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Is Bernie Sanders Finally Coming To Realize He Can’t Possibly Win The Nomination?

Clinton Sanders Debate
In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s win last Saturday in the Nevada Caucuses, the race between Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has taken on a decidedly different tone. Where it was former Secretary of State Clinton who was on the defensive for much of February after a near-loss in Iowa and a decisive loss in New Hampshire, now it is quite clearly the Vermont Senator who is on the defensive as the race heads to South Carolina on Saturday and then quickly on to a series of Super Tuesday primaries in states where Clinton seems to have a clear advantage. The first sign of just how much the race has changed can be seen in the fact that Sanders seems to have clearly already conceded South Carolina to Clinton:

COLUMBIA, S.C. — With just a few days until the South Carolina Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders is all but writing the state off.

He hasn’t said that, of course, but his schedule reflects it.

Sanders was in Massachusetts Monday night and Virginia Tuesday morning. While he attended a televised town hall in South Carolina Tuesday night and followed with an early morning news conference, his itinerary Wednesday consisted of events in Kansas City, Missouri, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. After that, his schedule called for a trip to Ohio Thursday — with stops in other March-voting states likely to be added, an aide said.

A candidate’s time is a campaign’s most precious resource, so by spending so much of it somewhere other than South Carolina, the Sanders campaign is engaging in the cold calculus of primary politics — making the tough decision to send the senator to the states where he expects to be the most competitive.

It’s a reflection of the cloudy outlook in South Carolina — where Hillary Clinton currently holds a double-digit lead in every poll ahead of Saturday’s primary but also of Sanders’ strategic map through mid-March. The campaign’s goal is to project the message that he is running a durable national campaign, and central to that plan is a strong showing on Super Tuesday (March 1), followed by solid performances in big-state primaries like Michigan on March 8 and Ohio on March 15.

Asked whether he was writing the state off at his morning news conference — an opportunity for him to get into the local media stream before he headed off to Missouri — Sanders said “Nooo, noo, no, no, no.”

“We came to South Carolina, and, if you look at the polls, we were at 7, 8, 9 percent in the polls. We were 50, 60, 70 points behind. We have waged a very vigorous campaign. We have closed the gap very significantly,” he said.

Nonetheless, he conceded, “This, from Day One, was going to be a very difficult state for us. We’re not writing off South Carolina, but you all know there are a dozen states voting on March 1.”

Sanders and his aides bristle at the idea that they’re giving up on South Carolina, partly because they’ve invested in a large local organization for months. And because of Sanders’ widely-publicized struggles courting African-American voters, they’re eager to avoid the perception that his choice to effectively stop campaigning in a state where black voters make up more than half of the Democratic primary electorate implies he’s ceding the black vote to Clinton all across the country.

“Bernie invested a lot of time and money, and has a sizable operation here. They’re certainly not skipping the state,” said Brady Quirk-Garvan, chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party. “But it’s clear their focus is on Tuesday and moving forward past South Carolina.”

After barely mentioning South Carolina in his speech and communications to supporters upon losing Nevada on Saturday, Sanders was forced to face that question the next day on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” insisting that he was not skipping the state.

“I’m talking to you from Columbia, South Carolina, we have a major rally this evening, we’re not skipping over anything,” he told host John Dickerson Sunday, flashing some irritation at the implication. “But I think that after South Carolina, we have 11 states, we stand a good chance of winning a number of those states.”

Looking at the polls out of the Palmetto State, its’not hard to see why Sanders is not spending much time on the state prior to Saturday’s primary. The four most recent polls, from NBC/WSJ, Fox News, Bloomberg, ARG, and Monmouth have Clinton leading Sanders by anywhere from 22 to 29 points, and the RealClearPolitics and Pollster poll averages both show Clinton with an average well above 50% of the vote and a lead well above twenty points. This is largely due, of course, to Clinton’s advantages among African-American voters, which Sanders has utterly failed to make a dent in either in South Carolina or anywhere else in the country. Given that advantage, we can expect Clinton to win big on Saturday and big very well situated as we head into Super Tuesday and the early March primaries.

