missed a crucial opportunity. “He’s an amazing human being. And all amazing human beings are not perfect.”

On the day the race began to change in Utah, reporters asked the deputy manager, Rabin-Havt, about what if anything Sanders would be willing to change. Would he appeal to moderates?

“My question back at that is: Tell me what that would look like,” Rabin-Havt said.

A more “inclusive message,” one reporter offered.

The back-and-forth continued in quick succession.

Rabin-Havt said Sanders’ message was inclusive.

So he wouldn’t consider doing anything different?

“What do you mean ‘consider doing anything different’?” he asked.

Would he change anything?

“Bernie Sanders has had the same values for his entire career,” Rabin-Havt finally said, “and he isn't changing that.”

Across the fairgrounds, past a crowd of 5,800 people, the candidate was onstage, delivering his usual speech, as if by heart. ●

Henry Gomez contributed reporting to this story.

CORRECTION

Bernie Sanders is on track to pick up some delegates in Mississippi. A previous version of this story misstated how he performed in the state.

The Week Bernie Sanders Realized He Was Losing

Interviews with nearly two dozen aides, allies, and progressive operatives reveal a campaign struggling to reconcile reality with the emotions of a movement that simply fell short.

Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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