(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks about coronavirus in Burlington
By Simon Lewis and John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist whose progressive agenda pushed the Democratic Party sharply to the left, ended his White House campaign on Wednesday, clearing the way for a Nov. 3 election battle between former Vice President Joe Biden and Republican President Donald Trump.
Sanders, a former front-runner who promised to lead a grassroots political revolution into the White House, acknowledged he no longer had a path to the nomination after a string of nominating contest losses to Biden but promised to work with the former vice president to oust Trump.
He said he would stay on the ballot in future primaries and continue to gather delegates in order to push the Democratic platform toward his populist anti-corporate agenda, including a government-run healthcare system and tax hikes for the rich.
“Then together, standing united, we will go forward to defeat Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in modern American history,” he said in a livestreamed speech to supporters from his hometown of Burlington, Vermont.
The 78-year-old U.S. senator parlayed his massive campaign rallies, anti-establishment message and fervent support from young and new voters into early success in the Democratic race before losing in South Carolina in late February, leading moderate Democrats to unite behind Biden.
Sanders suffered a string of decisive losses through March as Democrats searched for the candidate with the best chance of beating Trump, putting the senator under growing pressure from Democrats to end his campaign and help the party unite.
The departure of Sanders, Biden’s last remaining rival, sets up a long battle for the White House between the 77-year-old Biden and Trump, 73, who is seeking a second four-year term in office.
Biden praised Sanders after his departure and promised his ideas would be incorporated into his White House run. He reached out to Sanders’ supporters.
“I see you, I hear you, and I understand the urgency of what it is we have to get done in this country,” Biden said. “I hope you will join us. You are more than welcome. You’re needed.”
Sanders’ decision comes as the country grapples with a coronavirus outbreak that upended the nominating schedule, taking him off the campaign trail and leaving Sanders little opportunity to get his message across.
Some allies encouraged Sanders to stay in the race to further influence Biden’s policy positions. But Sanders made little headway on his vow that his ambitious social programs such as raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy would expand the electorate.
Instead, Biden was the one who won support from a growing coalition of women and men, white and black voters, those with or without college degrees, and self-described liberals and moderates.
Democrats said Sanders’ decision to pull out now would give the party time to come together before the August nominating convention. Some Democrats blame Sanders for staying in his 2016 race against Hillary Clinton too long, hurting her general election bid against Trump.
“Bernie is doing this relatively early. I think that allows more time for healing,” said Democratic operative Joel Payne, who worked for Clinton’s campaign in 2016.
Trump, who has courted Sanders supporters and said the senator was treated unfairly by the Democratic Party, reacted quickly on Twitter.
“This ended just like the Democrats & the DNC wanted, same as the Crooked Hillary fiasco. The Bernie people should come to the Republican Party, TRADE!,” Trump wrote.
“With Bernie Sanders suspending his campaign, it’s all but official that the Democrat establishment got the candidate they wanted in Joe Biden,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, said in a statement.
Many of Sanders’ policy positions have become part of the mainstream Democratic Party debate, including his Medicare for All proposal that would create a government-run healthcare system to replace the current blend of private medical insurance and public programs. He also advocated a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free public colleges and higher taxes on the wealthy.
“Our movement has won the ideological struggle in so-called red states, blue states, and purple states,” Sanders said in his livestream address.
After a long and bitter campaign against Clinton in 2016 that made him a well-known political commodity, Sanders entered the race with clear advantages, including an unmatched ability to raise large sums of money from small-dollar donors and a passionate base of supporters – including the so-called Bernie Bros – drawn to his anti-establishment message.
After he was hospitalized with chest pains in October, his campaign faced questions over why it did not immediately disclose he had had a heart attack. The campaign also did not release his full medical records despite pledging to do so.