May 25, 2016
The primary season ends on June 7. Democrats in D.C. still need to vote on June 14, but we’re basically done after the 7th. That’s when California, New Jersey, Montana, New Mexico and the Dakotas come out to play. Having a schedule of elections gives Berners something to rally around.
It’s like a team almost mathematically eliminated from qualifying for the postseason. The odds are bad, but there are remaining games left on the schedule. You can keep trying to win the next game and hope your rivals fail. Once we’re past the 7th, there aren’t more games to look forward to (Hillary should win the heavily African-American D.C. electorate easily.)
The other event scheduled for the 7th is Hillary becoming the official presumptive nominee (ok, clumsy terminology. Deal with it.) She will not win enough earned delegates ahead of the convention to clinch the nomination that way. She will clear the barrier with earned delegates plus super delegate endorsements. While he could technically flip these delegates in Philadelphia, previous candidates from Walter Mondale to Barack Obama declared victory at the same point.
As far as the cable news networks, Democratic Party, and all non-Berner pundits are concerned, this is the point where she’ll become the winner. This happens even if Bernie pulls an upset in California. Currently FiveThirtyEight is estimating Hillary has more than a 95% chance of victory.
It would definitely help the Berners cause if he wins the Golden State, but either way, the networks will declare Hillary the winner. Let’s say this plays out as I’ve estimated. Media coverage will shift. Bernie’s campaign will shift, without having future primaries to campaign for. Where does he spend his time? Does he continue holding large rallies?
Doing so is unprecedented, but none of his predecessors had the same ability to draw a crowd. Gary Hart wasn’t going to pull in 10,000-20,000 people anytime he hit a major population center in 1984. Hillary couldn’t have pulled the same crowds in 2008 and had incentives to back down. Party insiders would have been furious if she blocked Barack Obama, and we’re seeing exactly the future she wanted to protect.
Then there’s the matter of wanting to support Berner-friendly candidates in congressional primaries. Again, no precedent for this. Sanders is in a unique position due to his age. In 1980, there was a chance Ted Kennedy could or would run again. He didn’t, but wound up serving another three decades in the Senate. Nobody is surprised to see Hillary giving it another try. Hart was the early front runner for 1988.
While it’s theoretically possible 78-year-old Sanders could run in 2020, it’s not the default expectation. Any of the other candidates to find themselves in a somewhat similar position were not only noticeably younger, but were not eliminated before the convention. Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1976 were not favorites, but Hubert Humphrey and Gerald Ford didn’t have the delegates yet. Hillary will.
To complicate drawing any neat parallels further, Berners are unified behind Bernie. As much as Elizabeth Warren is a favorite of many progressives, she’s not in this contest. In 1968, McCarthy didn’t have the affection of the entire New Left/anti-war movement. Some preferred the martyred RFK. George McGovern’s name was entered into nomination at the convention. Berners don’t have other alternatives within the Democratic Party for 2016.
Reagan, Ted Kennedy, and Hart all had their adherents, but did not have the same type of movement as Bernie. They didn’t have millions of volunteers and individual donors (though Reagan did very well at grass roots fundraising for the era.) This is closest to if Barry Goldwater had fallen short in 1964, finding out 6-8 weeks ahead of the convention that Nelson Rockefeller had it locked up.
Which way does this go? A few options:
Bernie Decides He’s With Her
I don’t think this is the most likely option. Of the above examples, only Hillary turned on a dime and began promoting her rival. Kennedy famously showed up Jimmy Carter at the 1980 convention, refusing to pose with the president in a victory pose on stage. He was of little use in the fall campaign.
Hart and Reagan were less overt, but neither played an important role in support of the winning ticket. McCarthy mostly faded into the background. Can you picture Bernie getting a key cabinet position the way Hillary did? Having said this, he could still decide to fall in line.
It would require private overtures from all sorts of figures among the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign. They would need to agree to push open primaries for 2020. Hillary would need to commit to a Citizens United litmus test for Supreme Court nominees. Everyone has their price, Bernie’s includes these items and likely a few others.
If Hillary believes the only thing standing between her and inauguration is the support of most Berners, most Democrat-leaning independents, she should pay this tariff ASAP. Failing to do so will make for a difficult term even if she manages to get elected without his support. Clinton does not possess the charisma to keep the Democratic coalition in line if she can’t immediately produce results while in office.
Bernie getting on board would make it easier to pull Warren on the bandwagon. She’s already showing great desire to attack Trump early and often, through Twitter and any other means available. Having Hillary/Bernie/Warren pulling together and railing on Trump will help ensure Hillary maximizes her turnout. Obama will weigh in too down the home stretch. As fractured as the Democrats seem now, this could change very quickly.
