It’s been a hard month for Bernie Sanders. His campaign went from having so much momentum in early April to the grim message a few weeks later from a senior strategist that Sanders and advisers would reassess the campaign. Read between the lines, and the next day’s layoff of hundreds of staffers was pretty predictable. The only real bright spot for was winning Indiana’s primary last Tuesday, but that looks like too little, too late.
A lot of candidates would drop out facing mathematical impossibility of winning the nomination. Sanders is certainly in that position—he needs to win an overwhelming percentage of remaining delegates to defeat Clinton, and the polls show that he’s far away from meeting this mark.
So, as the mostly hopeless campaign continues to eat up millions of dollars and the weeks drag on, why is he still running? There are a few main reasons why:
He doesn’t have to care about the Democratic Party.
If fact, he’d sooner change the party’s platform and rules than appease its overlords. He’s been a Democrat for barely a year anyway, only switching from an independent to run for president with a party that had a real shot at winning the Oval Office.
Sanders has never truly seen himself as a Democrat, says Lara Brown, an associate professor and director of George Washington University’s political management school. The party has looked at him “wearily,” she says, because Sanders has never entirely supported it.
To understand how little of a party loyalist Sanders is, compare him to, say, Hillary Clinton. In the 2008 nominating contest, she “basically fell on her sword for the party,” said Brown, when she peacefully conceded the nomination to Barack Obama and put her full support behind him. Clinton’s concession was for the good of the party, and she knew that. It’d keep her in the Democrats’ good graces and keep the party’s image relatively clean.
Fast-forward eight years and that’s not going to be the case for the Democrats’ No. 2 contender. Sanders knows many top Democrats might consider it a blessing for him to drop, but that doesn’t seem to faze him. He doesn’t care about the party anywhere near as much as Clinton did in 2008. He’s more interested in his principles.
He does, however, have plenty of loyalties to keep.
“[H]e has hundreds of delegates committed to vote for him on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention, and I’m sure he feels he owes it to them to continue running and to press his views presuming that he’s nominated at the convention,” Indiana University politics professor Marjorie Hershey wrote to me just before Sanders won that state’s primary.
Plus, Sanders has a ravenous pack of millions of supporters. It’s easy to see the passion backing his campaign and how its intensity has led to some of the Sanders platform seeping into the Democratic and Clinton agendas. In that sense, he’s already won.
He wants to win superdelegates.
Superdelegates are party loyalists and insiders. In other terms, they’re the people least likely to turn from Clinton—the political dynasty that’s been in the public eye for decades—to a wily old senator from Vermont.
Still, Brown says Sanders needs to keep pushing for superdelegates or he’d have just about no shot at winning any more states. Sanders supporters have taken issue with superdelegates and the Democratic nominating process ever since Clinton started to pull ahead. Sanders himself has called the system rigged. Sure, these pleas brought attention to the more questionable aspects of Democratic Party rules, but they’re not going to change anything fast.
Obama in 2008 started winning back superdelegates from Clinton in the heat of primary season. But that’s because he was winning states left and right. Even when it comes to the regular delegates this year, Sanders is still behind Clinton. The gap isn’t all that big, but he’s really fighting a system that he can’t change anytime soon, regardless of what might happen to party rules come 2020.
He has nothing to lose.
Sanders is 74. “When you think about his future,” says Brown, “his question is, where would he go?” Not to be crass, but he probably doesn’t have too many terms left in the Senate. Sanders doesn’t have political repercussions to worry about post-campaign. And Vermont would probably reelect him if he wanted, regardless of how this campaign turns out.
“If this is his last hurrah, why would he not necessarily want to go out with a bang?” Brown says. “And this is where and why Democrats are concerned about what he’s saying and what he’s doing because certainly a divided Democratic Party will not stand as strong a chance against the Republicans in November.”