Bernie Sanders’ hospitalization with a blocked artery this week finally forced the Democratic Party to confront a lingering fact: All three of its presidential front-runners are septuagenarians, and two are older than Donald Trump — himself the oldest person ever to take office.
For Sanders, the immediate effect of the incident — a blockage requiring two stents — was to sideline the 78-year-old senator until further notice, with rest for what an adviser called “the next few days.”
But the broader implications were also thrust into plain view: In a Democratic primary that was once expected to break along generational lines, a whole crop of younger contenders has fallen so far back that — even with an aging, top-tier contender laid up — it would take an upset for the party to mount a generational argument against Trump next year.
Biden, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — the youngest of the three at 70 — are pulling nearly three-quarters of the primary electorate’s support in national polling. And even if Sanders stumbles, no younger alternative is likely to benefit.
Instead, it is Sanders’ friend and fellow progressive, Warren, who might be poised to gain.
If the Vermont senator remains off the campaign “for any substantial period of time,” said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster, Warren stands to draw from his pool of support, strengthening a candidate who has already surged ahead of Biden, the former vice president, in some polls.
“If he’s truly in a position where he can’t campaign for a while,” Maslin said, “I think we’re starting to move into a situation where we’re going to have a new front-runner, and then everything changes … I guarantee you she will have all guns aimed at her, and she’s going to get tested, sooner rather than later probably.”
A similar calculation was already making the rounds among Democratic strategists and donors hours after Sanders was hospitalized.
One Wall Street executive involved in Democratic Party politics said news of Sanders’ hospitalization reverberated at least incrementally in the financial markets. “I think one of the reasons the markets went down today is not only because of the jobs numbers and softness in manufacturing. I think there’s a feeling that this helps Warren.”
For decades, Democrats tended to reward youth in their presidential nominating contests. And when the party selected Hillary Clinton in 2016, it learned what conservative media could do with a candidate in her late 60s and a case of pneumonia.
“It actually did work, and it was a Facebook effort to actually target on these particular issues: on sickness, age,” said Amanda Renteria, national political director of Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “What’s different this year is the seriousness and the gravity of what’s going on around the world does give, I’ll say, qualifications and experience a different weight than in the past, more than in 2016. And I think that by and large has altered this conversation about age.”
Philippe Reines, a longtime Clinton confidant, said that in the current primary, “Democrats have been thinking about age, and have not been concerned about it … It’s not like anyone thinks Biden and Sanders are spring chickens. But that clearly hasn’t been a concern. And it clearly isn’t a problem.”
Sanders’ wife, Jane, released a statement on Thursday saying that her husband was “up and about,” spending much of the previous day “talking with staff about policies, cracking jokes with the nurses and doctors, and speaking with his family on the phone.”
“His doctors are pleased with his progress, and there has been no need for any additional procedures,” she wrote. “We expect Bernie will be discharged and on a plane back to Burlington before the end of the weekend. He'll take a few days to rest, but he's ready to get back out there and is looking forward to the October debate.”
Still, the episode startled Sanders’ supporters.
“Everything’s good, except Bernie’s stents,” said Jeff Cohen, co-founder of RootsAction.org, an online activist group that supports Sanders said Wednesday, just after Sanders’ hospitalization was announced.
Cohen said he trusts medical professionals' assessment “that this is not a big thing” and expects him to return to the campaign soon. But if he is sidelined, Cohen said, it could increase pressure on Warren.
“There are many of us that feel that Bernie is the heat shield — that Bernie has attracted so much of the negative coverage it has helped Warren,” he said. “If it wasn’t for Bernie in there, Warren would be getting far more negative press … It would not surprise me if Warren authentically wants Bernie back on the trail soon for that same reason.”
In many ways, Sanders remains on firm ground. On Tuesday, his campaign announced that he had raised more than $25 million in the year’s third quarter, a staggering sum. And advisers to several of his competitors believe Sanders has a floor that won’t fall below 15 percent even if Warren surges higher.
One Democratic strategist said that after his hospitalization, “I could imagine his supporters bear-hugging him even harder.”
The problem for Sanders is that he has been struggling to broaden his support, not energize voters who already favor him. In his effort to “start showing growth,” the strategist said, his hospitalization “couldn’t have come at a worse time.”
On Wednesday, Drudge Report’s all-red headline about Sanders read, “Bernie Heart Scare! All Events Canceled.”
Repeatedly this week, Sanders’ competitors said they expected him to be “back to Bernie.”
“I assume you’ve heard the news about Bernie — that he’s had a medical incident, and I know everyone here wishes him well, wants to see him strong and back on the trail as soon as possible,” Warren said at a forum in Las Vegas on Wednesday.
When she was asked at a second event, “How you feeling?” Warren replied, “It’s better to be in the fight than on the sidelines.”