During the last month, Hillary Clinton has tried to pivot from the Democratic primary contest in anticipation of a bruising fall confrontation with Republican Donald Trump -- and each time, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has spoiled her plans.
After soundly defeating Sanders in late April in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, and Delaware and surging ahead in the delegate count, Clinton felt comfortable enough to turn her sights on Trump and the general election campaign.
Almost any way you cut it, Clinton is assured of picking up a majority of the pledged and “super” delegates necessary to claim the Democratic presidential nomination this summer in Philadelphia. Clinton leads Sanders, 2,240 to 1,473 delegates, with a minimum of 2,383 needed to clinch the nomination.
With little more than 1,000 delegates still up for grabs, it is mathematically impossible for Sanders to overtake Clinton at this point, absent a miracle showing in the remainder of primary races that would convince scores of super delegates – party officials who are entitled to vote for a nominee automatically -- to shift their allegiance from Clinton to Sanders.
But Sanders has stubbornly remained in the race, and has scored impressive victories over the last two weeks in Indiana and West Virginia.
He has won 54 percent of the pledged delegates since “Super Tuesday” in early March, according to one analysis, and has gradually moved up in the national polls into a virtual tie with Clinton. Recent polling shows that Sanders would do better than Clinton in a head-to-head contest with Trump. And he is headed into friendly terrain for the final rounds of primaries and caucuses, culminating with the June 7th primary in delegate rich California.
“There are a large number of super delegates who announced for secretary Clinton even before there even was a race and before they even knew about Bernie Sanders,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager, told MSNBC late last week.
“So there is a tremendous amount of opportunity I think for super delegates to take another look at this race and to make the decision that Bernie Sanders is ultimately better for the Democratic Party in terms of beating Donald Trump and electing down ballot Democrats.”
Clinton advisers and political analysts say that the former secretary of state will simply continue to rack up nearly as many delegates as Sanders under the party’s rules for allocating delegates proportionate to the popular vote, and that there is no way Sanders could close the gap.
But just about everyone agrees that the optics of Sanders essentially running the table between now and early June would not be desirable for Clinton. And it certainly would strengthen Sanders’s hand in making demands for rule changes and platform planks at the national convention in July.
Next Tuesday’s Democratic primaries in Oregon and Kentucky may prove critical in the Democrats’ late-inning campaign narrative.
Sanders, the democratic socialist, is counting on a strong victory in Oregon, with the help of large numbers of newly registered young voters, and possibly a similar result in Kentucky, where his promises of jobs and free national health care and college tuition resonate with many economically distressed voters.
Yet Clinton apparently senses an opportunity to pull out victories in the two states – or at least deny Sanders another West Virginia style blowout victory.
As he has so often before, Sanders has drawn big crowds to his campaign events in Oregon, tapping into a reservoir of young voters and college students.
And because the primary will be “closed,” or off limits to politically unaffiliated voters, Sanders’s organizers have encouraged roughly 65,000 people to switch their registration from unaffiliated to Democratic, so that they can vote in the Democratic primary.
However, former President Bill Clinton has drawn large crowds as well in making repeated campaign appearances for his wife in Portland and other major population centers.
Bill Clinton stressed his wife’s plans to improve the economy, education and prison programs, among others, and took an indirect swipe at Sanders by suggesting he is better at making promises than delivering on them. “She is the best change maker I have ever known,” the former president said in Portland recently. “If you believe that, you still have time to get her a lot of votes.”
Late last week, a poll conducted by FOX 12/KPTV showed Clinton leading Sanders by 15 points. A second poll by DHM Research had Clinton ahead of Sanders, 48 percent to 33 percent. John Horvick, who conducted the second poll, told the Los Angeles Times that for a while, “It felt like this is Bernie Sanders country,” but that the race has turned into a seesaw.
Bill Clinton has proved to be an effective surrogate for his wife in Kentucky as well, where he enjoyed widespread popularity during his presidency. Hillary, meanwhile, has been slamming Kentucky’s new conservative governor, Matt Bevin, on issues ranging from health care to education, as The Washington Post reported late last week.
Bevin campaigned on a pledge to dismantle the state’s health care system set up by the previous Democratic governor under the Affordable Care Act. While he has backed down some from his previous threats, Hillary Clinton regularly brings him up at rallies, where Democratic crowds boo and hiss.
“I am saddened by what I her may come out of the governor’s office here in Kentucky,” Clinton said during a rally in Louisville last week, according to the Washington Post.
Polling has been sparse in Kentucky. But if Clinton can somehow pull off victories there and in Oregon, then Sanders’ fundraising will continue to dry up, and he will have little choice but to concede that his long-shot scenario for winning the nomination has turned into a fantasy.
Even if Sanders continues to win the remaining races, notes Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker, it won’t significantly diminish Clinton’s achievement in locking up their party’s nomination.
“It probably is psychologically very bracing to be able to go out on a high note,” Baker said in an interview. “But if you come out of the process with more delegates than the other person, that’s really much more important.”