Sanders Has the Wind at His Back in His Improbable Bid for the Nomination
Policy + Politics

Sanders Has the Wind at His Back in His Improbable Bid for the Nomination

© Brian Snyder / Reuters

Sen. Bernie Sanders is trailing in the polls and may not be able to pull out a victory next Tuesday in the New York primary against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But he has the wind at his back and could score another important moral victory – even if he doesn’t put a dent in Clinton’s committed delegate count.

One thing that’s safe to say: The self-described democratic socialist has startled the political world with an improbable campaign that has frequently rocked Clinton on her heels and led to victories in seven of the last eight primary and caucus contest. Wednesday night, he drew roughly 27,000 people to a rally in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, a larger crowd than the one gathered for nominee Barack Obama in 2007.

Related: Bernie and Hillary Take the Gloves Off in a Fiery Debate

Sanders rallied with striking Verizon communications workers earlier in the day, whose union endorsed Sanders last December. Clinton signaled her solidarity with the strikers as well, but she can’t count on many of them backing her at the polls next Tuesday. And despite her strong support among blacks and Hispanics more generally, Clinton got a tepid response from those attending the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network convention after former President Bill Clinton clashed with some Black Lives Matter protesters last week.

And – talk about perfect timing – federal regulators announced yesterday that JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and three other of the largest banks in the country are still “too big to fail” and do not have credible plans for how they would unwind in the event of another banking crisis. This played directly into the hands of Sanders, who for months has been calling for the breakup of these banks while Clinton has advocated a more cautious approach called for under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law

Sanders for a long time was criticized as a Johnny One Note who obsessed in his speeches on income inequality and the evils of Wall Street’s largest banks, which he largely blames for the financial meltdown that triggered one of the worst recessions in U.S. history. He was also criticized by the Clinton camp and others for seemingly stumbling over his explanation of precisely how he would go about breaking up the big banks during a lengthy interview with the New York Daily News editorial board a week ago.

As The New York Times noted on Wednesday, Sanders’s position has drawn some positive nods from ”the other side of the political spectrum” in the banking world, including Neel Kashkari, a former Treasury Department official during the 2007-2008 financial crisis and now the new president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Related: New Polls -- Kasich Is the Only Republican Who Could Beat Clinton

During his speech last night in the heart of Greenwich Village, Sanders lashed out once again against the political “status quo” and “corporate greed and the rigged economy” – taking careful aim at the big banks and at Clinton, the former New York senator who over the years has accepted $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.

“It is about creating a government that works for all of us, not just wealthy campaign contributions,” Sanders said to the cheering masses near the campus of New York University. “This campaign is sending a message to corporate America: You cannot have it all.”

Sanders, the former mayor of Burlington, Vt., and a member of the House of Representatives, early on vowed to conduct a civil campaign that would be steeped in issues and devoid of personalities and cheap shots.

But as Clinton has pulled well ahead of Sanders in both committed delegates and “super delegates” to the point where it is almost impossible for him to overtake her and win a majority before the Democratic national convention in July, Sanders and his advisers have been far more critical and hard hitting against Clinton, to the point of disputing that she has the qualities and judgment to be the next president. Sanders insists, for example, that Clinton’s Senate vote in 2002 in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- leading to vast U.S. casualties and expenditures of government funds – is reason enough to disqualify her for president.

Related: Sanders’ Tax Plan Soaks Everybody, With the Wealthiest Paying Millions More

The Sanders campaign also has portrayed Clinton as an establishment Democrat who has had to be dragged further left on key issues and always seems to come up with an argument for why Sanders proposals for free tuition, national health care for all and other liberal ideas are not feasible.

As if the Democratic contest wasn’t heated enough, Paul Song, the executive chairman of the progressive Courage Campaign, who also spoke at the Sanders rally, said the government would never adopt a “Medicare for all” program like the one Sanders has proposed as long as “corporate Democratic whores” are elected.

Sanders and Song both later apologized for the comment, but the damage had been done. And now we all await tonight’s final Democratic presidential debate on CNN, beginning at 9 pm (ET) in advance of Tuesday’s New York primary, to see whether the vitriol continues to flow.

Sanders is at a crucial juncture in his drive for the nomination: After treating his campaign largely as a progressive messaging effort for months, he now firmly believes he is best equipped to be the Democratic nominee – and best equipped to beat Republican frontrunner Donald Trump in the general election campaign this fall. But the more the political analysts and experts insist he can’t overcome the delegate math squarely in favor of Clinton, the angrier and more frustrated he appears to become.

Related: Not So Fast, Hillary: Bernie’s Right About Breaking Up the Banks

More than half way through the primary season, Clinton leads Sanders in total delegates, 1,776 to 1,118, with 2,382 needed for the nomination. That means Clinton needs to pick up an additional 606 delegates in the remaining contests to win the nomination, with many of the upcoming races in the highly friendly terrain of the Northeast. Clinton leads Sanders 55 percent to 41 percent in New York, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Regardless of the result Tuesday night, she is certain to pick up more than half of the 291 Democratic delegates at stake. Sanders will probably end up losing ground.  

Because the Democratic delegates will be distributed proportionate to the popular vote going forward, Sanders will have to score improbably large victories – of 60 percent or more – if he hopes to catch up to Clinton. Or he will have to persuade many of the “super delegates” – the party and elected officials who automatically are chosen to take part in the convention – to switch their allegiance from Clinton to the Vermont senator.

At the same time, Sanders may have turned up the heat so much in his now-frequent denouncements of Clinton that the two sides will have a tough time putting the pieces together and uniting against the Republicans this fall. After all, Sanders’ comments disputing Clinton’s qualifications to be president will make interesting fodder for GOP political campaign ads this fall if Clinton emerges as the Democratic nominee.

If Clinton wins next week by ten or more percentage points, as the recent polls suggests, she will be well on her way to securing the nomination, even without much reliance on the super delegates. If Sanders wins in New York -- where he was born and Clinton served two terms as a U.S. senator -- then the race will be turned upside down and Sanders’s scenario for ultimately winning the nomination will seem more credible.