April 16, 2016
Bernie Sanders got his meeting. It was touch and go for a while. Pope Francis was unable to meet with any of the conference attendees on Friday and was leaving today for Greece. It appeared Bernie flew across the Atlantic to give a truncated version of his usual speech to a new audience who can’t vote for him.
Deliverance came in the form of a five minute chat with the pontiff this morning. Now he can fly home having checked all the boxes on his list. If Bernie falls just short in New York, some will point to this excursion as the culprit. Normally you don’t duck out on campaigning in a must-win state the weekend before the vote.
It’s no sure thing he’ll even wind up close. If the polls are correct (which is not a safe assumption on the Democratic side), Hillary Clinton is headed for a double digit win in her senatorial stomping grounds. Should she win by any margin, Sanders has a zero chance of winning the nomination without FBI intervention.
Was this a flight of fancy? A Hail Mary pass to win over catholic voters before Tuesday? Does he think he’s doomed in the Empire State anyway, so why not spend a couple days on the world stage and meet with the pope while he’s still relevant? Or is it just what he said it was? Something you don’t pass up if it’s offered.
Probably all or at least most of the above. There were any number of good reasons for Sanders to attend. He’s spent a good amount of time in New York over the past couple of weeks, did a debate and a high profile rally in Washington Square Park right before leaving.
Either the polls are correct or they’re not. If they’re mostly on point, he’s going to lose. If this is Michigan 2.0 and he’s in the game or potentially even leading, rounding out his pitch with a foreign trip is more useful than another big rally or two. His combative debate performance was plenty good enough to fire up any and all Berners.
Should Bernie pull the upset on Tuesday, the script is set. The media would go bonkers. A Clinton loss in New York is a big deal. Combined with a polling surprise, everyone would quickly re-assess, determining he actually won the debate everyone said he lost and benefited from the trip nobody thought he should take.
The Clinton team would double down on talking about delegate math and primary popular vote math, while realizing a string of losses on April 26 could completely imperil her candidacy. We’ve covered this script a few times before. Odds are it doesn’t happen, but you can connect the dots if it does.
But what if Hillary wins on Tuesday? Let’s say it’s by a decent margin, somewhere between 7 and 10 points, but not an absolute blowout. If the polls don’t change between now and Tuesday morning, my official prediction will wind up in that range.
At that point, we can assume Bernie has no legit path to the nomination. We can assume Hillary is the clear favorite in the April 26 states with a good chance of winning them all. That’s not due to momentum. So far, the Democrats haven’t experienced any.
It’s New York being an indicator of how Sanders and Clinton are doing in closed primaries in Eastern states. You can usually play the neighboring states game. Hillary won Massachusetts. If she wins New York, then Connecticut and Rhode Island should fall in line.
Pennyslvania borders Ohio (Hillary win) and New York. Maryland is demographically worse for Sanders than any of the other states and borders Virginia which she won easily. We’ve seen Bernie win caucuses by large numbers after getting blown out in Southern primaries. We’ve seen Hillary hold up in places favoring her even after embarrassing caucus results.
That means Bernie would still win multiple states in May and June, even if he drops the next six. He’ll win South Dakota and Montana. Oregon will happen. Indiana and Kentucky are up for grabs. California is fairly close. But to what end?
Sanders is balancing a few objectives. He has a responsibility to the people who have given him millions of individual donations. They most definitely want him to fight to the convention. They’re speaking with their wallets and his ability to raise money after important defeats says it all.
He would like to prevent Clinton from clinching the nomination with earned delegates ahead of the convention. There are two ways to lock up the nomination. In both 1984 (Mondale) and 2008 (Obama), the nominee declared victory when their earned delegates plus publicly pledged super delegates combined to push them over the line.
They knew they had a first ballot win locked up, gave a speech and started acting like the nominee. In 2008, this was paired with a concession/exit speech from Hillary. The proportional delegate allocation system makes it hard to win a completely contested nomination without any help from super delegates.
If Hillary wins New York, she’s very likely to win the nomination ahead of the convention under the standard Mondale and Obama used to declare victory. As of now, the Sanders campaign isn’t buying in to this standard. They’re taking the approach that super delegates don’t count until they actually vote on the floor during the official nomination process at the convention.
In recent decades, this approach was frowned on. Conventions have moved from places where nominees are chosen to choreographed affairs. As the drama receded, so did ratings, but political parties would generally prefer a smaller audience for a properly scripted performance than a larger one for a cluster.
The 1968 Democratic meltdown in Chicago permanently soured party leaders on dramatic conventions. This year is different. Not only has the Sanders movement shown unprecedented financial muscle, but the GOP is headed for a brawl of their own. Anything the Berners might do in Philadelphia seems tame compared to what we might expect the week before in Cleveland.
Bernie will want to influence the platform as much as possible, will want a clear declaration that Democrats will run in the fall on his principles, will want a major speaking slot in prime time, and will hold the party accountable in the fall.
Normally, back when conventions still determined things, a strong loser bargained for as much as they could, got a few cookies, sometimes important enough to allow the other party to run against a platform plank, and then faded into the ether.
The Democrats meet after the Republicans. They’ll know if Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Door #3 are the opponent. They’ll adjust accordingly, and Bernie’s path to influence is dependent on how scared of the opponent Hillary and the Democratic establishment are.
This is stretch that determines if Bernie will spend the fall inside the tent pissing out or outside pissing in. As we know, he’s not actually a Democrat. Should the GOP somehow managed to nominate John Kasich, or some other semi-centrist, less divisive figure, Sanders may feel the difference between Hillary and the Republican isn’t that huge.
He may feel a Democratic loss would teach the party a lesson and lead to an appropriately progressive candidate in 2020. Perhaps the thought of Trump horrifies him and he would do anything in his power to prevent him from taking over. Maybe he’d worry a Cruz candidacy would push Hillary to the center and would aim to keep that conversion in check.
All speculation. But the trip to the Vatican shows Bernie is not only focused on preserving his mathematically difficult path to the nomination. He’s not willing to step aside anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean he has all his eggs in the nomination basket.
We know Sanders is very, very, very consistent in his beliefs. His speech at the Vatican was extremely familiar to anyone who has heard him during the campaign. It was not repackaged for a European audience. He didn’t make any adjustments for a New York audience during the debate.
Regardless of how New York votes on Tuesday, various doors will open and close for Bernie over the next several months. He knows he has a once in a lifetime opportunity to influence the process going forward. I’d imagine he desperately wants to avoid becoming a footnote.
As he plays this out, remember his motivations are different than ours might be in the same position. We may not know how well he did for several years. At the moment, this is at least as much about legacy as electoral math.