Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, left, shakes hand with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Democrats await signal from Sanders as Biden moves toward unifying party

Democrats began looking for signs Wednesday of whether Sen. Bernie Sanders would continue his insurgent presidential campaign or quit the field and help begin unifying the party in the aftermath of another round of sweeping primary victories for former Vice President Joe Biden.

Sanders remained silent Tuesday night after he was soundly defeated in at least four of the six states voting, but is expected to comment publicly soon on his plans. His son, Levi, announced on Twitter that the senator would be on “The Tonight Show” on Wednesday night.

His aides and allies said he should not drop out, despite Biden’s growing lead in convention delegates and a primary calendar that is moving into territory even more unfriendly to Sanders in the coming weeks.

His national press secretary looked ahead to the next presidential debate on Sunday in Phoenix, the first that will feature a one-on-one clash between the two front-runners.

“America finally gets to see Biden defend his ideas, or lack thereof, on Sunday,” Briahna Joy Gray tweeted Tuesday night.

But David Sirota, a usually combative Sanders advisor, struck a rare conciliatory tone, even as he made the case for a continued primary fight.

“That battle-tests the nominee,” Sirota said on Twitter, citing the contests between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008. He said Sanders would be the best nominee, but added. “no matter who it is, the Dem nominee is better than Trump.”

And Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a top Sanders backer, conceded Tuesday on Instagram. “There’s no sugar-coating it. Tonight’s a tough night. Tonight’s a tough night electorally,”

Biden, in a speech to supporters in Philadelphia on Tuesday night as his victories unfolded, was careful to say he was not taking the nomination for granted. He offered an olive branch to Sanders supporters and emphasized their “common goal” of beating Trump.

In an effort to appear presidential and offer a reassuring contrast to Trump, Biden addressed voters anxious about the president’s ability to manage the national coronavirus crisis.

“At this moment when there’s so much fear in the country, there’s so much fear across the world, we need American leadership, we need presidential leadership, that is honest, truthful, reassuring and steady,” Biden said.

Biden won solid victories Tuesday in Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri and Idaho; Sanders won North Dakota; the two were neck and neck as votes are still being counted in Washington state, which had been expected to be a Sanders stronghold.

Those results widened the delegate lead Biden established after his sudden turnaround victories in South Carolina and across the country in Super Tuesday’s multistate megaprimary.

He still has a long way to go for the 1,991 pledged delegates he needs to win the nomination, and 26 states plus the District of Columbia and some U.S. territories remain to hold primaries. But barring unforeseen and dramatic developments, Biden is on track to quickly establish an insurmountable lead.

According to the delegate count maintained by the Associated Press, Biden had accrued 823 delegates to Sanders’ 663. That means Biden needs to win just half the remaining delegates to lock down the nomination; Sanders would need about 57%.

That task for Sanders is even harder than it might seem, since Biden is almost sure to win heavy victories in some of the big states voting later this month. All four of the states to vote next Tuesday — Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Arizona — are places where Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016. They offer gigantic caches of delegates, and polls show all of them favoring Biden.

Still, Sanders supporters say too few delegates have been chosen for him to throw in the towel.

“The delegate count difference is only about 150 points out of 4,051 total,” said Sanders spokeswoman Gray, misstating the number of convention delegates eligible to vote, which is 3,979.

Sanders was home in Vermont after he, like Biden, canceled a planned rally in Ohio because of concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.

In the run-up to Tuesday’s primaries, Sanders and his allies have previewed the lines of attack he could bring to Sunday’s debate in Phoenix. He has criticized Biden for supporting free trade agreements, the Iraq war and restraints on Social Security.

His campaign circulated video of Biden losing his temper with an auto worker who accused him of wanting to confiscate guns, while some Biden supporters did the same, believing the show of passion helps him more than it hurts.

If the contest continues into next week, Florida will loom especially large. The state has 219 delegates at stake and Democrats hope to flip it back to their column in the general election. President Obama carried the state in both of his elections, but Trump won it in 2016.

Recent Florida polls show Biden crushing Sanders with support from more than 60% of likely primary voters.

Biden has a demographic advantage because he does well among voters older than 45 and black voters, who made up 64% and 28%, respectively, of the state’s primary electorate in 2016, according to exit polls. While Sanders has done well among Latino voters in other states, Sanders’ recent defense of the accomplishments of Fidel Castro’s regime inflamed Florida’s strongly anti-Castro Cuban American population.

Later in the month, the primary in Georgia — with its large swath of black voters — is likely to deliver another big win to Biden.

There remain some states, including Wisconsin, Wyoming, Hawaii and Alaska, where Sanders could gain back some ground. But they’re much smaller than the states Biden is on track to carry.

While Sanders faces pressure from many quarters to end his campaign for the sake of uniting the party, some Democrats argue that Biden could benefit from a longer primary fight.

“Primaries should be explicit contrasts — and tough primaries don’t weaken general election nominees, they strengthen them,” said Sirota, the Sanders advisor. “Establishment demands for silence in the name of unity — or for the end of a contested primary — don’t serve the cause of defeating Trump. They weaken that cause.”

Clay Middleton, a South Carolina Democratic strategist who advised Sen. Cory Booker’s campaign, said that continuing to spar with Sanders could hone Biden’s debating skills and help him build a campaign infrastructure in states like Florida that will be central to the general election.

“He could leave those people in place from now until November,” said Middleton, who voted for Biden in the South Carolina primary. “Biden could continue to get stronger in his campaign from raising money and building organization.”

Biden supporter Ed Rendell, former Democraic Party chair and former Pennsylvania governor, said he expected Sanders would remain in the race to accrue more delegates — and so strengthen his influence over the party’s deliberations over the platform and rules at the convention. But Rendell said he hoped Sanders would focus on advancing his agenda, not attacking Biden, beginning with the Phoenix debate.

“He has every right to try to amass delegates,” said Rendell. “But if he continued to whine about the Democratic establishment ganging up on him or attacking Biden’s ideas, then he could do real harm.”

Even with Sanders still in the race, Biden is beginning to focus more on how to unify the party and begin to prosecute the case against Trump in the fall. Some of that effort may go into finding a running mate to bridge party divides, but that choice is probably months away.

Jane Kleeb, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said Biden will have to offer more than olive-branch words to Sanders and his allies, and embrace a more progressive platform on issues like climate change.

“When we talk about unity, I think that usually means shut up and get on board,” said Kleeb, who has been neutral in the primary but is on the board of Our Revolution, a political group aligned with Sanders. “If we are truly going to unify the party — where all shades of blue are welcome — you make space for bright progressive turquoise and moderate navy blue.”

Even as he has built his broad coalition of black, older and suburban voters, Biden has seen a glaring weakness exposed in the exit polls of states that have voted so far: He has been clobbered by Sanders among younger voters. In Michigan, which Biden won by 12 percentage points, he lost under-45 voters by 62% to 24%. The divide among voters under 29 was even wider.

Biden supporters say more young voters will come to Biden in the general election because their anti-Trump fervor is strong.

But Shaun King, a writer and activist who backs Sanders, cited the Michigan exit polls and warned on Twitter: “I’m telling you. Choosing against the candidate that 80% of voters 18-29 prefer is not a good way to win the general election.”

—By Janet Hook

Los Angeles Times

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