Will Sanders Stay or Will He Go?

Sanders addresses supporters in Arizona in July. Sanders addresses supporters in Arizona in July. Flickr user Gage Skidmore

After losing the New York state primary, Bernie Sanders will have to decide how the rest of the race should be run.

Hillary Clinton has long held a lead in the all-important competition for the delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination. But before New York handed Clinton a victory, Sanders had been on a winning streak, securing seven consecutive victories in primary and caucus states. That allowed Sanders to claim momentum and quieted questions over how he expects to win and how long he will remain in the race.

Those questions have returned with a vengeance, and the campaign seems to be sending mixed messages as it works to respond. In an email to supporters on Wednesday, Sanders wrote, “We still have a path to the nomination, and our plan is to win the pledged delegates in this primary.” Sanders’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, projected confidence that the campaign will continue to pick up pledged delegates on MSNBC on Tuesday evening. But he also emphasized that the campaign will try to win over superdelegates, a group of influential party elites, even if Sanders trails Clinton in the pledged delegate count and the popular vote. “It’s going to be an election determined by the superdelegates,” Weaver said. 

Meanwhile, Sanders’s senior strategist, Tad Devine, told the AP that the campaign would need to “sit back and assess where we are” after the results of upcoming primary contests. Devine reportedly maintained that it would still be possible for Sanders to secure the nomination. But his wait-and-see tone seemed to signal uncertainty. It appeared to be the first hint of publicly expressed doubt on the part of the campaign over the fate of the race.

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The longer Sanders stays in the race, the more time he has to preach his message of political revolution. If he fights all the way to the convention, Sanders may be able to extract concessions from Clinton and the Democratic Party, assuming Clinton ends up in position to receive the nomination. If Sanders drops out of the race before the convention, the delegates he has won would be free to move on to Clinton, and Sanders would risk losing the leverage he has worked so hard to win.

Still, Sanders’s ability to use that leverage could hinge on whether he can avoid alienating Clinton, the Democratic establishment, and liberal voters. Sanders hasexpressed a belief that he can win over superdelegates for some time. But his campaign seems to be putting a sharper point on that argument, effectively suggesting party elites can deliver the nomination to the Vermont senator.

MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki sketched out the following scenario for Weaver on Tuesday:

If June 7 comes and goes, and Hillary Clinton has won the pledged delegate count in the primaries, and she’s won the popular vote, there are going to be calls … for you, the Sanders campaign, to make a decision to unite around her. You’re saying instead of that, you will spend those months, those weeks in the summer, trying to flip superdelegates to Bernie Sanders before the convention.

“At this point, yes, absolutely,” Weaver replied. That argument clashes with the campaign’s argument that it represents the voice of the people, and could hurt Sanders’s standing with voters who love him precisely because he rails against a rigged system where political power brokers call the shots. It’s also a long-shot strategy considering that superdelegates typically side with whichever candidate has the most popular support at the end of primary-voting season.

Team Sanders has also shown an increased willingness to challenge the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. The campaign raised the possibility on Monday that Clinton and the party may have violated campaign-finance laws as a result of a joint-fundraising effort. The claim puts Sanders squarely at odds with the Democratic Party. It also feeds a negative public perception, often stoked by Republicans, that Clinton is willing to break the law to consolidate power, even though at least some campaign finance and election experts suggest the fundraising was likely above board. The claim will certainly help Sanders gin up support from his followers. It could also help his campaign spotlight fundraising practices the senator believes should be illegal, even if they’re not illegal now.

Still, in publicly picking a fight with the Clinton campaign and the party, Sanders may be backing himself into a corner. If Sanders ends up convincing his supporters that his rival and her institutional backers are corrupt, it could be impossible for him to initiate conversations with Clinton and the rest of the establishment about the future of the party later on without damaging his own credibility.

Sanders has achieved far more in the Democratic primary race than nearly any political observer predicted. He has proven to the Democratic Party that a strong vein of populist support runs through it. He has inspired his followers to lay the groundwork for a political movement that will last far beyond the current election. He has shown that it is possible to shun super PACs and still bring in massive amounts of money from small-dollar donations. He has started to cultivate a new generation of political leaders who share his politics by fundraising for progressive candidates in less prominent races. But in the final stretches of the fight for the presidential nomination, the tone and tenor of the campaign may ultimately determine how effectively those gains are channeled.

(Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore)

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