Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is banking on the possibility that a strong showing could win over delegates who are already pledged to Hillary Clinton.
Sanders staffers pledge to continue the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination Wednesday, after Clinton swept the Tuesday primaries, taking five large primaries including those in the crucial states of Ohio and Florida. Clinton now has 1,139 delegates to Sanders' 825.
But the Sanders campaign hopes a strong showing from now until the end of the primary season might sway some of Clinton's delegates to the independent lawmaker's far-left bid.
“That front-runner needs to continue to win, if they’re going to win the nomination,” Sanders’ senior campaign strategist Tad Devine said in a call with reporters.
Devine pointed to his experience in 1984 as a campaign staffer for the presidential bid of then-Sen. Walter Mondale. Opponent Gary Hart was likely to have taken the nomination, Devine said, if the Colorado senator had not made disparaging remarks about New Jersey, which caused him to fall from a solid lead to a double-digit loss.
Bolstering that argument, University of Minnesota political science professor and founder of the Smart Politics blog Eric Ostermeier pointed to the 1984 Democratic campaign, as well as the 1976 Republican primary between then-Gov. Ronald Reagan of California and President Gerald Ford. In both cases, a challenger had late momentum in the primary, but the original front-runner was selected
— and went on to lose in the general election.
Ostermeier warned, however, history is full of examples of the opposite effect
in which the original front-runner was selected over a well-performing contender and ultimately won. One of those was Clinton's own husband, Bill Clinton, whose close race with Jerry Brown lasted until the convention.
Both Ostermeier and Sanders' campaign manager Jeff Weaver agreed that the first half of the election, which included what Ostermeier called a “not flattering” calendar of southern states for Sanders.
Weaver, however, says delegate flipping could become a reality, particularly in hotly contested states such as California and Wisconsin. He called Clinton’s performance to this point in the primary the “high water mark” of her campaign.
“We are now on more favorable terrain, in terms of our candidate and our message,” Weaver said.
Ostermeier, however, notes that a poor showing in early primaries tends to dampen the excitement for a candidate, and Sander’s team might not be able to count on the same enthusiasm moving forward as it has enjoyed in previous months.
“There’s a definite psychological effect on the electorate,” Ostermeier said. “If the counter had been flipped a bit and had more Western states … or fewer southern states, there is a segment of the electorate who does go with the winner
and they would have seen him as a more viable candidate.”
The conference followed a punishing day for Sanders. Clinton won four states and narrowly edged out Sanders in Missouri, by a margin of roughly 1,500 votes.
Devine said the campaign was looking into a recount, despite Weaver’s statement earlier in the conference that a flip in Missouri
which awarded both candidates an equal amount of delegates
would have no “substantive” impact.
“I know the media narrative would have been different [had Sanders won Missouri],” he said.
The Illinois Democratic Primary, however, was the closest in the state’s history, according to Ostermeier's blog. Clinton, who was raised in a Chicago suburb, defeated Sanders by 1.7 points on Tuesday. The second closest margin came in 1968, in a write-in campaign that followed the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
Ostermeier noted that even if Sanders took an equal number of states in the next half of the primary season, Clinton could still appeal to the delegate count as proof of her candidacy's strength.
“Clinton can always come back and say ‘It’s not the number of states; it's the number of delegates,’ and she’s sort of insulated by that argument,” Ostermeier said.
During the press conference, Devine flatly denied that the Sanders campaign was engaging in any effort to “actively” get delegates pledged for Clinton to switch their votes. Rather, he said an equal or better showing than Clinton by Sanders, in the second half of the primary would put “enormous pressure” on such delegates to do the “right, responsible thing.”
“And we think the right, responsible thing would be to support the candidate who would be the strongest candidate going up against the Republicans,” Devine said. “Particularly if the Republicans select Donald Trump as their nominee.”