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Clinton’s Coronation Becomes a Grind

She and Sanders will battle through March, costing her money and precious staff time.

Bernie Sanders has already giv­en Hil­lary Clin­ton a nasty scare in Iowa, and is likely to hand her a loss next week when New Hamp­shire voters cast their bal­lots.

If that were the only dam­age his in­sur­gent, an­ti­cor­por­ate cam­paign in­flicts on the Demo­crat­ic front-run­ner’s pre­sumed path to the nom­in­a­tion, it prob­ably would mean little to her chances to win the White House this Novem­ber.

Un­for­tu­nately for Clin­ton, though, that’s not the only dam­age she can ex­pect: The lay­out of the primary sched­ule, the pro­por­tion­al man­ner in which del­eg­ates are awar­ded, and Sanders’s sur­pris­ing fun­drais­ing strength all mean that the former sec­ret­ary of State will be forced to ex­pend both money and, even more pre­cious, staff time com­pet­ing in places that al­most cer­tainly will not be in play this Novem­ber.

Clin­ton cam­paign man­ager Robby Mook, in an MS­N­BC ap­pear­ance, ac­know­ledged a state-by-state grind that will go through March, when more than half of the total del­eg­ates up for grabs will be awar­ded. “We’re just go­ing to keep plug­ging away and earn­ing and re-earn­ing those votes,” he said.

The cam­paign has already staged more than 10,000 de­bate-watch parties, phone banks, and or­gan­iz­ing meet­ings in those 11 states, and points out the ground­work already un­der way in Col­or­ado, which holds caucuses on March 1.

But while Col­or­ado and Vir­gin­ia will likely be key states in the gen­er­al elec­tion—so spade­work now will be­ne­fit Clin­ton this au­tumn—also on the bal­lot that day are con­tests in Alabama, Geor­gia, Ok­lahoma, Ten­ness­ee, and Texas, none of which has much pos­sib­il­ity of vot­ing Demo­crat­ic this Novem­ber.

The Clin­ton cam­paign is already ex­plain­ing away a New Hamp­shire loss next week as a giv­en, with Sanders rep­res­ent­ing neigh­bor­ing Ver­mont in the Sen­ate. After New Hamp­shire, the caucuses in Nevada three weeks from now look more fa­vor­able for Clin­ton, and at the end of the month she is poised to do very well in South Car­o­lina, where Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters can make up a ma­jor­ity of the primary elect­or­ate. Clin­ton has deep roots in that com­munity, while Sanders has so far struggled to con­nect with black voters.

Still, even if she wins South Car­o­lina over­whelm­ingly, there is little reas­on for Sanders to leave the race, giv­en the tens of mil­lions of dol­lars he’s been able to raise, largely from the hordes of donors who have sent about $30 each. Sanders star­ted adding staff late last year, when the money surge al­lowed him to dra­mat­ic­ally in­crease his budget. Early last month, cam­paign man­ager Jeff Weaver an­nounced Sanders had staff in all of the March 1 states. 

In­deed, a Na­tion­al Journ­al ana­lys­is of his re­cent Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion fil­ing shows that 174 of the Sanders camp’s 640 staffers were in the 11 states that vote on March 1 (al­though that fig­ure may be slightly over­stated be­cause Ver­mont, where Sanders has his headquar­ters, is among those states). That fil­ing also shows that Sanders is mak­ing a ser­i­ous push in South Car­o­lina, where 126 staff re­ceived paychecks in the fi­nal three months of 2015.

Yet even that fo­cus on South Car­o­lina by both cam­paigns il­lus­trates what the even­tu­al can­did­ate, who­ever it is, must sac­ri­fice. That state has not voted Demo­crat­ic in a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion since 1976—which means the can­did­ate time, the TV ads, and the can­vassing ef­fort in the com­ing weeks will count for al­most noth­ing on Feb. 28, the day after the primary.

Sanders staffers had been mak­ing an av­er­age of $1,500 per month in the fi­nal quarter of 2015, based on the Na­tion­al Journ­al ana­lys­is, while the av­er­age Clin­ton staffer made about twice that. Which means hun­dreds of Demo­crat­ic staff de­ployed in deeply red states for an ex­tra month or two will cost mil­lions in salary alone. And every day a cam­paign work­er is in Ok­lahoma or Texas or Alabama is a day that per­son is not in Flor­ida or Pennsylvania or oth­er likely battle­ground states this Novem­ber.

Clin­ton, in an in­ter­view with CNN last month, was nev­er­the­less up­beat about the like­li­hood of a pro­longed slog. “Re­mem­ber, I cam­paigned all the way in­to June last time,” she said.

Mo El­leithee, a former Demo­crat­ic strategist who now runs the In­sti­tute of Polit­ics and Pub­lic Ser­vice at Geor­getown Uni­versity, said there is a sil­ver lin­ing to something like that hap­pen­ing again.

“It helps Demo­crats up and down the tick­et. It helps the party as a whole,” he said.

El­leithee ac­know­ledged that a drawn-out nom­in­a­tion fight presents a “re­source man­age­ment” prob­lem for the can­did­ates, but chal­lenged the idea that time and ef­fort spent in red states was ne­ces­sar­ily wasted.

“In the me­dia en­vir­on­ment that we live in, what hap­pens on the ground in Alabama is heard about in the battle­ground states,” he said, adding that a side be­ne­fit could be put­ting some Re­pub­lic­an states in play—such as what happened in 2008 with In­di­ana and North Car­o­lina, which Barack Obama won that Novem­ber.

“These things can have the be­ne­fit of chan­ging the map a little bit. Could Geor­gia sud­denly be­come slightly more com­pet­it­ive?” he said. “It cer­tainly adds to the cal­cu­lus.”

(Image via a katz / Shutterstock.com)