Why Sanders Will Keep Fighting After Tuesday's Primaries

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For all practical purposes, the drawn-out contest for the Democratic nomination will likely end Tuesday night, because Hillary Clinton is almost certainly going to win New Jersey’s 70 delegates and declare the race clinched, even before the results in a much bigger state— California—are tallied.

Except, it probably won’t actually end Tuesday night, because an undaunted Bernie Sanders and his ardent supporters don’t believe (or won’t admit) the superdelegates who have pledged support for Clinton and push her delegate total past the 2,383 nomination threshold should be counted—at least not yet. Sanders is now saying Clinton needs to win two-thirds of the remaining pledged delegates to clinch the nomination, and that if she doesn’t do that, she can expect a floor fight at the Democratic convention in July. “It’s extremely unlikely that Secretary Clinton will have the requisite number of pledged delegates to claim victory on Tuesday night,” Sanders said in a recent speech. “At the end of the nominating process, no candidate will have enough pledged delegates to call the campaign a victory. They will be dependent upon superdelegates. The Democratic National Convention will be a contested convention.”

That represents a pretty broad disconnect between the two candidates, one appointing herself the victor and another bellowing “hey not so fast!” to cheering crowds of thousands. And in a way, it makes irrelevant the outcome of Tuesday’s contests, even the neck-and-neck one in California, where 546 delegates are at stake. The latest polling shows the two candidates in a statistical tie, but more important than such snapshots are the trends: Sanders has gained nine points in the past two months, according to polls. Momentum in California is moving in his direction.

06_05_sanders_01 U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally at Casa del Mexicano in Los Angeles, California, on Saturday. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

If Sanders wins the Golden State, he’s going to keep campaigning, even though he probably can’t win the nomination. If Sanders loses the Golden State, he’s going to keep campaigning, even though he probably can’t win the nomination.

Why?

Someone’s finally listening to grandpa. Sanders has spent his entire political career singing the same socialist-lite song, and his message is at long last resonating with a huge swath of the American people. Every contest, every state, every rally, is a chance to spread that message more widely. Whether he wins or loses, he likes that. Who wouldn’t? “Bernie Sanders has been in politics almost his entire life,” Mark Peterson, political science professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, tells Newsweek . “He recognizes he’s kind of a quixotic character in politics, curmudgeon-ey, white haired, grumpy. It must be inspiring to go into an arena with 10,000 people screaming your name. Anybody can get caught up in that excitement. It tends to alter one’s lens, including the realities of mathematics. To some extent, this is a last crusade for him, and a pretty exciting one.”

It also can exaggerate one’s sense of self-importance.  

“With each passing week, he probably feels a little more empowered, a little more full of himself,” Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, tells Newsweek. “People like that, who think they’re on a mission from God, they’re not easy to bargain with.”

Convention clout. The more delegates Sanders goes to the convention with, the more clout he and his supporters have heading into the convention, where the Democratic Party will make important, long-lasting decisions about its platform and also the rules for the next election — how superdelegates are awarded, for example. A Sanders win in California helps the senator make the case that his issues — Medicare for all, free college tuition, among others — belong at the fulcrum of the Democratic Party. He might even want to be on the ticket, as Clinton’s vice presidential candidate.

Fold now, and Clinton gets to run the show in July.  

“A win here could give him enough momentum to go into the convention with a huge amount of leverage,” Dan Schnur, head of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, told Newsweek . An energized and motivated Sanders fighting with Clinton on platform and delegates and party rules is the last thing Clinton needs, when she wants to use the convention to bring the party together, behind her.”

06_05_clinton_01 U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes a picture with supporters during a campaign stop in Fresno, California, on Saturday. Mike Blake/Reuters

Conventions are technically where a party chooses its nominee, but practically, they’re a long-running infomercial for the candidate who has already secured the nod. “If the party delegates are fighting with each other instead of unifying, it can blue that message significantly.”

Both Sanders and Clinton need his supporters to stay engaged. But this is where both candidates must be extraordinarily cautious. Sanders’s supporters are by no means ready to see their candidate concede, and the outcome in California isn’t likely to change that perception. They tend to believe the entire contest has been rigged against him from the start, that the votes Clinton has racked up thus far weren’t come by honestly and that the superdelegates should ignore the numbers and wake up and shift their support to Sanders, because he’s more electable in November. Right or wrong, the passion of those supporters is critical for whatever candidate goes up against Donald Trump in November. If Sanders bursts their balloon too quickly, maybe they not only give up on the November contest but on any hope they ever had that real change is possible. Maybe they go back to a lifelong political shrug. Even if Sanders would love to see Clinton elected, he has to keep his flock convinced he didn’t abandon them too soon and that there’s a reason for them to stay engaged.

“The question is what is Bernie Sanders thinking?” Whalen says. “If he decides it’s time to to call off the dogs and for the Democrats to come together and defeat Donald Trump, he can rally his troops to make that happen. But we don’t know if he’s of that mindset.”

Clinton faces the same delicate dance. She’s already pivoting to the general, treating herself as the presumptive nominee and focusing her attacks on Trump. If she does that in a way that slights Sanders’s impassioned people—whose help she very much needs to become president—that would be a mistake. But if she rides too hard to the left, it could alienate more centrist swing voters in November.

“California is not so much about the results as it is about a metaphor for the party,” Whalen says.

Sanders wants to change politics forever. To the senator from Vermont and to his backers, this election represents a chance to make a permanent shift, maybe even a revolution, in American politics. If his young supporters come away from this election demoralized, they might give up on the system forever. If they come away believing they made a difference, they may continue working for change in 2018, 2020 and beyond.

“If people feel cut off from the process, that they can’t participate in a meaningful way in the primary, that’s not a great way to hold onto those folks in the future. But one of the big signals will be how he and his top officials talk about Hillary Clinton and her campaign as we go forward,” Peterson says. “If they’re really about setting a policy agenda and trying to create a political base for moving the country dramatically to the left, it’s not going to be about attacking Hillary Clinton personally.”