WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist who promised to lead a grassroots political revolution into the White House, suspended his campaign on Wednesday, making former Vice President Joe Biden the presumptive Democratic nominee to face Republican President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 election.
Sanders, the front-runner in February, acknowledged he no longer had a viable path to the Democratic 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 senator, whose progressive agenda pulled the party sharply to the left, had early success in the Democratic race before losing in South Carolina in late February as moderate Democrats united behind Biden.
The departure of Sanders, the last remaining rival to Biden, sets up a long battle for the White House between the 77-year-old former vice president and Trump, 73, who is seeking a second four-year term in office.
Biden praised Sanders 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, with some primaries postponed and others up in the air.
Sanders, who also mounted an unexpectedly strong challenge in 2016 to eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, had been under pressure to halt his campaign after Biden won resounding victories in primary contests on March 17 in Florida, Arizona and Illinois.
Some allies encouraged Sanders to stay in the race to further influence Biden’s policy positions. But the coronavirus crisis shifted public focus away from the campaign and, with all rallies canceled, Sanders had little opportunity to get his message across.
Sanders had promised his platform of ambitious social programs and raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy would expand the electorate. But instead Americans of all types turned out for Biden: 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.
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.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)