Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont ended his presidential candidacy on Wednesday, concluding a quest that elevated him as a standard-bearer of American liberalism and clearing the way for a general election between the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., and President Trump at a time of national crisis.
In a live-streamed speech, Mr. Sanders, eloquent but without his characteristic spark, cast his decision in the broader context of the fight against the coronavirus. “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,” Mr. Sanders said, adding, “While this campaign is coming to an end, our movement is not.”
If Mr. Biden, the former vice president, can now lay claim to the Democratic nomination, he still faces considerable challenges in uniting the party and mobilizing a broad base of voters for the November election. Unlike Mr. Sanders, Mr. Biden inspired little enthusiasm among young voters, nor did he develop signature policy proposals. He triumphed because many voters rejected Mr. Sanders’s policy agenda as too far to the left and prohibitively expansive, and were convinced that Mr. Biden had the best chance to beat Mr. Trump in November.
To motivate liberal Democrats who find him frustratingly conventional, Mr. Biden, 77, will most likely need to do far more to articulate an agenda on foundational Democratic issues like health care and climate change.
Those issues are central to Mr. Sanders’s candidacy, and in recent days, as Mr. Sanders began to consider dropping out more seriously, his aides intensified talks to find common ground with the Biden campaign. Mr. Sanders ultimately became satisfied that there was movement in directions that he wanted, a top aide said. The Biden campaign is expected to roll out a series of policy agreements with Mr. Sanders on health care and other issues — potentially including student loans — starting on Thursday, according to three people with direct knowledge of their plans.
The two camps were still negotiating the details on Wednesday, and while Mr. Biden is not expected to embrace Mr. Sanders’s full-throated call for “Medicare for all,” for example, they are striving to arrive at positions with which they are both comfortable.
Shortly after Mr. Sanders spoke on Wednesday, Mr. Biden issued a statement thanking his opponent while acknowledging the need to draw Mr. Sanders’s loyal base into his coalition. “I’ll be reaching out to you,’’ Mr. Biden wrote. “You will be heard by me.”
“And to your supporters," he added, “I make the same commitment: I see you, I hear you, and I understand the urgency of what it is we have to get done in this country.”
Though Mr. Sanders made it clear on Wednesday that he viewed Mr. Biden as the party’s 2020 nominee, he said he would remain on the ballot in states that still have primaries to try to gather delegates — a move that could give him leverage to influence the Democratic platform and continue carrying his message.
Mr. Sanders’s departure from the race is a striking turnaround for a candidate who less than two months ago was the clear front-runner, after finishing in a virtual tie for first in Iowa and winning in New Hampshire and Nevada.
But in a race reshaped, and eclipsed, by the escalating coronavirus crisis, Mr. Sanders faced no realistic path to the nomination after a series of lopsided losses to Mr. Biden, beginning in South Carolina in late February and culminating with victories by Mr. Biden in crucial states like Michigan and Florida last month.
The Biden Presidency
With midterm elections approaching, here’s where President Biden stands.
- Defending Democracy: President Biden’s drive to buttress democracy at home and abroad has taken on more urgency by the persistent power of China, Russia and former President Donald J. Trump.
- A Tricky Message: Even as he condemns Trumpism, Mr. Biden has taken pains to show that he understands that not all Republicans are what he calls extremist “MAGA Republicans.”
- On the Campaign Trail: Fresh off a series of legislative victories, Mr. Biden is back campaigning. But his low approval ratings could complicate his efforts to help Democrats in the midterm elections.
- Questions About 2024: Mr. Biden has said he plans to run for a second term, but at 79, his age has become an uncomfortable issue.
Persistent and unyielding in pushing his agenda, Mr. Sanders is loath to admit defeat; his withdrawal represents a tacit concession that without a chance of overtaking Mr. Biden, he would have more leverage to advance his priorities if he ceded the race and joined forces with his rival.
His exit is also a sharp contrast to his bid in 2016, when he stayed in an increasingly acrimonious race against Hillary Clinton even after it became clear she would be the nominee. Talks between the Biden and Sanders camps this time around were eased by the cordial relationship between the two principals. Mr. Sanders has told people close to him that he appreciated the fact that Mr. Biden did not overtly pressure him to quit after Super Tuesday.
