Bernie Sanders’ historic and expectation-surpassing bid for the Democratic presidential nomination ran into hard reality in several pivotal primary contests Tuesday, when he could not break Hillary Clinton’s hold on voters in several critical battleground states needed to win in the fall, notably Ohio and Florida.
While Sanders' supporters will point to his overwhelming support among independents who voted in the Democratic primary, Clinton’s victories in those fall battleground states—as well as in South Carolina, Illinois and her razor-thin lead in Missouri—means it is virtually impossible for Sanders to win the delegates needed for the party’s nomination. That fact undoubtedly will take days to seep into his remarkable grassroots campaign, and it remains to be seen how Sanders will continue his quest or align himself with Clinton, whom he’s criticized for some stances but praised as a person of integrity.
The backdrop for that as yet unknown calculation is the deeply disconcerting continuing rise of Donald Trump toward the Republican nomination, as he continues to amass a delegate lead, winning in Florida, Illinois, South Carolina and Missouri. Although Ohio Gov. John Kasich beat Trump in his home state, his first victory on 2016, his chances—based on the GOP’s delegate nomination math—are an even longer shot than Sanders catching up with Clinton and wresting the nomination from her. Under the current Republican National Committee rules, a candidate needs to have won at least eight states to have his name placed in nomination for the presidency. That renders Kasich’s pledge to supporters that he will win this fall little more than campaign magical thinking.
“Only one campaign has beaten Donald Trump over and over and over again,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, striking a defiant tone despite losing in every state Tuesday, including by several thousand votes in Missouri to Trump. Cruz recited his pledge to recast the federal government and judiciary in the most ideological right-wing mold possible, go after enemies abroad, and said he was the only alternative to Trump. “Starting tomorrow morning, there is a clear choice,” Cruz said, posturing before supporters in Texas.
Trump’s victory in Florida prompted Marco Rubio to suspend his campaign, telling his backers that it was not in “God’s plans” for him to win “in 2016 or maybe ever.” He implored Republicans to reject the hateful politics pedaled by Trump, saying, “I ask the American people, do not give into the fear. Do not give into the frustration."
Tuesday’s top two storylines—Trump’s rise and Clinton all but ending Sanders’ chances of winning sufficient delegates to be the nominee—came together in Clinton's remarks, in which she underscored that she had won fair and square but tried to reach out to Sanders’ team. “Our campaign has won more votes than any other campaign, Democrat or Republican,” she began, in remarks from Palm Beach, “and I want to congratulate Sen. Sanders for the vigorous campaign he has waged.” Clinton said she needed the support of Democrats across the country, and then focused on Trump though cited many issues raised by Sanders.
“Tonight, it is clearer than ever that this may be one of the most consequential campaigns of our lifetimes,” she said. “The next president will walk into the Oval Office next year in January, and sit down at that desk, and start making decisions that will affect the lives and the livelihoods of everyone in this country and indeed, everyone on this planet.”
Clinton said the next president has three major challenges: making positive differences in people’s lives, keeping America safe and bringing the country together. The first example she gave was a direct nod to Sanders and his popularity with voters under age 35. “Young people across America struggling under the weight of student debt find it difficult to imagine the futures they want,” she said, “and they deserve a president who will relieve them of that burden and help future generations go to college without borrowing a dime.” Clinton continued with another issue that Sanders first raised. “And you know grandparents who worry about retirement deserve a president who will protect and then expand Social Security for those who need it most, not cut or privatize it.”
Her to-do list continued: affordable child care, paid family leave, equal pay for equal work for women, good jobs with rising incomes in construction, manufacturing, small business and renewable energy, and standing up for workers and the middle class—“not China, not Wall Street and not overpaid corporate executives.” Clinton said she knows how to make these promises become realities and then slammed Trump, especially his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stances and his embrace of torture and threatening adversaries. “That doesn’t make him strong, it makes him wrong,” she said.
“We have to take on all forms of inequality and discrimination,” she continued. “Together, we have to defend all of our rights—civil rights and voting rights; worker’s rights and women’s rights; LGBT rights and rights for people with disabilities. And that starts with standing with President Obama when he nominates a justice to the Supreme Court.”
Whether or not Sanders supporters will buy Clinton’s words and see how much he has sharpened her embrace and articulation of a progressive agenda remains to be seen. There is no doubt that the short-term messaging from the Sanders campaign will be that they will keep plowing ahead and fight for delegates in the remaining states. As of Tuesday, half the states have voted. The math has Clinton with 300 more pledged delegates than Sanders. That is not counting superdelegates, the elected officers and party officials, where she has 427 to his 26. Sanders reportedly spent $12 million in ads for Tuesday's contests, compared to Clinton's $7 million.
Many of Sanders’ supporters have not been involved in political campaigns before, and will have a hard time immediately processing Tuesday’s results. But there are some big unanswered questions about what is next for them in 2016—and what Clinton will do to bring the two campaigns together. Sanders has taken positions that appeal to the disaffected voters who have been drawn in by Trump and Cruz. One can only hope that the Democratic Party knows it will need the millions of young economic progressives to turn out in November. And they may not unless they have a candidate they can believe in.