CHICAGO, Ill. – Bernie Sanders' ascendance in the Democratic presidential primary has brought louder calls for some of his rivals to drop out of the race. Centrists need to consolidate their support behind a single candidate if they want to ensure the party doesn't nominate a democratic socialist, the argument goes. Someone needs to take one for the team.
The candidates' resounding answer so far: No way.
“Why would I get out?" Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said during a stop in Arkansas the day after the Nevada caucus, where she is in sixth place with all precincts reporting. “That's not even a close call for me.”
Klobuchar, a little-known senator running on her grit and her record of winning centrist voters in her home state, is among the several candidates facing various levels of pressure to call it quits — and dismissing it out of hand. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, billionaire Tom Steyer and to a lesser extent former Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden have all been mentioned by rival teams and pundits as needing to bow out for the good of the party. So has Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor whose debate performance was enough to raise questions even though he hasn't yet appeared on a ballot.
But at least for now they all say they have a rationale for staying in the race and a strategy they believe can help them win. For many, their optimism is built around Super Tuesday, when one-third of delegates will be awarded, and the unspoken assumption that the nomination may not be decided until this summer's convention.
That's made some in the party's moderate wing nervous that Sanders could emerge the big winner that night as well, and eventually become the nominee. They worry his far-left positions could help reelect President Donald Trump in November and hurt down-ticket candidates in Senate and House races, including many in the districts that Democrats picked up to win control of the House in 2018.
Bloomberg's team said in a memo last week that Sanders would be impossible to stop if Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar stayed in. Jon Cooper, a Biden supporter and donor, said he doesn't understand what, beyond ego, is making candidates like Klobuchar and Steyer think they can pull it off, saying “all I know is they're splitting up the anti-Bernie vote” and drawing support from Biden, who he says is best positioned to defeat Trump.
It's a dilemma candidates have faced before. In 2016 a crowded Republican field was unable to stop Trump, with Ted Cruz and John Kasich staying in the race until May and Marco Rubio through mid-March, as Trump's campaign only grew in strength. John Edwards made the opposite decision in 2008, bowing out before Super Tuesday contests against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton “so that history can blaze its path.”
Candidates have lots of reasons for soldiering on long after their path to the nomination has gotten murky. They may have future political ambitions that are served by raising their name recognition. Often, as long as there is cash in the bank, there can be little personal incentive to give it up. There's always a chance they could get hot or their rivals could turn cold.
"Buttigieg and Klobuchar are going to continue on because they still believe lighting could strike," said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Biden supporter.
Former Obama adviser David Plouffe offered another explanation for the candidates' persistence:
“It’s hard to leave the big stage when you likely will never get back on it," he tweeted.
Each candidate has his or her preferred way of measuring progress in the race — and justifying a continued campaign. For many, it is not about delegates won, the party's official way of determining a winner. By that metric Sanders is leading with 45 delegates, followed by Buttigieg at 25, Biden with 15, Warren with eight and Klobuchar with seven. The vast majority of the delegates are yet to be awarded.
Klobuchar's campaign has taken to pointing out that she is the third-highest vote-getter so far. That's largely thanks to her third-place finish in New Hampshire, the state with the largest turnout so far. She notes she's nearly tied with Warren for delegates. And she also suggests sexism is playing a role in some of the pressure on her and Warren, who trail Sanders, Buttigieg and Biden in delegates.
“Why would you have a call for the two women to get out when you have two billionaires in the race?" she said in a reference to Bloomberg and Steyer.
While her third-place finish in New Hampshire helped fuel a fundraising surge for her campaign, the momentum didn't carry into Nevada and Klobuchar is not expected to do well in Saturday's South Carolina primary. She has just started assembling teams in Super Tuesday states, where Warren, Biden and Buttigieg have had teams on the ground far longer.
Her campaign said in a memo Monday she is dedicating $4.2 million more to TV and digital ads in Super Tuesday states — more than Warren, Biden and Buttigieg have spent so far — and that her “incredibly efficient campaign” has the money to carry on.
Campaign manager Justin Buoen said he expects her to do well in her home state, which votes on Super Tuesday, while notably not predicting she will win Minnesota outright.
“(Klobuchar's) got a tough call to make," said former Obama adviser David Axelrod. “Having made so much of the fact that she is invincible in her own state, I’m not sure she wants to lose to Bernie Sanders.” Warren also has to consider the same could happen that day in her home state.
Buttigieg, who declared victory in Iowa after essentially tying Sanders, argues he's the only candidate in the race who's beaten him, though like Klobuchar he has struggled to win support from African American voters who will be critical in South Carolina and several Southern states voting March 3.
Biden is counting on African American support to propel him to the win in South Carolina and beyond, even though his distant second-place finish in Nevada was his best showing yet.
Both Steyer and Bloomberg have the personal fortune to continue well into the contest, although neither has identified a state they say they can win.
Warren's team doesn't see the pressure to drop out as applying to her because they don't consider her part of the center lane of candidates. They also have been buoyed by Warren's improved fundraising since her strong performance in last week's Nevada debate, as well as the campaign infrastructure she has built in Super Tuesday states.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who won the Democratic primary in 1984 and didn't clear a key delegates threshold until June, said he doesn't believe Klobuchar or any other candidate should be pressured to quit, though he said “it's getting tough now” for his fellow Minnesotan.
“This has to take its natural course. You can't cook it that way,” he said. “I know if I were Amy I wouldn't like it. She's run a very good campaign. She's entitled to be heard and to keep at it. I think that's far more important than a so-called drop-out strategy.”
Mondale said he worries Republicans are waiting to attack Sanders until after he wins the nomination.
“Then they're going to come down on him on all fours, and I don't think we're going to like it," he said. "But I don't know what we can do about it. It's where we are now.”
Associated Press reporter Will Weissert in Houston, Thomas Beaumont in Charleston and Brian Slodysko, Seth Borenstein and Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington contributed to this report.