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How Hillary Clinton almost lost the nomination — but won the history-making victory

The 2016 Democratic primary was supposed to be a boring story.

The Economist said Hillary Clinton was getting a "coronation." Clinton’s presidential nomination would be a "cakewalk," the Daily Beast predicted. "I’d put her chances somewhere between 80 and 90 percent," wrote Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics in August 2015. "This is in line with where most other analysts seem to place the race."

Since Clinton eventually won the nomination, it’s easy forget how firm those early predictions were — and how they almost didn’t prove right. Against expectations, the Democratic primary became not just a battle of ideas but an actual contest between two viable candidates.

Bernie Sanders, initially thought to be running more to make a point than to actually win, came within striking distance of the nomination. There really was a moment — short-lived though it was — when it looked like Clinton might lose.

Of course, Clinton held on and officially became the party’s nominee. But at the Democratic National Convention, here’s a look back at how she almost let the nomination slip away — and how she managed to pull through.

1) Democrats clear the field of serious competition for Clinton (2015)

Clinton started out as such a formidable frontrunner for a simple reason: None of the other major contenders emerged to contest her candidacy.

After flirting with a run, Vice President Joe Biden decided to sit out a last-minute entrance. Other possible players — New Jersey’s Corey Booker, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and New York’s current Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — never made a move toward running.

Some observers treated the absence of major candidates as a sign of the Democrats’ "weak bench." But as Vox’s Ezra Klein pointed out at the time, the winnowed field was also a testament to Clinton’s strength and stature as a frontrunner.

"Clinton isn't winning by default. She's winning by winning. The absence of competition is the product of Clinton's strong, successful campaign to win over Democratic Party elites," Klein said.

Charts explaining how Hillary Clinton could have lost the presidential nomination to Bernie Sanders

Clinton’s lead among top Democrats was also reflected in her massive advantage among superdelegates. Before the first debate, the Democratic Party’s lawmakers and bigwigs had overwhelmingly pledged their loyalty to Clinton. That gave her an insurance policy that, given her 30-point advantage in the polls, it didn’t look like she’d need.

2) Sanders starts to look like a real contender with solid showing in Iowa and a big win in New Hampshire (Feb. 9)

Sanders had beaten expectations by igniting a small donor base and drawing tens of thousands of followers to his rallies. National polling, however, still showed him trailing Clinton by a healthy margin when voting began in February.

But Sanders had one other advantage: The first two contests were in predominantly white states that fit his base perfectly. He was able to run more or less even with Clinton in the Iowa primary, and then he crushed her by about 20 points in New Hampshire.

Charts explaining how Hillary Clinton could have lost the presidential nomination to Bernie Sanders
Charts explaining how Hillary Clinton could have lost the presidential nomination to Bernie Sanders
Charts explaining how Hillary Clinton could have lost the presidential nomination to Bernie Sanders

It was the beginning of Sanders’s transformation from a protest candidate to something more. Old memories of the 2008 election — when Barack Obama used early state wins as a springboard to beat Clinton — began to creep back into the storyline. The polling began to narrow.

"His campaign has done wildly better than practically any political observer predicted," Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote after the New Hampshire primary. "Sanders has proved popular enough to raise massive amounts of money from small donors, enough to let him go toe to toe with Clinton, who's backed by the entire Democratic establishment."

In a victory speech in New Hampshire, Sanders declared that "tonight is nothing short of the beginning of a political revolution." The race was on.

3) Black voters give Clinton massive lead on Super Tuesday (March 1)

What saved Clinton after the Sanders tsunami in New Hampshire was what would save her throughout the rest of the race: black voters.

The first sign of trouble for Sanders came in South Carolina, the third primary, which Clinton won by around 50 points. Then came March 1, also known as Super Tuesday, when Clinton won a string of huge victories across the South — in Alabama, Texas, Virginia, and Arkansas.

Charts explaining how Hillary Clinton could have lost the presidential nomination to Bernie Sanders

This was no fluke. Clinton campaigned with mothers involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and at black churches. She made clear her commitment to reforms related to police violence. She touted the endorsements of members of the Congressional Black Caucus and hit Sanders as a single-issue candidate, arguing that his focus on economic inequality risked missing racial injustice and sexism. She gave a long speech in Harlem on the topic of institutional racism.

Perhaps most importantly, Clinton increasingly positioned herself as heir to President Obama’s legacy. She used the president as something of a "human shield" during the debates, Vox’s Matt Yglesias noted, deflecting Sanders’s criticism of her positions on campaign finance and health care by saying they aligned with Obama's. The tactic cemented the idea that Clinton was running for Obama’s third term, and it tied the fate of the former rivals closer together than ever before. It also helped deliver her the Democratic nomination.

4) Sanders stays alive with shocking Michigan upset (March 8)

This was more or less supposed to be the end of the Sanders campaign. He had made a strong showing in the early states, but Clinton had crushed him in the South — and most observers thought she would cruise to victory from there.

