Over the weekend, Bernie Sanders cleaned up with a series of landslide wins in three caucus states — Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska — that attracted little media attention.
This is because media and political elites have basically already decided the Democratic race is over, and feel that nothing in particular hinged on the outcomes in these states. To Bernie Sanders's supporters, this is precisely the problem.
They feel that from day one, their champion has been dismissed and underestimated by the media, and that they are currently being victimized by a campaign, orchestrated by or on behalf of Hillary Clinton, to declare his candidacy prematurely over.
The bad news for Bernie's Army is that the Democratic race really is basically already over.
Because states vary in terms of their demographics and whether they use a caucus or primary system, the calendar naturally produces mini runs for one candidate or another. Sanders is currently in the midst of such a run, enjoying strong performances in states that are friendly to his cause.
But the underlying dynamics of the race remain basically similar: A large number of Democrats prefer Sanders to Clinton, but a larger number prefer Clinton to Sanders. Sanders is already very far behind in the delegate count, and a huge share of the delegates that remain outstanding are in two states — California and New York — where the demographics are unfavorable to him.
On the other hand, Sanders's weekend wins do show that certain media characterizations of him as a white candidate, or of his coalition as an all-white movement, are too quick and too simplistic. It's a big country out there, and Sanders does well in a reasonably wide range of places.
It's possible — and even likely — that in some future race a candidate with a Sanders-esque ideology will do better with African-American voters and win. But it's not going to happen this year.
Sanders won big in three diverse states
On Saturday, Sanders won landslide victories in three states, securing 70 percent of the vote in Hawaii, 73 percent of the vote in Washington, and 82 percent of the vote in Alaska.
This is viewed as significant by Sanders supporters not only because they are landslide wins, but because they debunk a somewhat lazy media shorthand that holds Sanders does well in "white" states:
What Alaska (4.2 percent), Washington (3.7 percent), and Hawaii (3 percent) actually have in common with other Sanders strongholds is very small African-American populations. Washington (11.2 percent), Hawaii (8.9 percent), and Alaska (5 percent). All also have below-average Latino populations.
"White states" is a shorter summary phrase than "states with below average African-American and Latino populations," and in the vast majority of states they amount to the same thing. But there are a few exceptions, and three of them all voted on the same weekend. (Oklahoma, which Sanders also won and which has a large Native American population, is another.)
We do not have detailed exit poll data for these states, so we can't speak precisely about Sanders's appeal to Asian Americans and Native Americans, but he has done well in states where they compose a large share of the population.
It's still very unlikely that Sanders will win
Characterizing the demographics of Sanders's support accurately is important. Saying that he does well in "white states" or with "white voters" exclusively can make it seem as if he's running some kind of white identity movement and erase the existence of his supporters of color.
All that said, offering the more nuanced explication of the ethnic dynamics of the race does not change the fundamental issue. Sanders is currently well behind Clinton in pledged delegates. To overtake her, he needs large blowout wins in large-population states that offer large troves of delegates. That means California (27 percent of delegates outstanding), New York (14 percent), Pennsylvania (11 percent), and New Jersey (7 percent).
Here are some reasons why such blowout victories in big upcoming states are unlikely to happen:
- New York is Clinton's home state, and has an above-average black population and an above-average Latino population.
- New Jersey is whiter than New York, but is also above average in both its black and Latino populations.
- California is often lumped together with Washington in a "Pacific Coast" region, but demographically it looks more like Arizona, which Clinton already won by a wide margin, except it has a higher black population share and a higher Latino population share.
- Pennsylvania's demographics more strongly resemble those of Rust Belt states like Ohio and Michigan, which Clinton and Sanders have split more or less evenly.
A week ago, these demographic facts would have made a person skeptical that Sanders can achieve landslide wins in large, late-voting states to stage a come-from-behind win over Clinton.
Nothing about Sanders's performance in Washington or Hawaii or Alaska — or his early win in Utah — alters that perception. Had Sanders won Arizona, even narrowly, it would be a different story, as an Arizona win would have suggested that something had changed since his losses in Nevada and Texas. But that didn't happen.
Superdelegates aren't going to bail Sanders out
What Sanders plausibly could do between today and the end of voting is win enough delegates to deny Clinton an absolute majority at the convention based on pledged delegates alone. She would then need to secure the support of "superdelegates" — Democratic elected officials and other party leaders who automatically get seats at the convention — to secure the nomination.
The problem for Sanders is that there's just no way superdelegates are going to hand him the nomination.
Clinton has the overwhelming support of the party establishment, she is near-universally regarded by the party's officeholders as more electable (Sanders's camp disputes this analysis, but the fact is it's how she's seen), and the main theme of the Sanders campaign has been that everyone who participates in the conventional campaign fundraising process (i.e., virtually every superdelegate) is a corrupt pawn of a corporate-driven plutocracy who deserves to be swept aside in a grassroots political revolution.
That's a fine message for some audiences but a terrible message for convention shenanigans.
The campaign is about to get really expensive
If Sanders were opposed to long-shot races, he wouldn't have run against Clinton in the first place. The mere fact that he is likely to lose isn't going to inspire him to drop out now. Weird things can happen in politics, and maybe some unforeseen event will radically alter the patterns of support in time for Sanders to score unexpected landslides in New York and California. The future is, on some level, inherently unknowable.
What is knowable is that mounting a vigorous campaign in the remaining states requires ad buys in the New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Francisco media markets — and this can get expensive.
So far, fundraising hasn't been a problem for Sanders, who is raising staggering sums of money from small-dollar donors inspired by his ideas.
Those donors may want to ask themselves not whether Sanders should drop out, but whether TV airtime in those expensive big city markets is really the best use of their hard-earned dollars. Or would that money do more good supporting progressive candidates in down-ballot races?