This is what I meant when I noted that the nature of the Democratic race had changed significantly with Clinton’s victory in the Nevada Caucuses. With that win, Clinton blunted much of the momentum that Sanders had coming off his big win in New Hampshire and surprisingly good showing in Iowa. Had Clinton not won Nevada, of course, then the Democratic Primary in South Carolina would be getting a lot more attention than it is right now due to the fact that it would be seen as a must-win for Hillary Clinton headed into Super Tuesday. That is still the case, of course, but with the win in Nevada there seems to be little doubt that she will not only win in the Palmetto State, but that she has set herself up for a period in early March during which Sanders is going to be hard-pressed to find a place to win anything more than a handful of states. Current polling in the Super Tuesday states, for example, shows Clinton winning in nearly every state, with the only real exceptions being Sanders’ home state of Vermont, as well as nearby Massachusetts. If these polls hold up, then Clinton stands to walk away with the vast majority of Super Tuesday delegates and what would likely be a permanent change in the momentum of the Democratic race. Clinton is in a similarly advantageous position in the polling in the states set to hold their primaries on March 8th and March 15th. If she ends up winning in those states as well, which is likely given that they all seem well-suited for her and her popularity among minority voters among other things then one could make the case that the Democratic race is effectively over at that point since Sanders path to victory would be tenuous at best.

To a large degree, of course, none of this should be unexpected. Notwithstanding Sanders’ ability to perform well in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, and his ability to draw large crowds thanks to a message that resonates with a significant segment of the Democratic Party, there has never really been any realistic possibility that he was going to be the Democratic nominee for President. The race would be far different, obviously, if Sanders had any ability to garner support among the minority groups that make up the Democratic coalition, but he has proven completely unable to do so outside of a few token endorsements from African-American politicians and activists who don’t really have very much influence in their own community. Thus, Sanders finds himself in much the same position that Clinton was in when she ran against Barack Obama in 2008 and he was garnering historic vote shares and turnout from African-American and other minority groups. The difference is that, unlike Clinton, Sanders has a much smaller base supporting him so his ability to actually last in the race is far more limited. At some point, then, Sanders will have to make a choice between staying in the race and being little more than a minor annoyance for Clinton as she continues racking up delegates or bowing out and uniting behind the inevitable nominee, likely with the promise that he’ll be able to bring his supporters and his message to the Democratic National Convention in June as long as he pledges to support Clinton in the General Election. Given the fact that it’s always seemed to me that Sanders is really running more to spread a message than win a campaign, I suspect he’ll chose the later course soon enough and Clinton will end up the presumptive nominee perhaps as early as the end of March.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    Bernie pulled Clinton 45 to the left, and showed her what she has to do to appeal to the young ‘uns.
    No way of knowing yet if the lesson stuck…but his work here is through.
    Give that man a cabinet post as a parting gift!!!

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 11 Thumb down 9

  2. C. Clavin says:

    Way OT…but I can’t resist:

    A 12-year-old girl was accidentally shot through the stomach during a Sunday gathering of the Three Percent of Idaho at a local gun range, according to the militia group’s president.
    The Three Percenters are Second Amendment advocates who take their name from the unproven statistic that only three percent of American colonists actively took up arms against England during the Revolutionary War. The group recently made headlines in connection with the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

    Nothing like a well-regulated militia……….

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  3. Andrew DuPree says:

    Mr. Mataconis: I would not deny you the right to say whatever you like. I just want to know if you realize that this statement undermines your whole argument….

    “Notwithstanding Sanders’ ability to perform well in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, and his ability to draw large crowds thanks to a message that resonates with a significant segment of the Democratic Party, there has never really been any realistic possibility that he was going to be the Democratic nominee for President.”

    I suppose you meant to say, “I and everyone I speak with have always known (I suppose because you feel it in your gut?) there has never really been any realistic possibility that he was going to be the Democratic nominee for President,” it could be easily corrected. Otherwise you are spouting strategic fluff at the expense of the democratic process.

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  4. Pch101 says:

    Sanders never had a chance, but he could prove to have been very good for the Democrats. For one thing, he livened things up a bit and helped to dispel the heir-apparent/dynastic aspect of Clinton’s nomination that could have curbed the enthusiasm of even mainstream Democratic voters.

    His background is a risk, but Sanders could be an effective VP candidate. He’s good at retail politics, and could be an effective cheerleader along with Bill Clinton. A Clinton-(Clinton)-Sanders ticket might just be what the Democratic doctor ordered.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 8

  5. Pch101 says:

    @Andrew DuPree:

    Hillary has the superdelegates. Barring some bizarro surprise, this nomination has been hers just based upon the math.

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  6. grumpy realist says:

    It’s always been the message rather than actually getting to be the candidate, I think.

