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The state of the Democratic race, explained

John Sommers II/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democratic nominee, but there are still states left that haven't voted and Bernie Sanders is going to stick around because he can — not because he can win.

His aim in doing so is to maximize his influence at the convention and the overall standing of himself and his ideas in the party. (He wouldn't turn down the nomination if something bizarre happened, but that's not likely.) The picture may become somewhat confused because, naturally, Sanders's best hope of maximizing his influence is to get people in the remaining states to vote for him, which requires him to maintain the pretense of an active campaign for the nomination.

Consequently, the Democratic race is in a bit of a holding pattern in the six weeks between today and the final primaries in New Jersey and California. The thrill is gone but it's not over yet.

The current delegate math

The race as it stands so far is that Clinton has 1664 pledged delegates to Sanders's 1371 pledged delegates. It takes 2026 pledged delegates to obtain a majority, which means that Sanders would need to receive 66 percent of the delegates who have not yet been allocated.

So far in the race, Sanders exceeded that threshold in the state of Vermont, but has not done so in any other state.

It's important to be clear about what this means to understand exactly how bleak Sanders's odds are. Take a state like New Hampshire that is very Sanders friendly and where he won a fairly crushing victory that launched his campaign to the big time. Now imagine that Sanders wins by New Hampshire-like margins not just in Oregon and Montana but in places like New Jersey and New Mexico and California. Imagine Sanders wins as handily as he did in New Hampshire in every single state that hasn't voted yet.

If he pulls that off (which he won't) he will still fall short of Clinton's haul in pledged delegates allocated by the voters.

Then since Clinton has the overwhelming support of the elected officials and other party officers who serve as unpledged "superdelegates," she will win the nomination. Not, to be clear, because the superdelegates rigged it for her. But because her existing lead is just so large that Sanders cannot realistically overcome it even with landslide wins.

And of course while Sanders will likely win some landslides between now and June, he won't win landslides across the board. He's currently 4 points behind in Indiana, 7 points behind in California, 9 points behind in New Jersey, etc.

Sanders has accomplished a lot already

When Sanders first got in the race, his campaign was universally understood, including by the candidate himself, as about trying to advance an ideological viewpoint and some big ideas rather than about trying to win the Democratic nomination.

Eventually, the combination of Sanders's stellar fundraising and rising national poll numbers changed that.

It's now clear that he won't win after all, but judged by the original goals of the campaign, Sanders has been quite successful. He's seriously elevated the visibility of the idea of tuition-free college, he's forced Clinton to adopt many of the labor movement's criticisms of trade deals, and he's established himself as an important factional voice inside the party going forward.

Sanders is, for example the ranking Democrats on the Senate budget committee. If the party does well in November and Clinton is in the White House and he becomes chair of the committee, Clinton will have to realize when shaping her budget proposal that Sanders's views on it will speak directly to a large and engaged audience of liberals whose support she is counting on. Absent the campaign, they would likely dismiss him as a fringe figure who could be disregarded despite his official status on the committee. Thanks to the campaign, he can't be dismissed.

Many Bernie supporters haven't given up hope

When Sanders first got into the race, he was written off entirely by the press corps.

He then proceeded to fight Clinton to a standstill in Iowa, beat her badly in New Hampshire, surge in the national polls, establish an unprecedented national grassroots small donor base, and achieve a leading position among white voters and a dominant one among younger voters.

Along the way, he sharply defied the polls to score an unexpected win in Michigan and has overperformed his poll numbers in most caucus states.

The result is a campaign whose supporters have grown accustomed to being written off, and accustomed to defying expectations. Many them will therefore tune out articles (like this one) that are dismissive of Sanders's ability to capture the nomination. But the fact of the matter is that pundit conventional wisdom hasn't been that bad.

Sanders's difficulty winning non-white voters was flagged early, and has remained. Michigan aside, forecasts based on demographics and polls have called almost every state correctly. And to win the nomination, Sanders wouldn't need to just outperform expectations in the remaining states, he would need to do so to a massive extent — winning by margins he's only obtained in his home state across a range of places that are much less hospitable to his message.

Demographics have driven the race

Sanders tends to perform poorly in states that have above-average black or Latino populations. One-third of the American population lives in just four states that fit this bill — California, Texas, New York, and Florida — which leaves Sanders with plenty of states in which blacks and Latinos are scarce in which to clean up in without denting Clinton's lead.

The fact that California and New Jersey contain between them the lion's share of the delegates that remain outstanding offers further reason for skepticism that Sanders has any chance of closing the gap with Clinton. These two large states that don't vote until June are both on the more-diverse side, and are likely to favor Clinton just as states like Arizona, Texas, New York, and Connecticut have in the past.

The Democratic establishment is confused

As the race draws to a close, one noteworthy element of it is how profoundly confused the events of the past several months have left the Democratic Party's leadership.

On the one hand, Clinton, the candidate they overwhelmingly prefer, is winning and will ultimately win rather handily. On the other hand, her campaign seems underwhelming for one that seemed unusually dominant in terms of its ability to clear the field and roll up endorsements.

Perhaps Sanders is a political savant who's been lurking in plain site in Congress for the past 25 years?

Or perhaps the party has united around a spectacularly weak candidate and they should feel nervous?

But this disquieting emotional state is undermined by the objective facts. Clinton is on course to win the nomination and Donald Trump — who is spectacularly unpopular — is on track to win the Republican nomination. Perhaps Democrats ought to be excited. Perhaps the party is poised to win a third-straight term for what would only be the second time Democrats have done so in all of American history.

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