WASHINGTON — Bernie Sanders is running the wrong campaign at the wrong time, and that is the greatest gift he could give Joe Biden.
In an election season in which most Democratic voters told candidates, party leaders and pollsters they cared only about beating President Donald Trump, Sanders focused first on smashing party pillars with a purist brand of progressive politics that demonized Democrats nearly as much as Republicans.
He chose to divide a party desperate for unity, and he ended up with the smaller share. Now, the rest of the party has turned on him.
On Tuesday night, voters soundly rejected Sanders in favor of Biden, who has leaned away from ideology and presented himself unremittingly as the singular answer to Trump. The immediate result was a wider lead for Biden in the race to accumulate delegates for the party's presidential nomination and calls from some Democratic insiders to bring the contest to an early close.
"I think when the night is over, Joe Biden will be the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination, and quite frankly, if the night ends the way it has begun, I think it is time for us to shut this primary down — it is time for us to cancel the rest of these debates," House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a top Biden ally, said Tuesday night on NPR.
The two candidates are scheduled to face each other one-on-one on a debate stage for the first time Sunday in Arizona, a matchup that Sanders has been gearing up for as an opportunity to demonstrate that he is the better foil to Trump.
But even as Biden has continued to consolidate support in whiplash fashion, the ghosts of a lost 2016 election are giving some observers reason to wonder whether it's wise to drop a hammer on Sanders.
"Shutting this down prematurely would be the absolute worst thing the Democratic Party could do," Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse said on Twitter. "You can make the case that Sanders should drop out, but that's different than saying the party should come in and end this thing halfway through it. That would be bad for democracy and the Democrats alike."
In 2016, when Sanders ran a campaign similarly imbued with anti-establishment rhetoric, a notable percentage of his supporters refused to back the eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump. To win a general election, Biden would likely need the vast majority of Sanders voters in his camp, and exit polls show that he has work to do to convince some of them to join up if he is the nominee.
In states where voters went to the polls Tuesday, 81 percent of Sanders voters said they would back the eventual nominee regardless of who won the primary, according to NBC exit polls.
Biden addressed the Sanders contingent Tuesday night.
"I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion," he said in a victory speech in Philadelphia. "We share a common goal, and together, we'll defeat Donald Trump; we'll defeat him together.”
While Biden appeared ready to turn toward the general election, Sanders allies said they believe Sunday night's debate could be a turning point in the nomination contest. As of 8 a.m. ET Wednesday, as results in some areas were still being tabulated, Biden led Sanders in the delegate race 836 to 686 — still well short of the 1,991 delegates required to attain a majority at the party convention this summer.
"With half of primary voters left to cast their vote, we can say one thing for certain: Voters deserve to see a one-on-one debate between the two front-runners of the Democratic Party," said Nomiki Konst, a Sanders ally. "I believe the debate will highlight the clear differences between the two candidates...[and] show that Bernie Sanders is the strongest candidate who has the energy, ideas and movement to defeat Donald Trump."
It's little wonder why Biden's friends want the primary to end now. His performance on the campaign trail has been uneven.
Less than two weeks ago, Biden looked hapless. He was winless in three primary contests, including Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters get the most face time with candidates. Democratic Party luminaries were worried about the possibility that the combination of a committed Sanders political base and a splintering of remaining voters among Biden and other candidates would allow Sanders to run away with the nomination.
Then Biden won South Carolina, in large part on the strength of more than 60 percent of the state's black voters backing him. Three rivals quickly dropped out of the race, despite having publicly laid out plans to keep running. Two of them, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Pete Buttigieg rushed to Dallas to endorse Biden before last week's Super Tuesday contests in 14 states.
They joined up to help Biden crush Sanders. It worked. Biden cruised through Super Tuesday, again drawing on the strength of big margins among black voters in Southern and East Coast states to rack up delegates. Surprising performances in other parts of the country helped Biden pad his edge.
Ultimately, Sanders' plan to divide Democrats was effective. He just ended up on the wrong side of the split.
At some level, that was probably inevitable. Even when he was winning — he finished first in the popular vote in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — he wasn't capturing a majority. It would have been difficult in any scenario for Sanders to claim a majority of the delegates to the convention. Instead of risking an ugly floor fight in Milwaukee this summer, party leaders fell in line behind Biden.
Now, Sanders needs a turnaround as abrupt as Biden's to make a comeback. After spending another campaign cycle bashing the "establishment," alienating the party power-brokers who are now aligned behind Biden, that's a tall order.
Biden's allies want to protect him from Sanders — and from Trump. The debate is a possible point of exposure for the former vice president.
Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist who works with progressive candidates, said that's one good reason for her party not to prematurely end its primary.
“We haven’t even seen him go one-on-one in a debate,” she said of Biden. “We once had a helluva field. We can’t have buyer’s remorse here.”
In the NPR interview, Clyburn recalled that when Vice President George H.W. Bush's campaign attacked Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee, in 1988 over a state prison furlough program, the issue had previously been raised by Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, in a Democratic primary debate.
"People will say things,” Clyburn said, “that you cannot overcome."
For Sanders, the hope is that happens in time to reverse the course of the nomination fight.