Saturday, May 7, 2016

Clinton, Sanders and the post-Indiana campaign

I KNOW that the Clinton campaign thinks this campaign is over. They’re wrong,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders told The Associated Press on Tuesday by phone from New Albany, Indiana. “Maybe it’s over for the insiders and the party establishment, but the voters today in Indiana had a different idea.”

Sanders can be forgiven for indulging in a moment fit for Mark Twain or Jon Snow. Like the great American humorist after hearing the news of his own demise, like the major warrior of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” come back to life, reports of Sanders’ end as a presidential candidate have been greatly exaggerated.

The death notice for his campaign may just be early but for now, the Lazarus of the 2016 presidential campaign is very much with us, celebrating an upset victory over challenger Hillary Clinton in the Indiana Democratic primary.

Sanders predicted he’d have “more victories in the weeks to come” in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon and California. Admitting he faced an “uphill climb” to the nomination, Sanders said that, regardless, he was “in this campaign to win and we are going to fight until the last vote is cast.” Tuesday’s win makes that more than an idle boast.

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We’d thought it was just about over when Hillary Clinton won the April 26 five-state Acela/I-95 primary; the smart money figured she’d effectively shut the door on Sanders’ spectacularly refreshing maverick campaign.

That seemed to be pretty much confirmed on Wednesday, when Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told CNN more than 200 workers would be getting pink slips. Sanders told The New York Times the same thing, in an interview. “It will be hundreds of staff members,” he said.

The delegate count makes clear how “uphill” that climb for Sanders still is. Sanders may be doing this to extract leverage in helping to write the Democratic platform at or just before the convention in Philadelphia. But Sanders has been fighting the good fight, raising tens of millions in small-donor contributions, and dragging the Democratic party, kicking and screaming when necessary, further to the inclusive, panoramic left. Not bad for a septuagenarian first-timer on the campaign trail.

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WHAT HAPPENS next is open for debate. With nine state primaries left, Clinton still has a commanding delegate lead. But there are scenarios emerging in which Sanders could make this sprint to the end of the primary season more of a photo finish than Hillary Clinton, or anyone else, imagined.

Seth Abramson, writing in The Huffington Post, came up with five reasons why Sanders may be the major beneficiary of the end of the campaign of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Abramson suggests that with the Indiana victory of billionaire attention addict and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump essentially securing him the nomination, there’s no strategic reason for Republican voters to vote for Trump anymore — and that, with open primaries to come, independent voters or Republican voters might cross over and vote for Sanders.

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Abramson writes: “Sanders will pick up a huge number of what would otherwise be Trump votes in states where voters are still able to register for upcoming Democratic primaries, or are able to cross over and vote in the Democratic primary due to being a registered independent.

“Sanders’ vote share in nearly every upcoming primary and caucus just increased, though we don’t know by how much. In some instances, it could be a substantial bump, given that there’s no strategic reason to cast a vote for Donald Trump anymore — now that the Republican National Committee has officially declared him the presumptive nominee.”

On its face that doesn’t make much sense. OK, independent voters might vote for Sanders; that much isn’t just possible, it’s flat-out logical they’d go all in for an independent senator from very independent Vermont. But this scenario also assumes that the Republican voters Abramson speaks of — “what would otherwise be Trump votes” — would find enough common cause with Sanders to vote for him.

That’s nuts. There’s no more of a reason, strategic or otherwise, for Republican voters to vote for Sanders then there is reason for Sanders voters to cross over and vote for Trump. Either way, you’re talking about voters casting their lot with someone who’s their philosophical opposite. What’s the rationale for doing that?

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ABRAMSON AGAIN: “Sanders now has a greatly increased chance of winning all of the remaining Democratic primaries and caucuses.

“Sanders was already looking strong in Oregon, West Virginia, Montana, South Dakota, Kentucky, North Dakota and California, but given that he’s within single digits in New Jersey (where Trump is very popular) and performed incredibly well with nonwhite voters in Indiana (meaning New Mexico could be in play), it’s not unthinkable that Hillary Clinton could lose all of the remaining primaries and caucuses and therefore as many as thirteen or fourteen contests in a row to finish the Democratic primary season.”

This could happen, but a straight Sanders sweep of all the remaining contests would be a real stretch. It almost presumes that Clinton walks off the field of battle completely, vacating her familiar biography and a formidable ground game in the heartland she’s drawn strength from. She’s way too invested, too deeply entrenched there for that to happen.

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And anyway, the math still works against Sanders, even if he ran the table from here on in. He’s too far back mathematically to get that much closer to Clinton.

And never mind Sanders’ challenge to superdelegates: In The Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart takes Sanders to task for his “insistence that superdelegates choose him over Clinton. As reporters at The Post, NPR and Vox have pointed out, even if superdelegates in states that Sanders won switched from her to him he’d still lose the nomination. And those folks don’t really have any incentive to do so. With Tuesday’s results from the Indiana primary factored in, Clinton now has 3.1 million more raw votes than Sanders. So the superdelegates are already backing a winning candidate.”

The one item Abramson may have gotten dead on is the last one, and in some ways the most possibly disturbing:

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THE DEMOCRATS will have a contested convention, and the Republicans won’t,” Abramson says. “Few saw this coming, but assuming Bernie Sanders maintains his pledge to contest the Democratic convention unless Clinton can get 2,383 pledged delegates by June 14th — which she can’t, barring a miracle — only one of the two major parties will go to their convention divided, and with (not for nothing) the sort of logistical hurdles that come with that. For instance, when does Clinton roll out a Vice Presidential candidate? Before a convention she knows will be contested?”

