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8 Key Moments That Helped Define Bernie Sanders' Presidential Runs

Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders announces his presidential bid on April 30, 2015, on Capitol Hill in front of media members and a small group of onlookers.
Jacquelyn Martin AP
Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders announces his presidential bid on April 30, 2015, on Capitol Hill in front of media members and a small group of onlookers.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign Wednesday.

Though the 78-year-old did not emerge as the Democratic nominee in either of his two presidential bids, his campaigns have reshaped the party's politics and policy in significant ways. Here's a look back at several key moments from the past five years:

1. Sanders Announces His 1st Presidential Bid

The key thing about this moment is that when it happened, it didn't feel key at all.

In April 2015, most Democrats saw former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the party's inevitable 2016 nominee. President Obama was urging Vice President Joe Biden not to mount a bid, and many other prominent Democrats, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, decided not to run either.

Enter Sanders, who wasn't even a Democrat, and who had spent most of his two-decade career in Washington, D.C., as more of a backbench gadfly than anything else. Sanders had begun to emerge as a national figure several years before, when he protested a bipartisan tax deal with an eight-hour filibuster.

Most campaigns launch with a big rally in the candidate's home state. Not this one. Sanders walked outside the Senate, held a 10-minute news conference with a scrum of reporters, and went back to work. The first words of his "political revolution"? "We don't have an endless amount of time. I've got to get back."

2. Crowds Start To Grow

But as spring 2015 turned into summer, it became clear that Sanders' anti-establishment, anti-billionaire message was taking off. Crowds grew and grew, including a rally in Madison, Wis., that drew more than 10,000 people.

Clinton was not drawing crowds anywhere near that size, even as she maintained wide polling leads over Sanders and often tried to ignore his candidacy.

Sanders tapped into a seemingly bottomless pit of small-dollar online donations from supporters, and grew his campaign into a national organization.

In early 2016, he shocked the political world by essentially tying Clinton in Iowa, then he blew her out by 22 percentage points in New Hampshire.

Four years later, Sanders pinpointed the New Hampshire victory as the moment when his agenda of single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage and free public college went from "too radical, too extreme," to something viewed by many voters as a viable, appealing platform.

3. An Uneasy Truce

Sanders scored more wins — most notably in Michigan and Wisconsin that provided (overlooked) warning signs about Clinton's strength in those two key swing states.

But over the course of spring 2016, Clinton steadily grew her delegate lead over Sanders, winning key blowout victories in southern states with lots of African-American voters. Sanders refused to drop out, and campaigned through June. Even after Clinton clinched the delegates needed to win the nomination on the first ballot, Sanders still didn't concede until shortly before the Democratic National Convention.

Less than two weeks later, WikiLeaks released a trove of hacked and stolen emails revealing that several Democratic National Committee staffers had a clear preference for Clinton over Sanders. Angry Sanders supporters marched through the streets in Philadelphia, and disrupted the first day of the party's convention.

Though Sanders campaigned with and for Clinton into the fall, many Clinton backers blamed Sanders' perceived apathy toward Clinton as a reason why she narrowly lost to Donald Trump in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The Clinton-Sanders rift would never fully heal, and indeed resurfaced several times when he ran again four years later.

4. Democratic Policy Leader

Sanders came out of 2016 as a national leader in the party he still hadn't joined. Top Democrats embraced him and sought his validation — even when it was awkward.

Sanders campaigned across the country against President Trump and congressional Republicans' push to repeal Obamacare, and then he reintroduced his signature "Medicare-for-all" health care plan.

"Look, I have no illusions that under a Republican Senate and a very right-wing House and an extremely right-wing president of the United States that suddenly we're going to see a Medicare-for-all, single-payer passed," Sanders told NPR at the time. "You're not going to see it. That's obvious."

But the bill did have a significant impact on the Democratic presidential primary that was still two years away. Future fellow candidates like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, California Sen. Kamala Harris and New York Sen Kirsten Gillibrand all rushed to cosponsor the legislation.

They would all later face a political balancing act of embracing the measure but also, to varying degrees, distancing themselves from two of its core goals: completely eliminating the private health insurance industry, and increasing taxes to pay for coverage. Both Warren and Harris, especially, ended up twisting themselves in political and policy knots, as Sanders unapologetically campaigned for a platform he conceded would raise taxes (but lower health costs overall, he said).