A lot of pundits started guessing the end date for Sanders’s campaign. Polls ahead of the March 12 primary in Michigan, which voted along with Mississippi, predicted a big sweep for Clinton. (Michigan has a lot of black voters and, unlike New Hampshire, doesn’t have a tradition of backing left-wing insurgents.)

But propelled by shocking youth turnout and the open primary system — which allows independents to vote — Sanders stunned Clinton by winning Michigan. Even he seemed surprised by the victory, holding an impromptu press conference in Miami that looked hastily thrown together.

For Sanders, the Michigan victory revived a flagging campaign and injected new life into a candidacy that appeared to be on its last fumes. And it signaled to Sanders supporters what some had hoped but far fewer really believed — that his campaign was for real.

If the polls in Michigan had badly underestimated Sanders, they thought, what’s to say they wouldn’t in other states?

5) Bernie racks up victories and closes the national polling lead (March-April)

After Michigan, Sanders’s campaign saw an infusion of money and energy right ahead of a string of contests on favorable turf and in favorable conditions (open primaries or caucuses). After Idaho on March 22, Sanders went on to win the next six states — including Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming — giving him a real shot at closing the delegate gap down the line.

It was the high point of his campaign in a lot of ways. Even the animal kingdom seemed to want to help. On March 26, during a massive rally in Portland, Oregon, a small green finch landed on the lectern right in front of Sanders — a serene moment that drew a big smile from the candidate and launched a thousand memes.

Charts explaining how Hillary Clinton could have lost the presidential nomination to Bernie Sanders

With his poll numbers rising, Sanders took the fight to Clinton more aggressively than he had at any point beforehand. He amped up his criticisms of her speeches to Goldman Sachs and said her vote for the Iraq War raised questions about her judgment. He took a shot at her use of the term "superpredators" in the 1990s to refer to black teens, saying she had used a "racist term."

He came within 2 points of Clinton among Democratic primary voters. National polling continued to show him outperforming her when matched up against Donald Trump. Sanders and his allies began citing those polls to argue that the superdelegates should swing in his favor. Perhaps for the first time, the "political revolution" seemed tantalizingly within the realm of the possible.

6) Clinton strikes back in New York, regains clear lead (April-May)

But Sanders’s momentum would soon peter out.

Both campaigns circled the New York primary as the next big battleground. The polls showed Clinton well ahead in her adoptive home state, but Sanders held out hope that they’d prove as wrong as those in Michigan. The two candidates gave competing longform interviews to the New York Daily News — Sanders’s wasn’t received quite as well. Furthermore, New York had a closed primary, Sanders’s least favorable type of contest, and the registration deadline to switch parties was back in October 2015.

It wasn’t close. Clinton won New York by 16 points — an even bigger margin than the polls had suggested. "The race for the nomination is in the home stretch," said Clinton, buoyant, to a throng of supporters in Brooklyn at a victory party.

She was right. The New York victory marked the beginning of a new stretch of the primary with big Northeastern states favorable to Clinton. She clobbered Sanders up and down the Eastern Seaboard, one after another — Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut.

Charts explaining how Hillary Clinton could have lost the presidential nomination to Bernie Sanders

With victories coming in the state races, Clinton’s national polling lead began to rebound. Sanders began complaining that the Democratic Party’s primary rules were unfair, making questionable claims that "closed primaries" — which really had a pretty small statistical impact on the race — were responsible for his losses. As it became increasingly clear that Clinton was the more popular Democratic candidate with the voters, Sanders reverted to banal process arguments about minor rules squabbles.

And his idealistic vision for the country, so central to the first days of his campaign, began to get shoved to the side.

7) Sanders fades, slowly and steadily, until California (Early June)

Sanders never really recovered from the trouncing in New York.

Sure, he picked up a surprise victory in Indiana and a few delegates in West Virginia and ran nearly even in Kentucky. But he never looked like a genuine threat again. The demographics and election rules of each state — the percentage of black voters, closed versus open primaries — made the outcome of each race easily predictable far ahead of time. Michigan looked increasingly like a weird outlier, not a harbinger of a crisis in the polling industry.

Sanders did what he could and made the logical play, pinning all of his hopes on a massive Hail Mary upset in California. He poured $2.2 million into TV advertising in the state and held dozens of rallies up and down the coast.

The strategy, of course, didn’t pan out. But Sanders’s continued momentum and the enthusiasm of his supporters — even when his path was essentially sealed off — was impressive in its own right.

On June 6, the day before the California primary, the Associated Press declared that Clinton had received enough pledged delegates and superdelegates to clinch the nomination. Some Sanders allies balked at calling the race this way, but Clinton proceeded to win California by 7 points, making their argument moot.

It took more than a month for Sanders to officially endorse Clinton, which he did at a rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on July 9. Before doing so, he demanded concessions from Clinton’s campaign and from the Democratic Party more broadly, pulling the party to the left on a string of policies from the minimum wage to carbon pricing.

Coming into the convention, Clinton looked poised to easily coast to a victory over Donald Trump and become the first woman president in the nation’s history.

Then again, her contest against Sanders was supposed to be easy too.

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