Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton hold a sign during a campaign rally at the Apollo Theater in New York, March 30, 2016.
Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters

New York is stealing Wisconsin’s thunder in the Democratic presidential primary

The Wisconsin Democratic primary is just five days away, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ schedule on Thursday.

Even though the New York primary is not until April 19, Clinton campaigned near her home in Westchester County, while Sanders is holding what’s expected to be a massive rally in the Bronx.

Attendees line up to take part in a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at Saint Mary's Park in Bronx, New York, March 31, 2016. (Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Attendees line up to take part in a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at Saint Mary’s Park in Bronx, New York, March 31, 2016.
Lucas Jackson/Reuters

With Wisconsin tilting in Sanders’ favor and unlikely to change the trajectory of the race either way, New York is the next major inflection point in the primary, and it’s stealing Wisconsin’s spotlight. Both candidates have already starting looking past the Midwest state, greedily eyeing the Empire State’s 247 delegates – the second largest haul of the entire calendar. Clinton is busy shoring up fortifications on her home turf, and Sanders is preparing for an all-out onslaught.

That’s not to say Clinton is abandoning Wisconsin entirely, though, nor is Sanders taking it for granted. 

Yesterday, Clinton added a trip to the state to this weekend. Sanders will return for a three-day swing starting Friday. Both candidates will appear at the state Democratic Party’s Founders Day Dinner in Milwaukee on Saturday.

And Clinton’s campaign has significantly stepped up its TV ad spending since the beginning of the week, surpassing $1 million, an ad-buying source confirmed to MSNBC. Sanders has spent even more, just shy of $2 million.

Tad Devine, Sanders’ top strategist, told MSNBC that Clinton’s campaign is trying to lower the bar for themselves in the state with a New York-heavy travel schedule. “I don’t think they put $1 million on TV in Wisconsin because they’ve given up in Wisconsin,” Devine said. “They’re doing a great job of suppressing expectations.”

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Wisconsin Democrats are expecting an unusually large turnout Tuesday and say the party faithful aren’t concerned about being overshadowed. They’re just excited to have any major role in the presidential primary, as that’s not always the case.

Still, Wisconsin was an afterthought on back-to-back conference calls with reporters both candidates held this week. Clinton’s chief strategist Joel Benenson almost made it through the entire call without addressing the contest. “It’s a state that is likely to not make a huge shift in the delegate math,” he said.

A new poll out Wednesday from Marquette Law School showed Sanders leading Clinton in Wisconsin 49 percent to 45 percent, with 6 percent undecided. Sanders won neighboring Minnesota and Michigan, which have similar demographic profiles, though Wisconsin is even more white.  

Both campaigns are expecting a close race, and since Democrats allot delegates proportionally,  a narrow margin means the winner and the loser will both walk away with a similar number of delegates.

New York’s sheer size makes the margin even more important.

3/31/16, 2:28 PM ET

Sanders supporters interrupt Clinton event

While speaking at SUNY Purchase on Thursday, Hillary Clinton was interrupted by a number of Bernie Sanders supporters.
In Wisconsin (86 delegates), the winner would net about 1 pledged delegate for every 1 percentage point he or she puts between themselves and the loser. In New York (247 delegates), a single percentage point is worth about 2.5 delegates. So even a tight 52-48 point race could net the winner 10 more delegates in New York, while a 60-40 race would net close to 50 delegates.

And beyond the delegate math, New York is vital to both candidates, who both have personal connections to the state.

For Sanders, the stakes are existential. The underdog is perpetually one big loss away from being blown off his already treacherous course, so he can’t afford to be blown out.

New York is Clinton’s home. It’s the state that twice elected her to the Senate, and it’s the place where she chose to headquarter and launch her campaign last year. A loss – or even a narrow win – would be embarrassing, especially after Sanders won his home state of Vermont by more than 70 points.

“New Yorkers took a chance on me, and I will never forget that,” Clinton said at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem on Wednesday. “You have always had my back, and I have always tried to have yours.”

A new Quinnipiac University poll of the state found Clinton 12 points ahead of Sanders. Devine said Sanders can make up the ground, pointing to the fact that slightly more New Yorkers have a negative view of Clinton than a positive one.

“When I am describing a weak front-runner, I am discussing somebody who has a net unfavorable in her home state,” he said.

Sanders brass sent Robert Becker, their former Iowa organizer who helped Sanders win an upset victory in Michigan, to lead the New York effort. Clinton brought back Resi Cooper, a veteran of her Senate campaigns in the state. Both campaigns put their former New Hampshire communications directors in charge of media efforts in the Empire State.

Both campaigns promise aggressive schedules, with Clinton aides saying she’ll campaign as if she were running for Senate all over again. Sanders staffers have said he’ll run as if he’s running for governor.

For Clinton, it’s an opportunity to highlight her work in the Senate, which her camp believes underscores her pragmatic ability to get things done. “Now, some folks may have the luxury to hold out for the perfect, but a lot of Americans are hurting right now, and they can’t wait for that.  They need the good, and they need it now,” she said in Harlem.

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, New York and Wisconsin

New York is stealing Wisconsin's thunder in the Democratic presidential primary