Why the Democratic Presidential Race Will Drag On for Months
Policy + Politics

Why the Democratic Presidential Race Will Drag On for Months


While there may be some new clarity in the Republican presidential campaign after today’s “Super Tuesday” primary contests, the Democratic race between former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is almost certain to continue for another month or two regardless of the outcomes in Florida, Ohio and three other Midwestern states.

Sanders is hoping for another major upset over Clinton in Ohio, Illinois or Missouri, just as he pulled out in Michigan last week after adroitly linking Clinton to NAFTA and other unpopular trade agreements that cost millions of jobs in the auto industry. He has also sharply criticized her for taking millions in speaking fees from Wall Street, and signaled concern about her email controversy that has triggered a federal probe.

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Clinton has fought back with pledges to create new and better paying industrial and high tech jobs to replace those that have been moved overseas, and she has repeatedly questioned Sanders’s commitment to the bailout of the auto industry in the depths of the recession and to efforts to pass a national government health care program in the 1990s, when she was first lady. Both claims have been discredited by Sanders and his supporters.

“Barring intervention by the FBI, Clinton is the nominee,” said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “But the rest of the primary season matters because it will determine whether she sweeps triumphantly into Philadelphia or limps into the convention. The more delegates Bernie has, the more leverage he'll have over the platform and Hillary's positioning in the fall. I can't imagine she'd agree to pick him for vice president, but he could get a kind of veto power over centrist possibilities.”

Averages of recent statewide polls by Real Clear Politics show Clinton walloping Sanders in Florida and North Carolina by nearly 2 to 1 margins, 62 to 31 percent and 57 to 33 percent, respectively. In both cases, Clinton will be helped once again by overwhelming support from African-American voters, much as she enjoyed in South Carolina, Arkansas and several other major Southern states. However, the outlook is much more muddled in the three others states voting on Tuesday.

In both Ohio and Illinois, the former New York senator is holding onto leads over her rival. She’s up 51 to 43 percent in the Buckeye State. While that may sound like a comfortable margin, consider that Sanders trailed there by as much as 30 points a few months ago.

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In Illinois, Clinton just bests Sanders 48 to 46 percent in the polls, a margin that could easily be wiped out on primary day. Losing the state Clinton was born and raised in would be a major embarrassment for her campaign. She is counting on picking up considerable support by embracing the policies of President Obama, a former senator from Illinois. But she hasn’t been helped by her close association with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose popularity plummeted amid his handling of police shootings of blacks.

Meanwhile, in Missouri Sanders is ahead of Clinton by a single point, 47 to 46 percent, according to RCP. The Vermont senator surprised many on March 1 when he won the deep red state of Oklahoma. A win in the similarly conservative Show Me State would be another feather in the cap of the Sanders operation and further proof that his message of economic inequality is connecting with voters in GOP strongholds.

The ultimate Democratic nominee will need at least 2,383 of 2,952 available delegates to lock up the nomination this summer in Philadelphia. Clinton so far has racked up 1,234, including 467 “super delegates,” mostly elected officials, while Sanders has 579 delegates. There are 691 Democratic delegates up for grabs Tuesday, but under the Democrats’ proportionate allocation rule, there’s virtually no way for Sanders to claim the vast majority of those delegates – or the other delegates that will be fought over throughout the coming months.

Sanders bridles at any suggestion he should abandon his quest, arguing that he has energized the party, drawn consistently huge crowds to his rallies and rivaled Clinton in fundraising. The day before the last Super Tuesday contests on March 1, the Sanders campaign announced it had raised more than $42 million in February, including $6 million alone on the last day of the month. All told, the Vermont lawmaker’s raked in more than $96 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That figure was inconceivable when Sanders launched his dark horse bid nearly a year ago.

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By comparison, Clinton raised $30 million in February, but she’s still hauled in more in primary cash than Sanders, around $130 million. The former First Lady also enjoys a significant cash-on-hand advantage — $33 million, more than double the Sanders war chest.

The bottom line is that Sanders can easily stay in the race as long as he wants, with no problem raising the necessary cash to wage a strong media campaign throughout the country. Clinton has acknowledged that Sanders will be a tough challenger to finally shake. And with an FBI investigation of her handling of State Department emails still hanging over her there is no way to be certain of how the race will end.

As time goes by, the nagging question within the party will become whether Sanders is sapping Clinton’s strength and resources even as she should be preparing for a bruising and nasty general election campaign against Republican Donald Trump this fall. Sanders argues that he would be stronger than Clinton in taking on the combative and nasty billionaire businessman, citing numerous polls to back him up. But Clinton said that after 25 years of being attacked by Republicans, she has the “thick skin” necessary to take on Trump.

"In the course of dealing with all of this incoming fire from them, I have developed a pretty thick skin,” she said during a CNN town hall on Sunday night. “I am not new to the national arena, and I think whoever goes up against Donald Trump better be ready.”