Bernie Sanders on Tuesday hoped to repeat his improbable Michigan comeback in Ohio and Illinois, where he had trailed in the polls. But Hillary Clinton held him off in both states.
Clinton also blew Sanders out in North Carolina, and appeared set to edge him out in Missouri. It wasn't the night he had hoped for.
The question, then, is where Sanders goes from here. The only plausible path to a nomination comes through a string of major upsets -- and they would have to essentially be wipeouts big enough to deprive Clinton of delegates and cut into her sizable lead. Sanders showed in Michigan the unexpected is possible, but Tuesday's setbacks make that increasingly unlikely.
That would leave a few options for the democratic socialist from Vermont.
There are two types of delegates in the Democratic primary -- pledged delegates you win by winning elections, and superdelegates you win by having Bill Clinton call their cell phones until they say yes. Clinton is far ahead in superdelegates, but if Sanders can keep her pledged delegate count below 50 percent, he can create at least a moment of anxiety on the convention floor, and extract some concessions from it.
If he can't, he could still rack up enough delegates to be able to win some floor fights over the nature of the Democratic platform.
"I think he goes all the way to Philadelphia," said one source close to Sanders on Tuesday afternoon, referring to the site of the Democratic convention. "In fact, I think it would take something unforeseen (like some unexpectedly major losses Tuesday or later) to change that at this point."
Clinton aides, too, expect Sanders to stay in the race as long as is feasible, though Clinton has begun to shift her focus to the general election and increasingly aims her attacks at Donald Trump. None of the television networks on Tuesday night carried Sanders' speech.
Sanders' campaign began as an effort to inject his key issue -- income inequality -- into the Democratic election, forcing Clinton to address it. By any definition, he has met that goal. But as an organic movement rose beneath him, funding his campaign with historic amounts of small donors, Sanders began to believe he could win the nomination. Tuesday's showing makes that difficult to continue to hold onto.
With the wins Tuesday, Clinton's lead in delegates over Sanders could approach 300 -- which would be more than double Obama's largest lead in 2008.
"Hillary Clinton's wins tonight effectively ended the Democratic nomination for president," predicted Brad Woodhouse, president of the pro-Clinton super PAC Correct The Record. "It is all but mathematically impossible for Bernie Sanders to overtake her lead."
The map ahead does, indeed, look tough for Sanders. After Tuesday, there are just five states left with more than 100 delegates to award. One of them is New York, which Clinton represented in the Senate (although Sanders' campaign has said they plan to compete there, citing the senator's Brooklyn roots). And only one of them, Washington, is a caucus state, which Sanders has tended to dominate.
The issue facing Clinton, then, becomes how to make sure that Sanders' energized base joins her campaign in the fall. The Clinton strategy going back to the 1990s was to warn that it was a choice between them or the fascists, long before a would-be fascist actually appeared on the stage in the form of Donald Trump.
The Democratic contest has largely stayed positive, but Sanders supporters have been enraged -- as your Facebook feed no doubt can confirm -- at a variety of Clinton attacks that ranged from legit (guns) to wildly unfair (accusing him of, say, aligning with the Koch brothers).
The bruises are visible. As Sanders took the stage for an endless speech Tuesday night, there was one topic he waited forever to get to.
Democratic establishment figures are optimistic that ultimately, the base will turn out. Exit polls have found that 79percent of Democratic voters say that ultimately, they'll be happy if Clinton is the nominee, while 62 percent have said the same about Sanders.
Republicans have a bigger problem on their hands: Only 49 percent of GOP voters have said they would be fine with Trump, and 51 percent would take Cruz. Four in 10 Republicans said they'd think seriously about a third-party candidate if Trump wins the nomination.
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