Abramson advances a Chicken Little scenario here, one in which the sky (and everything else) falls in July for the Democrats. And it’s true, if Sanders sticks absolutely to his guns, it’s not just possible, it’s almost a certainty. But this campaign mockup assumes that Sanders himself doesn’t eventually recognize the fragmenting dangers of a contested Democratic convention, and how blowing up the convention in Philadelphia does damage to the drive to keep the White House in Democratic hands.

Bernie Sanders has his ideological side, we sure as hell know that by now. But by extension, there’s also a pragmatism about Sanders, a recognition of the difference between that which is navigable, and that which is non-negotiable. It’s a grasp of realpolitik that strongly suggests that when the chips are down, with the White House at stake and the existence of a Trump administration in the balance, he won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. One suspects that voters won't, either.

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With Clinton close-but-not-close-enough to the needed 2,383 delegates between now and the time of the delegate-rich motherlode primary in California, in June, the time’s come to heal the wounds created by four or five months of furious infighting.

After four months of constant intraparty bickering going on, Clinton and Sanders both face the serious challenge of Making Nice: not just cosmetic nice but the kind of nice that heals wounds and unifies the divided factions of the party, and sets the Democrats on (hopefully) a course of action that returns them to the White House in November.

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HEALING THOSE breaches makes a lot of sense, and the sooner the better. During the primary season, Clinton and Sanders could afford to ignore that which is pretty obvious: They haven’t exercised the ability to heal each other in the broken places of their respective campaigns. Reporting on Clinton wins in late April, for example, David Fahrenholt of The Washington Post reported on what for Sanders has been a nagging problem:

“For Clinton, Tuesday’s victories in large, urban states reinforced her case against Sanders: that he has not broadened his coalition much beyond white liberals, and that he struggles to win urban areas and populous states.”

Goldie Taylor, writing in The Daily Beast back in February, observed much the same thing: “Sanders, the self-professed anti-establishment candidate, has run on a platform that attacks income inequality, as well as promises to expand access to health care and college education. His message has attracted support from mostly white progressives who are convinced that Sanders is the best candidate to carry the Democratic banner in the fall campaign. For them, Clinton represents all that is wrong in Washington.

“The problem for Sanders is that he has nowhere to grow. Black voters, who will dominate many of the coming primaries, have not responded to his message. Even black millennials, thought to be good prospects, are breaking in favor of Clinton.”

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That was in February, and not all that much has changed since then. Sanders has been steadily moving forward in contest after contest after contest; we don’t know how much of his current success might be due to those black millennials coming around. So far, Sanders has found a way to succeed, despite being weak with African Americans, that important constituency of whom black millennials are a vibrant subset.

But now it’s crunch time; despite a stream of donations, message and energy, time is the thing Sanders has just about run out of. For black millennials, and the wider African American voter base (a bloc he’d have absolutely needed to win in November), Sanders’ message isn’t penetrating like it has for young white millennials.

Clinton is similarly damaged goods to the hordes of voters who’ve been praising Sanders to the skies all year long. To them, Clinton is the ultimate insider pol, someone whose connections to the Washington establishment, deep-pocketed donors with ties to Wall Street and the major banks – to say nothing of her natural ties to the deeply-moneyed Clinton Foundation, founded by husband Bill — estrange her from the lives and predicaments of most of the American people whose favor she’s seeking today.

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BUT CLINTON has the numbers and much of the momentum towards the nomination. And this isn’t her first rodeo with the velocity of presidential politics; in the end, campaign-trail experience and the benefit of the best brand in Democratic politics give Clinton an edge that Bernie Sanders can’t undercut or exploit.

But here’s the rub: Now may be the very worst time for Sanders to close up shop, whether he’s being pushed to do so or not. With nine state primaries and a number of caucuses still to be held — including one in California, the nation’s most populous state —millions of American voters in the politically crucial Western half of the United States would be effectively disenfranchised if Sanders withdraws now.

Fewer things would push disaffected Democrats and independent voters away from the Clinton campaign like the feeling, right or wrong, that Sanders was pressured out of the race (which probably explains Clinton’s relative absence of comments about Sanders after his Indiana win [to be expected since she skipped campaigning in the Hoosier State, sending Indiana Democrats a no-show signal that could come back to bite her in the general]).

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And ironically, for Sanders to pull the plug on his campaign, especially in the wake of an effervescent victory in Indiana, would be to short-circuit its very essence. It would undercut the meme and the meaning of Sanders’ whole campaign — neatly distilled in his post-Indiana intention to “fight until the last vote is cast.”

He’s already reckoned with the competition, the consternation over his continuing to run, and with the outcome that’s all but written already. With Sanders, it’s something he can live with.

In for a penny, in for a pounding.

And why not? Like it or not, in ways that further what democracy is and what democracy means, the Sanders campaign has earned the right to run its course, for better or worse. No Alliser Thorne gets to intervene. In this game for a throne, this year’s Jon Snow must exit by his own hand.

Image credits: Sanders as Jon Snow (detail of photo illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast). Super Bernie: Creator unknown. Clinton-Sanders photo illustration: via Clinton lower: CNN.

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