    I do hope that Hillary shows better political smarts than she has in the past, otherwise Donald Trump is going to bury her.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 3

  7. edmondo says:

    @grumpy realist:

    What’s wrong with running as the agent of status quo when only 74% of the country says we are “on the wrong path”? The Donald is going to hang her with that this fall.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 13

  8. william says:

    she has outspent him considerably and she is ahead by one delegate as of right now. One. Against a candidate who few people and heard of and just 4 months ago was behind in nationwide polling 70-30 and who now leads her 47-43? and Bernie is the one who cant win? the same bernie who beats every GOP candidate in a head to head matchup? bernie, the one who is now outdoing her in fundraising and whose prospects for fundraising are significantly better than his opponent, many of whose donors are maxed out and cant contribute any more? That guy cant win? The only reason he cant win is if he quits like the author and so many others wants him to. He has absolutely no reason to quit.

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  9. william says:

    @Pch101:

    She is up by precisely one delegate right now. super delegates don’t matter until the convention, by which time they usually side with whoever is the front runner. the only reason to urge bernie to quit is because you’re afraid he will win. otherwise why not let the process do its thing?

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  10. Pch101 says:

    @william:

    She has the superdelegates. Sanders isn’t even a Democrat, which is one reason why it would take a lot for her to lose the superdelegates. It’s hilarious how the Sanders fan club flips out over basic math calculations.

    And I’m just a guy on the internet. There is no way that my performance of arithmetic is going to alter the outcome of the Democratic primary.

    This reminds me of the right-wingers who blamed Nate Silver for the outcome of the 2012 election, when all he did was play the role of oddsmaker and crunched some numbers. The strong beliefs of a minority of diehard voters to believe in Candidate X doesn’t have any impact on the rest of the country, most of whom are too busy worrying about with their lives and TV shows to pay any attention to you and your political interests.

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  11. JKB says:

    The question is, how does Hillary win so as not to alienate Bernie’s supporters to the point they stay home in November?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 3

  12. JKB says:

    The question is, how does Hillary win so as not to alienate Bernie’s supporters to the point they stay home in November?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  13. Tyrell says:

    Hillary has been making a big mistake by trying to outleft Sanders. That will cost her in the general election. She needs to stay in the middle or she will get passed on the right like it is the last lap of the Daytona 500. She can’t count on Sanders people for their votes. By November, most of them will have gone back to their colleges, pizza joints, and PS 4’s ( “Assassin’s Creed Rogue” ).

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  14. An Interested Party says:

    The question is, how does Hillary win so as not to alienate Bernie’s supporters to the point they stay home in November?

    Uh huh…I think a better question is how many Republicans will Trump alienate to the point where they stay home in November…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3

  15. Anonne says:

    It’s amazing how many pundits want to declare this race over after four contests.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  16. EddieInCA says:

    @Anonne:

    It’s not a race. Bernie can’t put together the winning coalition. He just can’t. He will lose 10 of the 12 Super Tuesday states. At that point, it just becomes a matter of when he closes up shop.

    I’d make Bernie Secretary of Education – if he want’s a Cabinet Post.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 3

  17. Anonne says:

    I might agree with you if it was a blowout, but there has been only one blowout so far and that was in New Hampshire – for Bernie. South Carolina will be a big loss, sure – but there are many more contests to go. People have been trying to ignore his campaign and put it down since the beginning. The superdelegates are the wild card but they went Obama’s way in 2008 once they saw which way the wind was blowing. It’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t call this race over just yet.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 3

  18. JKB says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Oh, its worse than staying home, some are already speculating about voting for Hillary.

    The difference is, Sanders supporters are quite a lot of young voters. Whereas, those opposing Trump are the small number of Republican “intellectuals”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  19. An Interested Party says:

    Whereas, those opposing Trump are the small number of Republican “intellectuals”.

    You underestimate the opposition to Trump among Republican voters…surely if there was only an alleged “small” number of anti-Trump Republicans he would have gotten more votes that he has been getting…and that some Republicans would actually vote for Hillary, the GOP bête noire!? He will hurt the GOP if he captures the nomination…especially if all those young supporters of Sanders vote for Hillary to stop Trump from winning the presidency…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  20. george says:

    I doubt he expected to win; he’s there to bring up issues that would have been forgotten, and to pull Clinton to the left. Its working, and I suspect (and hope) that he stays in it until the end.

