Biden and Sanders reach delegate deal in bid for party unity

Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, embraces Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, hosted by ABC News, Apple News, and WMUR-TV at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. (Elise Amendola/AP photo via Courthouse news)

(CN) — In an effort to avoid the acrimony that characterized the end of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Joe Biden — the presumptive Democratic nominee in the 2020 race — reached a deal Thursday that will allow Bernie Sanders to keep hundreds of delegates he would have forfeited by dropping out of the race.

“We must defeat Donald Trump this fall, and we believe that this agreement will help bring the party together to get Trump out of the White House and not only rebuild America, but transform it,” the two campaigns said in a joint statement.

While the type of political horse-trading surrounding delegates may not capture the imagination of the general public, these types of deals are important to avoid animosity as the Democratic Party seeks to galvanize around a single candidate in Biden.

The Democratic Party has rules governing the distribution of delegates; they  state Sanders should forfeit one-third of the delegates he has accumulated in primaries and caucuses throughout the primary season since Biden is the only candidate still seeking the nomination.

But Biden said he is committed to allowing Sanders delegates to fill those positions as the party moves toward its convention, currently slated for late August.

The delegate count isn’t particularly relevant at this stage of the race, with all of Biden’s challengers dropping out and endorsing the former vice president. This includes Sanders, whose comportment toward Biden has been markedly different than when bitterness between the senator from Vermont and Hillary Clinton lingered well into the 2016 general election and may have cost Clinton the Oval Office.

Hofstra University professor Meena Bose recently told Courthouse News that Biden appears determined to avoid the same mistake but also has a natural knack for building alliances within and without the party apparatus — something both Clinton and Sanders have struggled to do in their political careers.

“Biden is not only better at reaching across the aisle, but he is also better able to forge alliances within his own party,” Bose said.

In contrast to Biden’s deal-making, Clinton battled over delegates every step of the way and fought bitterly with Sanders’s camp over the party platform and other rules associated with the convention.

While much of the positioning and posturing was inside baseball, it spilled over into their public personas, where the barely concealed contempt between the two candidates was evident. Also, supporters in both camps never quite reconciled and there remains questions about whether that bitterness caused some Sanders supporters to withhold their votes for Clinton. In states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Trump won narrowly, even minimal differences in turnout or enthusiasm could have swayed the election.

This time around, Biden has not only attempted to avoid incurring the ire of Sanders and his passionate backers, he has made overtures to them — particularly as his path to the nomination became more assured.

Sanders for his part has continued to talk up Biden and stress the importance of defeating Trump come November.

The accumulation of delegates in the Democratic Party nomination process is paramount, as the first individual to 1,991 wins the nomination.

A Democratic wins delegates according to the share of votes they accrue in individual state primaries and caucuses. Two-thirds of the delegates won by individual candidates in congressional districts remain theirs, which they carry all the way to the convention.

However, nearly one-third of the delegates are won according to statewide results and candidates must still be running for the nomination in order to carry those to the convention.

The deal between Biden and Sanders means those seats are technically Biden’s, but the former vice president will allow those seats to be occupied by Sanders supporters at the convention.

Both campaigns will have the right to approve who occupies the final delegate slot.

“While Senator Sanders is no longer actively seeking the nomination, the Biden campaign feels strongly that it is in the best interest of the party and the effort to defeat Donald Trump in November to come to an agreement regarding these issues that will ensure representation of Sanders supporters and delegate candidates, both on the floor and in committees,” the two camps said in a joint statement.

Biden currently has 1,046 delegates while Sanders maintains 974, according to The Associated Press. The AP said it stopped counting Sanders delegates when he announced the suspension of his campaign.

Even with Biden’s generosity toward Sanders on delegate retention, the former vice president will almost assuredly garner enough delegates to win the nomination by the fall.

While delegates are largely a matter of symbolism, there are significant policy items at issue as well. Delegates help craft the party’s platform, and with Sanders delegates working on influential committees, the Vermont independent will continue to have influence on the direction of the party’s policy.

For his part, Biden has attempted to signify an embrace of progressive ideas, particularly on student debt and affordable higher education. The deal cinched Thursday means those and other progressive policy wishes will get a substantial hearing at the convention in August and will in some cases be assimilated into the planks of Biden’s platform.

With an anticipated start date of Aug. 17, it remains unclear if the political sausage-making typical of party conventions will take place in person or virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic.