With slightly more than half of all delegates now pledged, Bernie Sanders is not gaining on Hillary Clinton’s lead in the Democratic primary race. This delegate math does not result from a conspiracy of Democratic Party insiders, but from the fact that Clinton has received over two million more votes than Sanders in balloting so far. Put simply, Clinton is winning because she is the more popular candidate. All the “energy” and “enthusiasm” of the Sanders campaign have not translated into actual votes, while Sanders has repeatedly undercut his own legitimacy.
Having set expectations too high this week, for example, Sanders unexpectedly lost all five states that voted in ‘Super Tuesday II,’ boosting his opponent. These losses have considerably narrowed the window of opportunity for Sanders to eke out a delegate victory, so now his campaign team is shifting to an insurrectionist strategy of flipping the delegates.
Sanders’ superdelegate pitch will likely take the shape of both direct lobbying and a more formal pitch. Sanders’ campaign will argue that voter enthusiasm and holding to the populist principles of the party are on Sanders’ side. They’ll point to their massive, low-dollar online fundraising.
Superdelegates who’ve already endorsed Sanders say they’re already in touch with their uncommitted colleagues, with plans to step up that engagement.
Remember when the superdelegates were an undemocratic creation of sinister party elites trying to quash popular candidates? That was so five minutes ago. Back then, Sanders partisans would annoy and pester the superdelegates with ‘outreach efforts’ that threatened dire consequences if they didn’t vote “in accordance with the will of the people.” Now, the Sanders campaign itself wants to approach these same reviled superdelegates and convince them to overturn the will of the people.
Sanders strategist Tad Devine, who helped create the superdelegate system in the first place, thinks that his candidate’s “momentum” will force them to flip in Sanders’s favor.
“The arguments that we’re going to muster are going to be based on a series of facts,” Devine explained, projecting the best-case scenario path forward. “People will look at different measures: How many votes did you get? How many delegates did you win? How many states did you win? But it’s really about momentum.”
Yet lack of visible momentum is the key problem for Devine and the Sanders campaign now, as they trail by millions of ballots and hundreds of pledged delegates. It’s not just a matter of whether or not anyone is “intimidated by the numbers,” but the simple fact that the primary calendar does not line up for Sanders in the way that his supporters seem to think it does.
Idaho, Utah, and Arizona go to the polls next Tuesday. Sanders might do well in the smaller states, but with 75 delegates, Arizona is a bigger prize than the other two combined. There is a dearth of good polling there, and what polls we do have are mostly old, but they show Clinton started with a substantial buffer. Similarly, on Saturday March 26th, Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington State will vote. Here again, the larger state has 101 delegates, more than the two smaller states put together, and the polling in Washington is also pretty old, but again shows Clinton started with a sizable lead. So for the sake of argument, let’s say that Sanders has managed to flip one of the two biggest states voting in the rest of March. Let’s say he narrowly loses Arizona, doing better than expected, and then wins by a few points in Washington state. Overall, in that scenario Sanders does not catch up to Clinton in either delegates won or total ballots cast.
The Sanders campaign is saying they expect to win all six states, and while that is unlikely to happen, it is the only scenario in which he actually gains on Clinton. Anything less than total victory for the rest of March will hurt that “electability” argument he’s making to the superdelegates.
And the first three weeks of April are even worse for Sanders. On the 5th, Wisconsin will allocate 86 delegates and Wyoming 14; Clinton narrowly leads the polls in Wisconsin and trails in Wyoming. Even if Sanders wins by a few points in Wisconsin and takes Wyoming easily, the proportional awarding of delegates will prevent him from making up much ground with Clinton. Then comes New York with 247 delegates on April 19th, where polls say that Clinton has a decisive advantage. By claiming a substantial majority on that day, she can wipe out any and all “momentum” that Sanders might have accumulated in the previous 28 days. What will Tad Devine say to the superdelegates then? How do you make an “electability” argument when you clearly aren’t winning the election already in progress?
No wonder the Sanders campaign wants to try something else. Reaching out to the party elite to flip those formerly-demonized Democratic poobahs probably seems easier to Tad Devine than the daunting task of actually winning all these contests in which majorities of Democratic voters keep rejecting his candidate. The Sanders campaign says they are not giving up, and many of his supporters expect to take the race all the way to the wire, and then to the convention floor, in a bid to upend the more popular candidate. But realistically, we should be prepared for the possibility that Clinton will shut Sanders down before June, that she is not really worried about the millennials because most of them will vote against Donald Trump, and that she can see a path to win the general election without any need to woo the dead-enders declaring themselves ‘Bernie or bust.’ Sure, there are some on the left who think of their vote as a kind of virginity that should only be awarded to the purest candidate, and that is their prerogative. But they began this election cycle on the margins, and to the margins they shall return.
Almost maniacally focused on picking up enough delegates to reach the magic number, Clinton hasn’t been forced to change her strategy at all. If she was the least bit worried about her chances, she would be the one altering course and appealing for help from the party. Instead, she’s winning the old-fashioned way: with majorities among Democratic voters.