A Playbook Sanders Could Use to Narrow the Gap

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., smiles as a bird lands on his podium as he speaks during a rall
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., smiles as a bird lands on his podium as he speaks during a rally at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

It's no secret -- I've written fairly extensively about how Senator Bernie Sanders is a long-shot at winning the Democratic Party's nomination. I've even argued that he's lost the battle for delegates, but has won the narrative war.

For the most part, this all still holds true today. But, with Sanders' recent gains in the west, there are some glimmers of hope for his campaign.

There's no doubt that after his commanding performances in Utah, Idaho, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, and among American voters abroad, Sanders has the wind at his back. Even so, the delegate math has been a sobering reminder of just how steep the hill is for Sanders to climb to merely tie former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, let alone surpass her.

While Sanders did cut into Clinton's state-delegate appointed lead by roughly 20 percent in recent days, she's nonetheless far outpacing him by a considerable 268 state-delegates. Whether you believe they're justified or not, when it comes to super delegates -- meaning Party leaders, Governors, members of Congress, Senators, and former presidents -- Clinton's ahead of Sanders by roughly 400 of them.

There is no denying that those are the facts. Now, despite everything I've outlined above, if political observers have learned anything this election cycle, it's that conventional rules no longer apply and that anything is possible in 2016.

As such, I've outlined a possible playbook for how Sanders can make the most of his newfound momentum moving forward:

1. Wisconsin's primary is coming up in one week. It sits right in in the middle of two pivotal states that Sanders bested Clinton in, Minnesota and Michigan. It's a must-win state for him. Polling currently shows Clinton with a single-digit lead, but given the potency of Sanders' anti-free trade message that's appealed to voters in these bordering rustbelt states, a Sanders victory is definitely within reach. He not only needs to beat Clinton here, but he needs to do it decisively in order to make a convincing electability case moving forward.

2. Sanders needs to expand his base of support beyond young people, working-class whites and independents. There's some evidence in recent exit polling that shows among his support from young people, that younger minorities lean his way. In order to increase his competitiveness, especially with minority dominated states from New York to California coming up, Sanders' campaign must find a way to mobilize these young minority voters and get them to persuade their older relatives to join the Sanders bandwagon.

3. Debates have proven to be crucial for Sanders this cycle. He's definitely had some missed opportunities such as at the first debate when he rejected a chance to capitalize on Clinton's email controversy. Generally, though, overall Sanders has proven himself a compelling, authentic debater who is likely the most message disciplined candidate this cycle. That's not saying he's a better debater than Clinton. She holds her own and has performed extraordinarily well at nearly all of the debates. For Sanders, however, if nothing else, debates guarantee increased media coverage on the Democratic Primary race. That's a good thing for an underdog candidate like Sanders who gets less media coverage than Clinton. Still, with no Democratic Primary debates left on the calendar, Sanders must do everything he can to force a debate, and if possible, land it in New York before the state's April 19th election. Thereafter, he should continue pressing for more.

4. Senator Elizabeth Warren's support will matter this primary. A nod from a heavyweight darling of the left such as Warren could infuse Sanders' campaign with more legitimacy as a real contender for the nomination. It could also incentivize more of the Warren-wing of the Democratic Party low-dollar and grassroots activists universe to flood Sanders' campaign with more ever-needed campaign cash. A less discussed idea is that Warren's support could potentially also send a signal to super delegates.

5. Super delegates -- also known as uncommitted delegates -- have votes that are essentially up for grabs until they vote at convention. A vast majority of them have lined up in Clinton's corner. She's winning the war-games for their support having racked up 469 to Sanders' 29. That said, even if these leaders pledge their support to a given candidate, they're actually unbound until they cast a vote at convention, meaning they can switch candidates at any time if they choose to do so. Moreover, there are still over 200 super delegates who have yet to side with one candidate over the other.

Interestingly, this past weekend Sanders publicized his strategy that he's going to go after some of Clinton's super delegates, particularly those from states that he won. It's unclear if these super delegates will switch horses at this point in the race, but it's not inconceivable for them to do so. An avalanche of super delegates defected from the Clinton camp in 2008 and flocked to then-Senator Barack Obama's campaign after a string of his consecutive back-to-back victories. The dynamics in 2008 were vastly different than in 2016, but again, this is a bizarre cycle and anything is possible.

6. California Governor Jerry Brown is perhaps the most popular politician in the state -- with the exception of President Obama. With a 57 percent favorability among all California voters, much higher than Sanders' or Clinton's, the Governor carries enormous sway in the Golden State. And, having run against Bill Clinton for president in 1992, Brown never quite saw eye-to-eye with the Clintons. While Governor Brown is perceived to be far more moderate than Sanders, if Sanders were to somehow secure the Governor's endorsement, it could be the game-changer he needs to beat Clinton in the state. Such a win in California, widely perceived as the 'crown jewel' when it comes to state-appointed delegates, of which California has 475, could propel Sanders' effort significantly as he attempts to cut into Clinton's state-delegate advantage.

7. Sanders needs to win big in every state moving forward. That means not just by five or ten points -- but by a landslide in Wisconsin and California, as well as other major delegate-rich states including New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Oregon, Indiana and New Jersey.

Much of these scenarios may be far-fetched. Whether it's an imaginary Governor Jerry Brown endorsement or the lofty strategy that aims to peel away enough of Clinton's super delegate arsenal to make a meaningful dent in her lead. Either way -- only one thing is clear -- with Sanders' resolve to continue campaigning until the bitter end of the primary calendar, experts have been dumbfounded time and again in 2016, and the only certainty we have moving forward is to expect the unexpected.