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As Sanders quits, how the US Democratic race was turned around

Michael Mathes
US Senator Bernie Sanders was the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in early 2020, only to see his campaign implode as rival Joe Biden surged in the race to see who faces President Donald Trump in November (AFP Photo/Mandel NGAN)

Washington (AFP) - Earlier this year leftist senator Bernie Sanders forged ahead of Joe Biden to become the shock frontrunner in the race to be the Democratic Party nominee for the US election in November.

Sanders had the most progressive policy ideas, pulled the biggest rally crowds, raked in donations, and won the highest ballot totals in all three early-voting states.

The race appeared to be in the palm of his hand. But in a flash, it was all over. Bernie crashed while Biden surged, and on Wednesday Sanders ended his campaign.

Here is a look at how it all went so wrong so quickly for the 78-year-old senator from Vermont.

- Electability is all -

For all of 2019, Sanders proclaimed himself the candidate best positioned to beat President Donald Trump this November.

Ultimately the bulk of Democratic voters saw it differently.

Exit polls on Super Tuesday, when former vice president Biden walloped Sanders in 10 of 14 states, showed that six in 10 voters said they cared most about nominating a Democrat who can defeat Trump.

Those same voters favored Biden over Sanders by 11 percent, NBC News exit polling showed.

Most voters, particularly suburban women, came to see Biden as the candidate who could derail Trump's re-election effort.

In telephone surveys before the Florida, Illinois and Arizona primaries, respondents there picked Biden 69 percent to 26 percent as having a better chance than Sanders to defeat Trump, according to ABC News polling.

Sanders claimed, rightly, that young people see him as the most electable. But they failed to bring that enthusiasm to the polls.

Trump repeatedly badgered Sanders as a "socialist," and party voters likely concluded that the label would not help Sanders win the White House.

- South Carolina firewall -

Biden was in deep trouble after catastrophic showings in mid-February in the first three states to vote -- Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada -- while Sanders was embracing frontrunner status.

Then came South Carolina, where the majority black Democratic electorate handed Biden a huge victory.

The result confirmed that Biden was the candidate who could best mobilize black voters -- one of the Democratic Party's most important constituencies.

- Establishment backing -

Following South Carolina, two moderates, Senator Amy Klobuchar and former mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana, promptly dropped out and endorsed Biden.

After his dramatic Super Tuesday success, several more former rivals followed suit: prominent African American senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, ex-congressman Beto O'Rourke and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Hundreds of other national, state and local lawmakers also lined up behind the former vice president, confirming him as the overwhelming choice of the party's moderate establishment.

- Bloomberg's bust -

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg jumped into the race last November after determining that Biden was a weak candidate.

The establishment grew terrified that Bloomberg would suck away support from Biden, clearing a path for an emboldened Sanders.

But the billionaire bombed in his debate debut in February, and went zero for 14 on Super Tuesday.

Rather than wounding Biden, Bloomberg's failure only strengthened his fellow moderate.

- Where was Warren endorsement? -

Elizabeth Warren, the progressive senator from Massachusetts, shares many of the same policy priorities as Sanders: implementing Medicare for all and tuition-free college, and curbing America's rampant economic inequality.

So when her campaign failed to convert early voter enthusiasm into success at the polls and she quit the race March 5, team Sanders was hoping for a blockbuster endorsement from his ideological cousin.

It never came, further deflating Sanders' momentum and signaling that even luminaries on the left saw little chance of a Sanders comeback.

- Off the radar -

Any lingering hope of Sanders regaining momentum ended with the coronavirus outbreak that ruled out on-the-ground, in-person campaigning and the popular rallies that were his strong point.

The race became effectively stagnant and Sanders was forced to hunker down in Vermont, taking to Twitter to push his campaign pledges and excoriate Trump for his handling of the crisis, which has already claimed more than 14,000 US lives.

Biden -- also on lockdown -- must now compete against Trump, who holds lengthy televised briefings each day boasting of his supposed success against the virus.