Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign exactly one month ago Friday, and days later he endorsed Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee. But Sanders and the remains of his campaign apparatus are in some ways acting as if the campaign is still going, raising questions about the message he's sending to his progressive movement.
Sanders continues to send regular fundraising emails to supporters, and his Twitter profile still says "candidate for President." He uses his website — "BernieSanders.com" — for regular livestreamed town halls with high-profile guests supportive of his ideas.
And Sanders has at times struck a competitive tone since leaving the race, suggesting a reluctance to fully embrace Biden, as he tries to move the party’s leader to the left.
Sanders' team is continuing its fight for delegates. Recently, it fought back aggressively against a decision by the New York State Board of Elections, citing coronavirus fears, to remove Sanders’ name from the state’s June 23 primary ballot — essentially ceding all the state’s delegates to Biden.
Top aides fired off statements calling the move an "outrage" and "a blow to American democracy."
A federal judge reversed the decision this week, after Andrew Yang, another 2020 Democratic hopeful who endorsed Biden after dropping out, sued on behalf of Sanders and eight other candidates whose names were also removed. The Board of Elections has since appealed, but for now a competitive Democratic presidential primary is back on in New York.
Sanders’ fight for ballot access, even absent a formal campaign operation, showed how he and his allies view his role within the Democratic Party. Not only does Sanders’ presence on the ballot help drive progressive turnout in down-ballot contests, supporters say, but by accumulating more delegates, Sanders will have more leverage over the party’s platform and Biden’s policy choices.
Many of the campaign's top operatives have branched out to new projects. Three PACs and super PACs run by former Sanders senior advisers and confidants have been created in the weeks since his departure from the race, including one started by his former campaign co-chair Nina Turner.
"We absolutely need you in the 20 contests that are left to cast your vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders,” Turner said this week during the online launch of Once Again PAC, one of the groups formed to advocate for Sanders’ key policy proposals.
The delegates earned in the remaining contests, Turner added, will give “progressives the opportunity to participate in the strongest fashion possible on the floor of the DNC during the convention —whether that floor is virtual, or whether it is live and in living color.”
Neither the Biden campaign nor Sanders team responded to requests for comment. But both sides have released joint statements and created six working groups to help shape the party platform and future policy proposals.
Since the start of his 2020 campaign, Sanders, an independent from Vermont, assured anyone who asked that he planned to support the Democratic nominee. Less than a week after ending his campaign, he joined Biden in a livestream to announce his endorsement of the former vice president — far earlier than in 2016, when he took more than a month before endorsing then-rival Hillary Clinton.
But with a section of Sanders supporters, almost 1 out of 4 according to a recent poll, still less than enthusiastic about getting behind the 77-year old Biden, Sanders — himself 78 — has shown little effort to bring them aboard so far.
“I think it could be a problem if Bernie doesn’t begin to weave the importance of supporting Joe Biden into his public discourse,” former Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat of Missouri, said in an interview. “He has not done that yet.”
McCaskill, an NBC News contributor, acknowledged that much of the political world is operating under unique circumstances, given the coronavirus pandemic. “When the time comes that political events can occur, I believe that Bernie will campaign at those events for Joe Biden. I am optimistic that that will happen, because Bernie is a man of his word,” she said.
But Sanders hasn’t used his unmatched email list to fundraise for Biden, despite doing so in recent weeks for COVID-19-related causes and progressive congressional candidates who’ve supported his candidacy in the past.
His livestream events with high-profile guests including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have largely focused on the pandemic but haven’t referred to Biden, his campaign or his plans.
Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign, said Sanders’ posture toward Biden thus far isn’t “unusual at all.”
Dean, another progressive whose campaign set early online fundraising records for small-dollar donations, waited months before using his list to help Democratic nominee John Kerry, after a primary that exposed sharp ideological divides around support for the Iraq War.
“The reality is if you still want to try to get the 'Medicare for All' plank in the platform, you want your supporters to be with you, your delegates to be with you,” Trippi said.
“What we’re seeing here is a complicated in-between,” said Daniel Schlozman, an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University who wrote the 2015 book “When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History.”
“It goes back to Sanders’ ambivalence about, from the get-go, the Democratic Party, whose nomination he sought and which he never formally joined,” Schlozman said. “Whether it is smart or dumb, it is Bernie Sanders performing like Bernie Sanders.”