Bernie Sanders's top campaign aides are sending radically different signals.
On Tuesday night, as it became clear that Sanders had lost New York badly, Sanders's campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, told MSNBC that "it's going to be an election determined by the superdelegates" — implying that the campaign will push for a Sanders nomination regardless of the popular vote total or delegate count.
But the next day, senior adviser Tad Devine laid out a different path, telling MSNBC: "I believe that today — that our superdelegates, that our party leaders, should let the voters speak first." He was saying the superdelegates should go with the pledged delegate winner, and Hillary Clinton is far ahead.
But many Sanders fans who truly think he is the better candidate are willing to push for him to be the nominee at any cost — even if it's a plan bordering on the absurd. After all, superdelegates are part of the party elite against whom Sanders has railed since the beginning of his campaign and they have backed Clinton at an overwhelming margin.
Now, in the final weeks of the primary, Sanders faces a choice as to which path he takes, best articulated by two different campaign staffers. The endgame Sanders chooses could give us a major clue about the future of the massive following he's built.
Hardcore Sanders loyalists want him fighting to the convention
For Sanders's true believers, the course ahead is clear: Push as hard as possible, for as long as possible, against the inevitability of Clinton as the Democratic nominee.
Right now, that means calling for the superdelegates to override the will of the elected pledged delegates, promising to prolong the fight even after the last state votes.
Weaver laid out this path on MSNBC:
Weaver: It is extremely unlikely either candidate will have the requisite number of pledged delegates to get [the nomination]. So ...
MSNBC: If June 7th comes and goes and Hillary Clinton has won the pledged delegate count and the primaries, and she has won the popular vote ... you will spend those months, those weeks in the summer trying to flip superdelegates to Bernie Sanders before the convention?
WEAVER: At this point, yes, absolutely.
It's not surprising that Weaver is the Sanders surrogate articulating the most aggressive strategy. (There's a real irony here that the strategy for Sanders diehards who most strongly criticize the Democratic Party involves relying on party insiders to save them, but we'll leave that aside for now.)
Weaver quit his job working for Sanders in the Senate to get a break from politics, leaving it to open a comic-book store in rural Virginia. He came back to politics to help Sanders's presidential run with the belief that "Bernie is a unique figure in American politics these days." The New York Times has said Weaver's attacks on Clinton have been more fierce than those from Sanders's other staffers.
Weaver's loose ties to the Democratic Party mirror those of many Sanders voters, a big section of whom are independents with little to no allegiance to the party. In Wisconsin, for example, Sanders won independent voters by a 40-point margin. The voters with loose ties to the party have their reflection in Sanders himself, who was a registered independent until 2015.
The Democratic leadership will want an end to party infighting ahead of the convention. But this outsider faction of Sanders's coalition is probably not going to care all that much if Sanders defies the party's wishes.
The Sanders faction more interested in pushing the party from within
While Weaver wants to fight for superdelegates, senior Sanders adviser Devine has struck a noticeably different tone.
Here's Devine on MSNBC:
"But I believe that today — that our super-delegates, that our party leaders, should let the voters speak first. And I think if they do, all the way through the end of the voting, that will strengthen our party, and certainly strengthen our hand — if we succeed with voters between now and June."
It's important not to overstate the difference here: Like Weaver, Devine has also said the campaign may ask the superdelegates to rescue Sanders's candidacy.
But Devine, who has also suggested the campaign reassess its position after several states vote next Tuesday, is also clear that the voters matter most. Unlike Weaver, Devine thinks Sanders should stop fighting after the last primary if it's clear he's lost.
There's a couple of things going on here. One is that Weaver appears to be putting much greater stock in the idea that the superdelegates could actually be persuaded to support Sanders on an electability argument — "If you can't create a coalition with independent voters, you can't win the White House," Weaver told MSNBC. Devine isn't saying that.
Also, Devine has a clear incentive to want Sanders ultimately to do what the party wants. Devine runs a Democratic media consulting firm that's been hired by a number of mainstream politicians, like Sen. Jack Reed, and mainstream liberal organizations, like Mayors Against Illegal Guns. These clients presumably don't want Sanders to try burning down the Democratic machine by taking the nomination to the convention.
That's not to say Devine wants Sanders to call it quits right now. Devine has argued that Sanders should fight to the end to win the pledged delegate count, and he's right that that's still theoretically possible.
But Devine is imagining an endgame for Sanders in which the energy of the campaign is channeled much earlier toward helping Clinton in the general election.
So what path will Sanders choose?
Of course, Sanders himself will be the one to make a decision about whether to pursue the superdelegate strategy.
From the beginning of the primary, Clinton's campaign has attacked Sanders as an outsider and questioned whether he's genuinely loyal to the Democratic Party. There's at least some reason to be suspicious: Sanders has been critical of the party establishment throughout the campaign. As Politico points out, Sanders's website still boasts that he is "the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history."
But the criticism isn't entirely fair, either. Sanders has caucused with the Democrats in Congress for his whole career. He's also promised to support the party's eventual nominee throughout the campaign. This week, Weaver said Sanders would be a "Democrat for life."
This comes down to a bigger question: Is Bernie really a loyal Democrat? If he is, the superdelegate talk is probably just a sideshow, and he'll bring the party together at the end of a well-fought primary. If he's not, Sanders may take his ball and go home — potentially taking some of those independent voters with him.
For now, we'll have to wait and see. Sanders himself had previously opened the door to asking the superdelegates to rescue his campaign, though not as explicitly as Weaver did this week.
After getting trounced in the New York primary, Sanders flew home to Vermont for a day off and "an opportunity to think," according to MSNBC's Alex Seitz-Wald.