Hillary Clinton needs to win just 17 percent of the remaining uncommitted delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination. At this point, arguments about Bernie Sanders’s platform, his movement, or his purported electability are irrelevant; he will not be the Democratic nominee for president. Sanders must know this, but he has declared he will contest Clinton’s nomination up to the party’s nominating convention in July.
It is Sanders’s prerogative to remain in the race. But exercising that prerogative makes it easier for mega-wealthy conservatives to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to lethally bludgeon both Clinton’s candidacy and the progressive agenda to which Sanders has devoted his career. This is not solely about combating the grave threat of a Donald Trump presidency. It is also about the potential of a Democratic landslide and the progressive achievements that could follow, which is an opportunity too rare and precious to squander. The best way for Sanders to advance the progressive cause is to end his campaign and unabashedly ask his supporters to join him in helping to elect Hillary Clinton.
Sanders has earned the support of millions of Democrats, and the respect of even many ardent Clinton supporters. He has drawn attention to inequality, and to the economic and political influence of Wall Street. He has broadened the political debate and expanded the Democratic Party’s horizons. None of this will change if he steps aside now. On the flip side, what would Sanders gain by dragging out the nomination? Many Democrats are eager to wrap up the intra-party debate and take the fight to Trump. He’s in an optimal position to win concessions from Democrats, and will lose leverage as the nomination drags on.
Sanders supporters, resisting calls for him to end his campaign, point out Clinton did not end her 2008 campaign against Barack Obama until June. For what it’s worth, Clinton should not have stayed in the race that long. But the Clinton campaign did at least have a rationale for hanging around. Michigan and Florida had flouted the Democratic National Committee’s nominating schedule, and their delegates were not allocated until the DNC rules committee met in the last week of May. Had Clinton won a more favorable distribution of those delegates, she would have been within 100 pledged delegates of Obama, giving her hope for a miracle at the convention. Instead, a week after the DNC’s meeting, she ended her campaign. Sanders has no potential delegate windfalls awaiting him. The trajectory of the race is set, and Clinton will win on the first ballot.
Sanders supporters also claim that the extended nomination fight in 2008 laid the foundation for Obama’s massive field efforts that fall. That may have been true in some states in 2008, but none of the states remaining this year will be competitive in a close race. Besides, Sanders is not spending his money on field organizing, but on television ads in safely Democratic California. Sanders’s campaign can no longer be seen as an investment toward a Clinton victory in November.
But the biggest difference between 2008 and 2016, what makes it urgent that Sanders drop out now, is the effect of what Sanders considers one of the biggest blights on American democracy: the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.
In 2008 Clinton and Obama were both personally raising more money than John McCain. It was feasible that, financially speaking, Democrats would have at least parity with the Republicans. There were tighter restrictions back then on how corporations and wealthy individuals could spend money on elections. Excluding spending by party committees (e.g., the National Republican Senatorial Committee), spending in federal elections by outside groups was about $350 million in 2008.
In 2012, after Citizens United, outside spending jumped to $1 billion. Super PACs and other groups that use “dark money” now fund not only TV and radio ads, but also candidate and issue research, campaign infrastructure, fundraising, legal work, and other activities that benefit candidates. Super PACs allied with Republicans have spent far more money in federal races than those allied with Democrats. The GOP’s advantages in state elections are harder to track and quantify, but their state-level edge is probably far greater. The Koch brothers—whose political operation is a complex network of organizations that has become a second party apparatus for the GOP—raised over $400 million in 2012, and have pledged to spend nearly $900 million in 2016, even if they are so far reluctant to spend that money directly on Trump. Liberals do not come close to matching this kind of spending.
Despite their financial advantage, Republicans are in trouble. Trump is a deeply flawed candidate currently polling well behind Clinton. With the decline of ticket-splitting, a big loss by Trump will result in more Republican losses down the ballot.
Democrats should be ready to dig in if it turns out to be a tough fight with Trump. But they should not do anything now that might limit the scope of their victories if the presidential race becomes a rout. Obama won in 2012 by four points; if Clinton matches that, Democrats will probably regain control of the Senate. Because of gerrymandering a four-point Clinton win would not deliver Democrats the House, but a ten-point win—which would partly rely on lower turnout by demoralized Republicans—might cause such Republican carnage that Democrats could seize full control of Congress.
A Clinton landslide would reverberate even further down the ballot. Republican governors and legislators have blocked the Medicaid expansion, imposed regressive taxes, cut funding for education, attacked unions, obstructed efforts to deal with climate change, and led revanchist attacks on voting, LGBTQ, and reproductive rights—all key issues for Sanders. Flipping control of state governments could help stop agendas being advanced by the Kochs and social conservatives at the state level. It may even open up possibilities to implement the progressive policies Sanders holds dear.
In 2012, while Mitt Romney and the other Republican candidates were expending resources to bash each other, Obama’s campaign methodically laid the foundation of a massive voter persuasion and get-out-the-vote effort. This required money and time, of course, but also the cooperation of the Democratic National Committee and state Democratic Party organizations, which only comes once a candidate is accepted as the presumptive nominee.
Republicans have already capitulated to Trump, which means Democrats will not have the head-start that Obama had in 2012. Furthermore, until Sanders concedes, Democrats cannot fully start running what are known as “coordinated campaigns.” The national and state party committees and individual campaigns set up these legal and political structures to foster communications, pool resources, prevent duplication, and achieve economies of scale. The result is more efficient and effective canvassing, phone banks, mail, and other forms of voter contact that help Democrats. The sooner coordinated campaigns are fully staffed and operational, the more contests Democrats will win for Senate, the House, state legislatures, and important positions like state attorney general.
Clinton’s campaign has begun pivoting to a campaign against Trump, but she is still spending existing resources on the Democratic primary. Furthermore, Sanders is delaying and possibly diminishing the windfall of donations that she will receive after he concedes, from his supporters as well as other Democrats eager to unify the party. Prolonging the nomination fight will keep some large donors from maximizing their potential contribution. It will also limit her small-donor support, since many donors pledge modest amounts per month. Fewer months with a presumptive nominee will mean fewer small monthly contributions. Less money results in less grassroots organizing, which results in fewer votes for Democrats all down the ballot.
James Carville is fond of the phrase “when your opponent is drowning, throw the son of a bitch an anvil.” Those urging Sanders to remain in the race to “sustain the movement” or “change the Democratic Party” must come to terms with the fact that they’re jeopardizing a golden opportunity to do just that to the Republican Party.