Berners Fade Away Slowly
This is the McCarthy scenario. Bernie continues to push a bit between now and the convention. He holds rallies in selected areas, but backs his pace of campaigning down. While he continues to push his main themes and ideas, he refrains from making even slightly incendiary comments against Clinton.
The most committed Berners likely become frustrated at the slower pace of the campaign and lack of willingness to strongly attack Hillary. The least committed Berners find other things to do with their summer if there’s no real fight to participate in. Protests take place outside the convention, but nothing to recall 1968. If anything, the visual impact is less than protestors outside a Trump event in California.
This would seem beneficial to Hillary at first. She would not need to barter that aggressively with the Sanders campaign to keep him from turning the Democratic effort into a grease fire. She could begin the process of pulling the party together as best as she can.
However, it increases the odds somewhat disengaged Berners would just pass on showing up in November. Bernie will find it hard to push hard for her campaign in the fall if he didn’t win any important concessions. It would just seem like he was giving in and selling out, something hard to take after raising over $200 million from micro donations and running the risk of appearing to sell out.
Historically, this outcome leads to a loss in November.
Gary Johnson Picks Up Some Slack
When polls include the presumptive Libertarian nominee (he doesn’t have this in the bag yet), Johnson consistently grabs 10 percent. We don’t know yet how many are votes for him and how many are just anybody but Hillary or Donald. At some point, the media will decide to pay more attention to him.
Johnson isn’t as unplugged as Trump (who is), but he’s nowhere near as wary as Hillary or any conventional candidate. He spent time as the CEO of a cannibis business in 2014, so there are angles of interest. After June 7, it will become even more difficult to cover Bernie as a potential nominee. If he doesn’t opt for total war against Clinton and the DNC, the media will need a new toy.
Someone who built an individual handyman business into a contracting firm with over 1000 employees is probably capable of figuring out how to set up getting internet donations from Berners and anti-Trump folks. The normal Libertarian candidate doesn’t have any funding. The mechanisms are in place to give Johnson enough money to put on a bit of a show.
There’s no way the majority of Berners defect to Johnson, but he’s an acceptable home for many, particularly if Bernie is either beginning to fade or throws in with Clinton. If his default support level is around 10%, just out of total revulsion at the other choices, a push from Berners could help him reach 15%, at which point he would qualify for participation in the presidential debates.
Bernie Doubles Down
Winning California is a big prize for the Sanders campaign. He’s won often, but lacks large state prizes. Michigan is the only big state in his column. Right now, there’s no way of knowing if his rhetoric signals a desire to burn the house down at the convention, or is mostly an attempt to rally the troops one last time before the final round of primaries.
Either way, he’d say the same things now. If this isn’t just an attempt to retain momentum, and Sanders decides he’s very serious about fighting, both at the convention and in various congressional primary contests, particularly the attempt to defeat Debbie Wasserman Schultz (post-Bernie endorsement, her opponent picked up $250,000 instantly), Hillary will find herself dealing with multiple fronts.
Normally, no candidate would risk directly or inadvertently helping Trump this way. But as mentioned above, Bernie doesn’t have a future nomination campaign to look forward to. As noted previously, he’s not actually a Democrat. The people who have repeatedly given money to his campaign are not ok with Hillary. They do not want him to back down.
Sanders continues to do far better than Hillary in matchup polls with Trump. The margin is widening, not shrinking. If this was the only factor of importance, we’d find ourselves looking at a Kasich-Sanders contest. There are limits. Still, it’s easy to see why a candidate doing so much better in this measure wouldn’t want to concede or fade away.
The new State Department report on Hillary’s email use isn’t a positive story for her, and there’s a chance Trump picks up another couple of points in the polls on her over the next couple weeks, moving ahead on average for the first time. With many voters disapproving of both, it doesn’t take that much to temporarily move opinion. The greater evil can shift back and forth.
We could see a ratcheting effect, where Bernie shoves, people like Wasserman Schultz push back, which inspires Bernie and his followers even further to hold their ground. With Trump as an opponent, victory in November is always possible for Hillary, but this would clearly harm her. Not a good outcome.
Whichever of the above scenarios (or some combination thereof) play out, two of them are definitely bad for Clinton, one isn’t real good, and only the least likely (Bernie climbs on board) is clearly good. While Sanders is going to hit a fork in the road very soon and need to (along with his supporters) make some uncomforable changes, it’s likely Hillary is the one who feels the sting.