Just last week, the Indiana primary, at least on the surface, looked like great news for Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign. After making a heavy investment in the state, the Vermont senator pulled out a five-point win over Hillary Clinton, adding a net gain of five pledged delegates, and giving Sanders fresh bragging rights about his candidacy.
But just below the surface, the news was less good: given Sanders’ overall deficit, he needed a far larger victory in the state. This is, after all, a race for delegates, not state-by-state victories, and to the great frustration of the senator’s ardent supporters, a modest win in Indiana actually left him worse off than he was before the primary.
Last night, it happened again in West Virginia, where Sanders won by 15 points – which sounds great for his campaign, until a closer look at the delegate math shows that he needed a victory that was over twice as large.
Everything we talked about seven days ago at this time remains true, so let’s revisit the description of the state of the race: to the consternation of Sanders’ die-hard supporters, simply winning primaries at this stage isn’t enough to change the trajectory of the race.
To earn the Democratic nomination, the senator’s campaign continues to have two options: (1) convince party insiders to overrule the will of the voters, which even Sanders’ top aides recognize as unrealistic, or (2) catch up to Clinton among pledged delegates by racking up some big wins in the calendar’s remaining contests.
How big? If Sanders won the remaining primaries and caucuses by 30 points each – an improbable task, to be sure – he’d still come up short. That’s how significant his current deficit is. None of this, by the way, factors superdelegates into the equation. I’m referring only to pledged delegates, earned exclusively through nominating contests decided by rank-and-file voters.
Unfortunately for his ardent fans, this equation includes West Virginia, where he needed a win that was vastly larger if he intends to catch up to the rival he trails. It may seem counter-intuitive, but yesterday’s win actually leaves Sanders in a worse position – it was not only too narrow a victory, it also shrinks the number of remaining opportunities he’ll have to close the gap.
Sure winning beats losing. A victory in West Virginia will lead the Sanders campaign to once again return to his activist base for more fundraising, touting last night as a morale booster for the whole team.
But the underlying arithmetic nevertheless remains stubborn.
Postscript: Nebraska Democrats also held a non-binding primary yesterday, more than two months after the state’s presidential caucuses. While Sanders won the low-turnout caucuses, Clinton won the higher-turnout primary. Steve Kornacki explained the significance of this last night: