WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders says he is reassessing his campaign, raising questions about whether he will drop out after losing three more states and falling prohibitively behind former Vice President Joe Biden in the race.
A Sanders spokesman denied a report that the Vermont senator was suspending his campaign Wednesday afternoon, but that word came as Sanders pulled down digital advertising on Facebook and Google, triggering further confusion in a contest already upended by the coronavirus.
Hours earlier, campaign manager Faiz Shakir said Sanders “is going to be having conversations with supporters to assess his campaign.” But Shakir also suggested that Sanders was in no hurry to make any decisions about ending his 2020 bid, noting that “the next primary contest is at least three weeks away.”
More immediately, Sanders “is focused on the government response to the coronavirus outbreak and ensuring that we take care of working people and the most vulnerable,” Shakir said in a morning statement.
Reports later surfaced that Sanders was suspending his campaign, prompting spokesman Mike Casca to say in a statement that the candidate was “not suspending. Nothing has changed since this morning’s statement.”
In the meantime, Sanders’ campaign has deactivated digital ads purchased as recently as Tuesday.
Even if Sanders decides to keep running, he has little hope of catching Biden, who used victories in Florida, Illinois and Arizona to collect nearly twice as many delegates as Sanders on Tuesday. Biden now needs less than 47 percent of the remaining delegates not allocated to win the nomination. President Donald Trump awaits the nominee.
For Sanders, catching up would be the tallest of orders under any circumstances. But that task is even tougher in a political world turned as upside down, along with daily life, amid efforts to combat a pandemic that has killed more than 100 people in the United States.
Neither candidate is traveling or holding campaign rallies, and much of the electorate has been staying home.
Polls were shuttered in Ohio, and election workers and voters reported problems in the three states where primaries were held.
With the exception of North Dakota and the Northern Mariana Islands, Sanders has not won a contest since Super Tuesday on March 3. He made no moves to contact Biden immediately after Tuesday’s results, according to people familiar with the situation who discussed the matter on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the candidates. During online remarks before most results were in, Sanders said little about the future of the race.
Also Tuesday, Trump formally clinched the Republican presidential nomination after facing minimal opposition. But much of the action was on the Democratic side, where higher vote totals in some key states suggested enthusiasm that even the coronavirus couldn’t contain. Turnout in Florida’s Democratic primary surpassed the 1.7 million who cast ballots four years ago.
Some Democrats are now calling on Sanders to drop out in the name of party unity. Four years ago, Sanders kept alive his primary bid against Hillary Clinton for months, even as it became clear he had no chance of winning.
In the latest primaries, Biden maintained strength with African Americans and older voters. He also appeared to chip away at Sanders’ previous advantage with Hispanics.
But the primary calendar will be disrupted by the public health and economic havoc wreaked by the coronavirus.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, criticized Ohio for closing polls on such short notice. But he also urged states with upcoming primaries to expand vote-by-mail and absentee balloting, as well as polling station hours.
Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky and Maryland have joined Ohio in moving to push back their upcoming primaries, and others may yet do so. As Shakir noted, that has left the primary calendar empty until March 29, when Puerto Rico votes. But island leaders are working to reschedule balloting there, too.
That means there is nowhere for Sanders to gain ground on Biden anytime soon, even if he could find a way to mount a sudden surge.
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow, Katie Foody, Seth Borenstein and Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report.