Bernie Sanders took another state from Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries with a win in Oregon on Tuesday night. Democratic voters also headed to the polls in Kentucky, where Clinton finished off the night with a slight edge.
This victory won’t dent Clinton’s lead, but an undaunted Sanders promised to remain a loud presence heading into the last weeks of the primary at an election night rally.
Heading into these two states, Sanders needed to win over 67 percent of all the remaining pledged delegates to pass Clinton. In other words, he needed a pair of landslides to meaningfully close the gap with Clinton. Anything else meant falling short.
Speaking before results were finalized, Sanders insisted there is a “possibility” he could pull ahead of Clinton. He acknowledged this would be improbable and would take multiple major victories among the six states that will vote on June 7. Nevertheless, Sanders vowed to take his “fight” to the party’s nominating convention, which will take place in Philadelphia in late July.
Bernie Sanders at a rally in New Brunswick, N.J. (Photo: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx/AP)
“We have the possibility. It will be a steep climb, I recognize that, but we have the possibility of going to Philadelphia with a majority of the pledged delegates,” Sanders said. “Some people say that we’ve got a steep hill to climb to do that. And you know what? That is absolutely true. But you know what? Together we have been climbing that steep hill from day one in this campaign.”
Clinton did not make a speech, but she sent out a tweet declaring victory in Kentucky before the Associated Press called the results there. In that brief message, Clinton emphasized party unity.
“We just won Kentucky! Thanks to everyone who turned out. We’re always stronger united,” she wrote.
Polling was scant in both Kentucky and Oregon. Clinton may have been slightly favored to win in Kentucky. Her campaign made a push to win the state in the last two weeks leading up to the primary. Both Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, campaigned in Kentucky. Her team also reversed course and launched a television ad campaign in the state after previously indicating it would no longer be spending money on commercials for the primary. This strategic shift by Clinton provided a dramatic example of the protracted battle with Sanders preventing her from making a planned pivot to the general election.
Both Kentucky and Oregon were closed primaries, meaning only previously registered Democrats could vote. This dynamic has generally favored Clinton, while Sanders does better in open primaries. However, Kentucky and Oregon were potentially fertile ground for Sanders. He has done well in the Pacific Northwest, which has a white and liberal electorate. Sanders has also performed well in states similar to Kentucky, including his win in last week’s primary in neighboring West Virginia.
Hillary Clinton waves to the crowd before speaking during a campaign stop in Bowling Green, Ky., on May 16, 2016. (Austin Anthony/Daily News via AP)
Sanders’ chance of winning the nomination is now incredibly slim. But he has repeatedly vowed to stay in the race until the convention. Sanders had already moved forward on Tuesday. He made his election night speech from California, the biggest remaining state on the primary calendar. And in it, Sanders made it clear he isn’t going anywhere.
“Many of the pundits and politicians, they say Bernie Sanders should drop out, the people of California should not have the right to determine who the next president will be,” Sanders said. “Well, let me be as clear as I can be: We are in till the last ballot is cast!”
And as long as Sanders remains in the Democratic primary, he presents an obstacle for Clinton.
Sanders and his team have increasingly criticized the Democratic Party’s primary process and leadership. This dissent in the ranks could make it harder for Clinton to ultimately achieve party unity. Though Clinton dominated early in the primary calendar and in the delegate-rich states of New York and Florida, she has been unable to score a big enough margin to finish off Sanders.
The Vermont senator has said he hopes to help reform the way Democrats choose their nominees going forward. He wants to eliminate closed primaries in favor of open races. Sanders also called for the party to “rethink” its superdelegate system. The Democrats have over 700 superdelegates, party officials and elected leaders who may pick a candidate regardless of how their respective states voted. Clinton currently has an overwhelming lead among these party insiders, with over 500 superdelegates, while Sanders has only 40.
Along with calling for reform, the Sanders campaign has raised questions about voting issues in various states won by Clinton. Sanders’ calls for superdelegate reform and other critiques of the process have fanned flames of anger among some of his supporters who believe Clinton has had an unfair advantage. However, the elements of the primary process Sanders has disputed do not seem to be the reasons he is in second place.
Superdelegates are generally expected to back whoever gets the most pledged delegates from the state primaries, and Sanders has a significant deficit even counting only pledged delegates. A CNN analysis published Tuesday showed that Sanders would still be behind Clinton if some of the reforms he’s pushing for were already in place for this year’s election. And Sanders’ campaign has actually attempted to take advantage of the current system by encouraging superdelegates to switch sides in spite of the election results. The Sanders team’s superdelegate pitch is based on some national polls showing he would perform better than Clinton in a hypothetical matchup against Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
Tensions between Sanders supporters and the party establishment boiled over during the weekend at Nevada’s state Democratic convention. There were allegations that furious Sanders supporters resorted to throwing chairs and making death threats online over disagreements with party leadership. Clinton won Nevada in February, but Sanders’ campaign made a push to win over delegates and emerge out of the convention ahead.
And Sanders hasn’t exactly pushed for peace. On Tuesday evening, he issued a striking statement in which he said it was “nonsense” for local Nevada Democrats to suggest his campaign has a “penchant for violence.” He also accused the state’s Democratic leadership of using “its power to prevent a fair and transparent process from taking place.”
“I condemn any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals,” Sanders said. “But when we speak of violence, I should add here that months ago, during the Nevada campaign, shots were fired into my campaign office in Nevada, and the apartment housing complex my campaign staff lived in was broken into and ransacked.”
Clinton may need to heal some of these wounds if she manages to fend off Sanders and secure the nomination. And while Clinton remains in a contentious primary, Trump has already cemented his presumptive-nominee status.
In a fundraising email sent to supporters last week, top Clinton campaign staffer Marlon Marshall lamented the position they are in. Marshall explained that Clinton is essentially fighting a two-front war.
“We’re opening offices every week in battleground states like Ohio and Florida, AND we’re fighting every day before the California primary,” Marshall wrote, adding, “Here’s the deal: Bernie’s not opening field offices in Ohio, because he’s only focused on the primary. Donald Trump isn’t opening field offices in California, because he’s only focused on the general. We’re the only ones running two races, which means we need this team to step up twice as much.”
Clinton’s latest win makes it even more likely she will survive this dual battle for now. But it also seems clear her inability to decisively finish Sanders off earlier will cost her in the meantime. During his speech in California, Sanders was briefly interrupted by supporters who chanted “Bernie or bust!” The slogan is popular among Sanders backers who say they will never vote for Clinton.
Sanders didn’t respond to the chant. He simply smiled.