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Mr. Sanders also talked to former President Barack Obama at least twice in the last month, a person familiar with the discussions said, with Mr. Obama praising the Vermont senator’s campaign and emphasizing the need to unite against Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama, who has told friends he hopes to ease the integration of Sanders voters into the party, made no effort to pressure him to leave.
As Mr. Sanders pursued the White House for a second time, he promised that he could transform the electorate, bringing new voters under the Democratic tent, but that goal eluded him. Even Mr. Sanders has lamented that he was unable to produce a surge in young voters.
In early primaries this year, he also failed to show that he had remedied a crucial weakness from his 2016 run: a lack of support from black voters, a vital base of the Democratic Party. In state after state across the South — Alabama, the Carolinas, Mississippi, Virginia — he was unable to chip away at Mr. Biden’s strong support among African-Americans.
In many ways, Mr. Sanders never overcame the widely held view among Democrats that he was a political outlier, a self-described democratic socialist who proudly proclaimed himself to be an independent senator from Vermont rather than a member of the party establishment.
Mr. Sanders championed liberal policies like “Medicare for all” and tuition-free four-year public colleges aimed at lifting up America’s working class, but he faced opposition from many party leaders, elected officials and major donors, as well as large numbers of moderate voters who saw him as too far left.
Mr. Sanders never accepted that argument. In recent weeks he said repeatedly that he had won the ideological debate, asserting that a strong majority of Democrats supported his progressive agenda.
But during a striking news conference in Burlington, Vt., last month, he also acknowledged that he was losing the electability battle to Mr. Biden, saying voters had made clear that they thought the former vice president was the best candidate to beat Mr. Trump.
The president immediately tried to sow discord among Democrats. In a Twitter post he blamed Mr. Sanders’s inability to win Super Tuesday states on his ideological rival, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and then invited Sanders supporters to “come to the Republican Party.” At his evening news briefing Mr. Trump was more pointed toward Mr. Biden, saying “It amazes me that President Obama hasn’t supported Sleepy Joe. It just hasn’t happened. When’s it going to happen?”
Indeed, Mr. Trump’s penchant for no-holds-barred political combat presents another challenge for Mr. Biden. Some Democrats question whether he can withstand the kind of bitingly personal onslaught that Mr. Trump is certain to direct his way in the general election. The president’s efforts to tar Mr. Biden with the overseas business dealings of his son, Hunter, already upended the campaign once and led to Mr. Trump’s impeachment.
Mr. Sanders, 78, leaves the campaign having almost single-handedly moved the Democratic Party to the left. He also transformed the way Democratic campaigns raised money, eschewing big fund-raisers and instead relying on an army of small-dollar donors.
But as he ascended to the top of the field in February, establishment Democrats scrambled to block his path, convinced his far-reaching proposals would alienate great swaths of the electorate and make him an easy target for Mr. Trump.
Moderate candidates in the race who could not overcome Mr. Biden dropped out and endorsed him just before Super Tuesday, on March 3, helping him sweep 10 of 14 states on the biggest voting day of the primary. That led to a wave of new endorsements and a remarkable coalescing around Mr. Biden that Mr. Sanders could not match on the left.
Mr. Sanders’s insistence on Wednesday that he wants to amass delegates to exert influence on the platform has convinced some Democrats that a scaled-down or even virtual convention this summer might be preferable to a traditional event. If the nomination is conferred virtually, the argument goes, Mr. Biden’s campaign can control the platform deliberations and program entirely, and ensure minimal dissent from Sanders supporters.
The networks and cable stations would still carry whatever speeches Mr. Biden’s advisers plan and there would be no live audience to interrupt the proceedings.
For most of his campaign Mr. Sanders largely stuck to his familiar message, battling establishment forces rather than his immediate rivals. Amid a slump in the polls in the fall, he suffered a heart attack while campaigning in Las Vegas, a startling event that threatened to upend his bid.
But in a remarkable turn of events — as he stood on the debate stage just two weeks after his heart attack — he received the endorsement of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, one of the most visible liberal congresswomen and a star of the left. It helped jump-start his candidacy just as it appeared in jeopardy of collapsing.
The endorsement helped carry him through the late fall and early winter, and in January, as the first voting approached, Mr. Sanders was surging. When he dominated the field in the Nevada caucuses in February there was suddenly talk that he might run away with the nomination.
Glenn Thrush, Alexander Burns, Jonathan Martin and Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.