Medicare-for-all would end up as one of the defining issues of the 2020 primary, surfacing in numerous debates. Even opponents of the effort, like former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, framed their own health care proposals on Sanders' terms.

5. Hard Stories At Health Care Town Halls

Sanders entered the 2020 presidential campaign as a favorite, not an afterthought.

Still, his campaign faced a lot of uncertainties. Most notably: How many progressives who backed Sanders in the two-candidate 2016 contest would migrate to Warren or any of the other two dozen Democrats who entered the race?

Bernie 2020 looked very different than Bernie 2016 in several ways. Among them: a deliberate effort to do fewer mega-rallies — at least in the early months of the race — and instead focus on more intimate town halls where people in the audience shared their struggles with health care access and costs.

In September, a man in Carson City, Nev., told Sanders he was considering suicide because of six-figure medical debt. Campaign staffers credited these intense moments — always livestreamed and repackaged on social media by the campaign — as validating and amplifying Sanders' push to overhaul the American health care system.

6. AOC Helps Bernie Bounce Back

Still, Sanders spent most of 2019 in Warren's shadow. It was Warren, not Sanders, who was steadily rising in the polls and seemingly consolidating the progressive wing of the party.

On Oct. 1, Sanders suffered a heart attack while campaigning in Nevada. In the days following the incident, as the campaign slowly released more details about what had actually happened, there were real questions about whether Sanders could continue campaigning. He was off the trail for about two weeks.

Then, at the very end of a televised debate, Sanders' campaign announced a major endorsement: progressive star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That weekend, she and Sanders rallied in front of more than 20,000 people in New York City. Suddenly Sanders had life again — his campaign contributions shot up, his poll numbers rose, and it was Warren, not Sanders, who was facing questions about viability.

Sanders gained more and more momentum in November, December and January. He won New Hampshire and Nevada, while essentially tying Buttigieg atop the muddled Iowa caucuses.

Sanders suddenly was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

7. Moderates Unite

Biden won South Carolina big, but Sanders kept his focus on Super Tuesday. All along, his campaign's plan was to build up a massive delegate lead that day in states like California and Texas, and never look back. Sanders campaigned across the country at a frantic pace, holding massive rallies in Massachusetts, Virginia, Texas and elsewhere.

Then, on a day in which Sanders flew from Utah to Minnesota to Vermont, everything changed. Buttigieg, who had dropped out the night before, endorsed Biden. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar did the same. So did former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who had ended his campaign months earlier.

The race suddenly went from Sanders narrowly having the largest base in a crowded field to essentially a two-candidate race. And Biden, who had appeared on the brink of a humiliating defeat just a few days before, cleaned up.

Biden won 10 of 14 states on March 3, then five of six the next week, including a romp in Michigan, a state at the heart of Sanders' 2016 success.

The next day, Sanders vowed to stay in the race, but conceded that, "While our campaign has won the ideological debate, we are losing the debate over electability."

8. The Pandemic Freezes The Race

But Sanders would not hold another campaign rally in the 2020 race. On March 10, Sanders abruptly cancelled a Cleveland rally due to mounting coronavirus concerns. Soon, even the news conferences and speeches that Sanders and Biden started holding instead were seen as dangerous. The primary was suddenly frozen in place.

Neither Sanders nor Biden campaigned in person in the week leading up to primaries in Arizona, Florida and Illinois, and Biden won all three states.

Soon, state after state postponed their primaries, and Sanders didn't have any chances to gain ground on Biden, whose delegate lead had grown to more than 300.

The Sanders campaign said it would assess its path forward, and Sanders instead focused all his efforts on the federal coronavirus response. He held virtual roundtables on the virus, arguing the global pandemic validated his call for a national government-run health care system, as well as massive federal spending to help the out-of-work and struggling.

This week, Sanders abruptly ended his campaign. "I cannot in good conscience continue to mount a campaign that cannot win and which would interfere with the important work required of all of us in this difficult hour," he said via livestream.

In 2018, Sanders told NPR that he didn't especially care whether the progressive candidates he was endorsing were winning their primaries. The point, he said, was to push the policies and the platforms more and more into the mainstream. "I hope they win," he said in his Senate office. "Maybe they don't. But if you get 45% of the vote now, next time you may well win. You have to start somewhere."

Sanders will not win the presidency this year. But whether it's next year or at some point in the future, the next Democratic president will very likely try to pass a substantial part of the agenda Sanders has pushed for over the past five years.

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