If Sanders believes that the third time’s a charm, it wouldn’t be entirely without reason.
Given that the primary reason Biden wouldn’t run again is because of his age — he was already the oldest president to be sworn into office, and he would be 81 on Election Day 2024 — it raises the question of why Sanders would throw his hat in the ring. The democratic socialist from Vermont would break Biden's record for oldest president if he won — Sanders would be 83 by Election Day 2024.
It’s unclear how likely this scenario is, since Biden may indeed run again, and Sanders said in May 2020 that the likelihood that he runs again for president is “very, very slim.”
But to the extent that it’s a possibility, there are at least three potential factors here. Here’s a quick rundown.
(1) Politicians often run for the same office over and over again in hopes of finding an opening. Biden didn’t get anywhere in the Democratic primaries in his first two tries for president, but he decisively won the nomination on his third attempt. Sanders has a stronger record of failures. When he made his first attempt in 2016, he shocked everyone in the nation — including himself — with how well he fared against Hillary Clinton. In the initial primaries of 2020 he looked even better, and appeared to be on the path to potentially win the Democratic primaries until the moderates in the field all dropped out and consolidated behind Biden ahead of Super Tuesday.
Without Biden in the running, Sanders would arguably for the first time not be competing against a presumed nominee or dominant front-runner veteran of Democratic politics. (It’s worth noting that Vice President Kamala Harris could evolve into that role, but she got no traction in the 2020 primary season and doesn’t command the consensus of the party establishment as of now.) If Sanders believes that the third time’s a charm, it wouldn’t be entirely without reason.
(2) Sanders hasn’t identified anyone yet to carry his torch. The democratic socialist wing of the party has grown in the last few election cycles with the emergence of The Squad in the House’s Democratic caucus. But while some of these politicians, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have widespread name recognition, they’re still new to national politics and it’s unclear if any of them harbor presidential ambitions in the near or long term.
In March, Politico reported that Sanders’ inner circle has encouraged Rep. Ro Khanna, a Sanders ally and progressive Democrat from California, to run for the White House. But while Khanna’s campaigning behavior with Sanders in the past does hint at an interest in a White House bid, his statements to Politico suggested that he’s angling for a 2028 run at the earliest. Sanders knows there is a left-wing lane, and so far there is nobody as broadly liked and experienced as him to run in that lane.
Leaks of memos are routine, and sometimes deliberate.
(3) It’s possible that the leak of this campaign memo is a kind of warning signal to the Democratic establishment that Sanders shouldn't be forgotten as a potential contender. Faiz Shakir, Sanders' former campaign manager, reportedly sent the memo to Sanders allies to, among other things, share notes on how to deal with criticisms in response to Sanders’ candidate endorsements for 2022. “In the event of an open 2024 Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Sanders has not ruled out another run for president, so we advise that you answer any questions about 2024 with that in mind,” the memo said.
Leaks of memos are routine, and sometimes deliberate, and it’s clear that public knowledge of this serves the function of keeping Sanders’ name in the ring alongside other potential 2024 hopefuls, like Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. This piece is proof of how Sanders can reserve a space for himself in pundit speculation and polling about 2024 through these kinds of tactics, even if he has no idea if he'd actually run.
Remember, Sanders declining to rule out a presidential run doesn’t make a run likely, and this is all a moot point if Biden chooses to run again. But if Biden is daunted by the prospect of running again at his age and continues to struggle with approval ratings and managing inflation in the run-up to 2024, he could decide that a fresh face at the top of the ticket will serve the party better. Sanders has signaled that he might want to be that face.