Bernie Sanders isn't leaving the presidential race. Instead, the Vermont senator and democratic socialist is back in a familiar place: on the outside looking in.
After being routed in Democratic primary contests for the third consecutive week by former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders faced the grim calculation on Wednesday that he has virtually no chance of clinching the Democratic nomination. He would need to win a whopping 63% of the remaining delegates to do so.
That left him with a series of wrenching decisions. Sanders could stay in the race and use its national platform to keep pressing for the issues he's most passionate about, such as a single-payer health care system. He could yield to growing pressure to step aside and let the party coalesce around Biden and focus on defeating President Donald Trump.
Or he could simply stall for more time as the campaign takes an awkward pause with much of the nation's attention on combating the coronavirus, which has caused states to push back their upcoming primaries and left the next major contests weeks away. That would also allow Sanders to try to exact additional policy concessions from Biden, who has already adopted his rival's free-college tuition plan. He could also shape the Democratic Party platform during the upcoming convention.
For a campaign that has inspired millions to activism, the choice of what's next ultimately falls on a small group: Sanders and his wife, Jane. And he made clear Wednesday he wouldn't be rushed.
"Stop with this," Sanders told reporters outside the Senate chamber when pressed on when he might suspend his campaign. "Right now I’m trying to do my best to make sure that we don’t have an economic meltdown and people don’t die."
He said the country is "in the midst, literally -- I’m not using that word easily -- of an unprecedented crisis in our lifetime, and that’s what we have to focus on right now." But Sanders also implied that the global pandemic might have unfairly skewed Tuesday's results, in which he was roundly defeated in Florida, Illinois and Arizona.
"You tell me what happened yesterday. Do you think those were orderly elections?" he said. "God willing, please, November, we’re not where we are right now."
Ohio's governor ordered polls closed mere hours before voting was supposed to begin Tuesday, and some voters and election officials reported problems in the states that proceeded with casting ballots.
Asked if the numbers would have been different under more normal circumstances, Sanders said: "Who knows? I don’t know."
Despite the disappointing results in recent contests, Sanders still attracts a loyal following. As a movement politician, his next steps could help determine whether his backers accept defeat or spend the coming months criticizing Biden — potentially leaving him weakened going into the general election.
Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, has continually blamed bad feelings from her primary fight against Sanders as a factor in her defeat to Trump in the fall.
Speculation about Sanders' candidacy intensified Wednesday morning when his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, said the senator was "having conversations with supporters to assess his campaign."
Many Sanders supporters say they were unbowed.
"Our hope is he stays in the race and continues through the convention," said Derrick Crowe of People's Action, an activist organization that has endorsed Sanders.
Charles Chamberlain, chairman of the progressive group Democracy for America, said Sanders can play a potentially "critical" role in unifying the party by continuing his campaign.
"Bernie has already made it clear that he will 100% support the Democratic nominee and that he’s going to campaign for Joe Biden if that’s who it is," Chamberlain said. "The reality is, that’s not 100% true for all Bernie Sanders supporters. So there is a real value to Bernie staying in the race as long as possible to bring those people into the party deeper."
That underscores the sensitivity of how Sanders proceeds. Justin Bamberg, a South Carolina state representative and Sanders supporter, said it's wrong to assume that, if the senator quickly drops out, his backers would unite behind Biden.
"It's a mistake for the party, regardless of whether the nominee is Biden or Bernie, to think that beating Donald Trump in and of itself will be enough motivation for the average person living their day-to-day life to come out and be excited about voting in November," Bamberg said.
Meanwhile, the Biden campaign is proceeding with caution, carefully avoiding any moves that would seem like gloating while Sanders decides his future.
Still, Biden’s new campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, is focusing on general election strategy. And Biden campaign co-chairman, Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, has said the former vice president has already begun considering possibilities for his vice presidential pick — even though no formal vetting process has yet been launched.
Biden's senior adviser Anita Dunn said the campaign is moving ahead as if the former vice president will clinch the nomination. But she noted that neither Biden nor his aides called for Sanders — or any other former rivals — to drop out.
"I always say you’re a candidate until you’re not," Dunn said. "What we remain most focused on today is winning a primary campaign that isn’t over."
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Katie Foody in Chicago, and Seth Borenstein and Alexandra Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.