    The best outcome for the Democrats (and Clinton) is that Sanders stays in til the convention, loses there and endorses her. Dropping out now would just let her swing back to the right. Sanders has been a godsend for Clinton and the Democrats in particular. And for the country. Of course, that’s assuming he loses the primary in the end.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  21. Todd says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I do hope that Hillary shows better political smarts than she has in the past, otherwise Donald Trump is going to bury her.

    Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence in Clinton’s past to support this hope. :-/

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 3

  22. Joecu says:

    @An Interested Party: Bernie supporters will not stay home if Hillary wins. They will write in Bernie on their ballot.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 9

  23. C. Clavin says:

    @edmondo:
    Trump isn’t going to hang anyone with anything.
    He’s a clown who has folks like you fooled…but no one beyond that.
    You’re just starting to see how this is going to go…with Romney questioning his finances, and Trumps piss poor judgement being illustrated by the Stern interviews.
    It’s only going to get worse and worse for him.
    Every word out of his mouth is a lie. The audience for that is limited to people like you.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  24. F Michael Addams says:

    @JKB: ‘Murca’s attention span has been reduced to 29 seconds…and most are currently paying zero attention…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  25. An Interested Party says:

    Bernie supporters will not stay home if Hillary wins. They will write in Bernie on their ballot.

    They will do that only if they are stupid enough to want a President Trump…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  26. Kylopod says:

    Bernie pulled Clinton 45 to the left

    Indeed. For example, how likely is it that her recent attempt to revive the public option would have happened without Bernie’s attempted revival of single-payer? Knowing how cautious and “safe” she normally is, I’d say “not very likely.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

  27. gVOR08 says:

    @An Interested Party: Remember the PUMA (Party Unity My A**) stories in 2008? According to the press, if Obama won, Hillary’s supporters would sit out the election. The only flaw in that narrative was that every time they actually asked a Hillary supporter if they’d vote for Obama they replied, ‘Vote for him? I’ll give him money, I’ll knock on doors, I’ll drag people to the polls. Of course I’ll vote for him.’

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  28. jukeboxgrad says:

    Indeed. For example, how likely is it that her recent attempt to revive the public option would have happened without Bernie’s attempted revival of single-payer?

    Link:

    Hillary Expected to Adopt All of Sanders’s Positions by Noon … Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is on pace to adopt rival Bernie Sanders’s positions on all major issues by noon on Thursday, Clinton campaign officials have confirmed.

    Within minutes of Sanders’s entry into the Democratic race, Clinton released position papers on trade, income inequality, national defense, and the environment that meticulously aped the Vermont senator’s views on those matters.

    Awaking at 8 A.M., Sanders, who had planned to run to the left of Clinton in 2016, discovered that, while he was sleeping, she had already begun running slightly to the left of him.

    In an online video posted Thursday morning, Clinton welcomed Sanders to the race, adding, “To those who agree with Bernie Sanders on the issues, let me say this: I am Bernie Sanders.”

    Sanders, who had scheduled a speech in Vermont for 11 A.M. on Thursday, cancelled it abruptly, saying, “Hillary already said everything I was going to say an hour ago.” …

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  29. SKI says:

    @Andrew DuPree:

    I suppose you meant to say, “I and everyone I speak with have always known (I suppose because you feel it in your gut?) there has never really been any realistic possibility that he was going to be the Democratic nominee for President,” it could be easily corrected. Otherwise you are spouting strategic fluff at the expense of the democratic process.

    Nope. Human nature, polling, demographics and political science led the professionals to the same conclusion. There is a reason people like Nate Silver and Sam Wang get races really close to exactly right months and months out. Humans, as a group, as fairly predictable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  30. Pch101 says:

    @SKI:

    You have grossly underestimated my ability to influence the election. Apparently, my comments here are the only things that are preventing Sanders from being president.

    (My apologies for the 2000 and 2004 elections. Still not sure how I managed to screw those up.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  31. al-Ameda says:

    @JKB:

    The difference is, Sanders supporters are quite a lot of young voters. Whereas, those opposing Trump are the small number of Republican “intellectuals”.

    I agree, categorically, it is definitely an extremely ‘small number.’

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  32. Tyrell says:

    Sanders is still on there, but to have a realistic chance he could try hitting the e mail issue, and coming up with a more forceful policy against ISIS and the terrorists. People are concerned about that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  33. gVOR08 says:

    @al-Ameda: Republican intellectuals are indeed small in number, and in any case irrelevant to Republican politics and policy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0