Bernie Sanders keeps saying that regardless of what happens on today in California and New Jersey, he'll fight on against Hillary Clinton all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in late July.
There's a reason he's saying that. Clinton, after all, will have won a majority of pledged delegates but not an absolute majority of overall delegates. That means, in theory, if Sanders can persuade a huge number of superdelegates to back him, he could become the nominee.
"She has received obviously a whole lot of superdelegate support, no question about that," Sanders told reporters outside an event in Oakland over the weekend. "A lot more than I have. But superdelegates don’t vote until they’re on the floor of the Democratic convention. That’s when they vote."
And this is exactly what I would say if I were Sanders. He'd clearly like people in California and elsewhere to vote for him, and as long as you're in the race you need to maintain that you're in it to win it.
But Ted Cruz swore he was going to fight all the way to the convention until the moment he announced he was dropping out. That's just how the game is played. It doesn't mean Sanders is really going to do it.
On the contrary, once the dust settles he's going to realize that fighting on is only going to cost him support and influence going forward and he'll rapidly move to endorse Clinton.
Sanders's basic plan makes no sense
Eight years ago, Hillary Clinton was in a broadly similar position to Sanders — hopelessly behind in the delegate race but vowing to fight to the convention — and she backed down when the voting was done.
One crucial difference, however, was that Clinton's "the superdelegates will swing it my way" theory of the race made a baseline level of sense for her that it doesn't for Sanders. For starters, Obama had run up the delegate score in a lot of low-turnout caucus states. On top of that, Michigan and Florida held weird unsanctioned primaries in 2008 that Clinton won. This meant that even though Obama had won more delegates, Clinton had arguably won more votes.
So Clinton's pitch to the superdelegates would have been that assigning the nomination to her would in fact be a vindication of the popular will.
In 2016, by contrast, the gap in pledged delegates is larger, and it's Sanders who relied on low-turnout caucuses. Consequently, Sanders has received about 3 million fewer votes than Clinton and has consistently lagged behind her in national polls of Democratic primary voters. So he would be asking the party establishment to overturn the will of the people. That would be an awkward request for any candidate, but it's simply a bizarre one for a populist anti-establishment insurgent.
Having beaten back Sanders's insurgency, there's obviously no way that the establishment is going to turn around and hand him the nomination for no reason.
Clinton will gain endorsements after California
While Sanders's hypothetical campaign would be premised on the idea of winning superdelegates over to his side, the reality is that after California and New Jersey vote, the opposite is going to happen.
Right now there are still 128 superdelegates who haven't endorsed anyone yet. That's everyone from Barack Obama, Al Gore, and Jimmy Carter to over 100 members of the Democratic National Committee whom nobody has heard of. None of these people are going to respond to the end of voting by coming off the fence in favor of Sanders, and some of them will respond to the end of voting by coming off the fence in favor of Clinton.
- Elizabeth Warren will say she likes both candidates and Sanders ran an inspiring grassroots campaign, but Clinton won fair and square and now it's time to come together to ensure Wall Street isn't left off the leash by Donald Trump.
- Al Gore will say the same, but he'll emphasize climate change.
- Carter will say the same, but he'll emphasize global humanitarian issues.
At the same time, the small number of Sanders supporters who are also elected officials — most important among them Reps. Keith Ellison and Raúl Grijalva and Sen. Jeff Merkley — will abandon him on the same grounds. Indeed, Mekley is already signaling this.
Sanders-backer Sen. Jeff Merkley: that "Unity is going to begin today as soon as the polls close." https://t.co/AjUpZEgXTD— Alex Seitz-Wald (@aseitzwald) June 7, 2016
They'll say the campaign accomplished a lot and proved people-powered politics is the wave of the future, but Clinton won fair and square and now it's time to unite for a higher minimum wage, making the rich pay their fair share, comprehensive immigration reform, and all the rest.
Separately, but relatedly, left-of-center interest groups who haven't endorsed in the primary are going to start coming off the sidelines and endorsing Clinton as their preferred general election candidate. These are groups that won't say anything bad about Sanders and don't have any problem with him — they just want to start looking forward to November.
Sanders's left flank will peel away
At the same time as the more establishment-oriented wing of the Sanders movement abandons him in favor of Clinton, the more radical wing will also abandon him.
Sanders's core voting base in the primary has come from young people who probably didn't participate in the 2000 campaign. But several of Sanders's more prominent surrogates — people like Cornel West and Susan Sarandon — are longtime critics of the Democratic Party who backed Ralph Nader back then.
Once it's clear that Sanders has lost the nomination, Sanders's elite Democratic supporters will rally behind Clinton, the Democratic nominee.
And once it's clear that Sanders has lost the nomination, Sanders's elite anti-Democratic supporters will rally behind Jill Stein, the Green Party spoiler du jour.
The debate over whether Clinton or Stein is the better fallback will be increasingly heated in pro-Sanders circles, and will begin to undermine the sense of fun and togetherness that animates participation in insurgent politics. Very few people are going to have the kind of die-hard personal loyalty to Sanders that would be required to stay focused on a doomed nomination fight rather than a third-party campaign.
At the end of the day, Sanders is a Democrat
Decades ago, when America's political parties were less polarized and when Sanders was more invested in anti-anti-communism as a foreign policy, Sanders was truly a political independent. He won a tough third-party campaign to be elected mayor of Burlington, and he tangled with Democrats on the city council early in his term.
Back in 1988, Peter Plympton Smith won a seat in the US House of Representatives with just 41 percent of the vote because Sanders and the Democratic nominee split the left-of-center vote. Sanders later won the seat in a three-way race.
But once in Congress, Sanders settled into a comfortable modus vivendi with the formal Democratic Party. He caucused with the Democrats for the purpose of obtaining committee seats and seniority, and Democrats stopped running candidates against him. In 2006, when a Senate seat opened up in Vermont, the party's national leaders — everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Chuck Schumer — cleared the field for him so he could win the Democratic nomination unopposed. Having won it, he then officially declined it in order to run as an independent in a race with no Democratic nominee.
Then upon entering the Senate he joined the party caucus and now serves as the ranking member on the Budget Committee. If Democrats win the Senate in November, he'll either chair that committee or the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Which is all just to say that in a practical sense, Sanders has the same investment in having a strong and united Democratic ticket as any other member of Congress. If Clinton wins in November, he'll have influence over executive branch appointments and a good chance to chair an important committee and shape legislation. If she loses, he'll be a member of a powerless minority that stands around and votes "no" while Trump slashes taxes.
At the moment, he would like to win as many votes in California as possible, and maintaining the pretense that he's not remotely close to giving up is the right way to do that. But when there are no votes left to win and he begins bleeding support, Sanders will come around and bring things to an end.