Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was looking for a big bounce in Tuesday’s Wisconsin Democratic primary to catapult him into position to beat arch rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in her adopted state of New York in two weeks.
“If we win here, we’re going to have a bounce going into New York state, where I think we can win,” Sanders boasted to jubilant supporters in Wisconsin Monday. “If we win in New York state, we’re on our way to the White House.”
Sanders achieved what he was looking for in Wisconsin Tuesday night, his seventh primary victory in the last eight outings. Drawing once again upon his strong following among predominantly white college-age voters, blue collar workers, liberal activists and independents, Sanders defeated Clinton by 13 percentage points, 56 percent to 43 percent, according to nearly complete returns.
It was unquestionably another solid performance and important victory for Sanders over the former secretary of state and New York senator. And it provided added credibility and luster to a once improbable campaign that has grown in stature, financial resources and appeal across the country.
However, as in many of his prior successes, the self-described democratic socialist fell short of the kind of blow-out victories he needs throughout the remainder of the campaign to put a major dent in Clinton’s delegate lead.
The day began with Clinton leading Sanders in pledged and super delegates, 1,712 to 1,011, and needing 2,383 total delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination this summer. Clinton’s campaign set a low bar for Tuesday night after seeing a Sanders surge that resembled the one he enjoyed before his surprise win in Michigan several weeks ago.
With 86 pledged delegates awarded proportionately in Wisconsin, Sanders and Clinton divvied up the total, with Sanders picking up 45 and Clinton winning 31. That represents a net pickup of just 14 delegates for Sanders, doing little to change the current complexion of the race.
The stakes get much higher as the battle shifts to New York, where the two rivals will square off in a CNN-sponsored debate in Brooklyn April 14, just five days before the critical New York Democratic primary.
Clinton, who made New York her adopted home when she ran for the Senate, and Sanders, a native New Yorker who still has a thick Brooklyn accent, will be fighting not only for pride and bragging rights but also 200 precious pledged delegates that could dramatically tip the balance of power one way or another.
Regardless of the size of her lead in the delegate contest, a loss to Sanders in the Empire State would be a devastating setback for Clinton, who until recently held a substantial lead over Sanders in New York state polling. According to Real Clear Politics, she has an average lead of 11 percentage points over Sanders in two most recent statewide polls. If she loses in New York, Clinton would have a tough time sustaining her narrative of invincibility and inevitability as she marches towards her party’s nomination and a showdown this fall with Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who stumbled as well yesterday against Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
During his victory speech Tuesday night in Laramie, Wyoming, where he was campaigning for a weekend caucus, Sanders reminded his supporters that he does better against Trump than Clinton in hypothetical matchups in national polls. And he has shown repeatedly that he draws much bigger, more enthusiastic crowds than Clinton and now regularly beats her in fundraising.
“If we wake up the American people, and working people and middle-class people and senior citizens and young people begin to stand up and fight back and come out and vote in large numbers, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish,” Sanders said last night.
Sanders’ campaign strategists have said that the 74-year-old senator will model his campaign in New York on his come-from-behind victory in Michigan. He intends to barnstorm across the state as if he were running for governor, according to The Washington Post, and will hit Clinton hard on issues ranging from her cozy relations with Wall Street to her inconsistent views on fracking.
For her part, Clinton is leaving nothing to chance and is campaigning as if her political life depends on the outcome of the New York primary -- which it might. On Monday, she appeared at an event with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to mark an agreement that will gradually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. And she continues to hammer away at Sanders for promising far more than he could possibly deliver as president – including free tuition at state colleges and universal health care -- while she is promising experienced leadership and a more pragmatic approach.
CNN exit polling confirms a dichotomy that has haunted Clinton throughout her campaign. While Democratic voters overwhelmingly view Clinton as having the right experience to be president, they find Sanders far more honest and trustworthy. While many think Clinton is best prepared to serve in the White House, she continues to be dogged by concerns over her handling of sensitive email when she was secretary of state and her acceptance of large speaking fees from Wall Street banks.
White liberals made up two-thirds of the Democratic electorate last night and they were primarily concerned about the economy and income inequality –playing into the populist Sanders’ wheelhouse, according to exit polling. Once again, Clinton claimed the support of seven in 10 black voters, many of whom live in the Milwaukee area.
Although the delegate math dictates that Sanders must win the remaining primary contests by huge margins to catch up with Clinton, the Vermont senator’s best hope at this point is wooing away many of the super delegates who are currently committed to Clinton but would be free to change their vote at the convention. But that won’t be easy, especially if Clinton amasses enough pledged delegates to claim the nomination even without the super delegates.
David Axelrod, a former senior political adviser to President Obama and now an analyst for CNN, said last night that Sanders’s strategy for ultimately winning the nomination “sounds more like a prayer than a plan at this point.”