It may have precious few delegates to offer, but May is shaping up to be a good month for Bernie Sanders.
With a win last week in Indiana already under his belt, Sanders is poised to carry the rest of the month, continuing with West Virginia’s primary Tuesday. However, the likely victories will do little to dent the massive lead delegate lead accrued by front-runner Hillary Clinton, who has already begun preparing for the general election against Donald Trump.
Democratic voters seem eager to draw out the primary, even though it is increasingly clear that Sanders has become a third wheel to the other candidates still standing.
Clinton won Saturday's caucus in Guam, but Sanders is likely to do well in the three remaining stateside contests in May. After West Virginia, he’s heavily favored in Oregon and slightly favored in Kentucky, since he’s performed well in both regions, and both have mostly white electorates.
But much like Sanders’ last winning streak in March and April, the outcomes will be more determined by demographics than momentum, and will not get him any closer beating Clinton, who remains on a secure trajectory to the Democratic nomination.
While headlining the party ticket outright may be out of his reach, Sanders is eager to notch more wins to build up his bargaining position as much as possible before the Democratic National Convention this July in Philadelphia, where he hopes influence the party’s platform.
West Virginia especially is shaping up to be favorable terrain for Sanders, though polling is limited.
Due to its open format, independent voters are allowed to pull a primary ballot for either party in the state, which is good news for Sanders since he always performs better with that group than with registered Democrats. And Sanders may also get an unexpected boost: With the Republican primary already wrapped up, he won’t have as much competition for the attention of independent voters.
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But his biggest advantage in the Mountain State is demographic.
Ironically, the contest is shaping up to be the inverse of 2008, when West Virginia gave Clinton one of her most lopsided wins of the entire campaign.
Back then, Clinton walloped Barack Obama by more than 40 percent in the rural state, where exit polls suggested race was a major factor.
Then and now, the electorate is overwhelmingly white. It was 95 percent white eight years ago, according to exit polls, mirroring the overall population of the state.
If Sanders wins West Virginia Tuesday, and North Dakota on June 7, as he is expected to do, he will have carried nine out of the 10 whitest states in the country, according to Census data. The one exception is Iowa, where he barely lost to Clinton after a hard fought contest in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
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West Virginia was too little too late to help Clinton catch up to the front-runner eight years ago, and it seems that will be the case for her opponent this year as well.
“I am more determined than ever to carry on this campaign, until everyone has had a chance to make their voices heard,” Clinton said after winning the May 2008 contest.
Clinton then made a general election pitch to remaining voters. "In light of our overwhelming victory here in West Virginia, I want to send a message to all those who are making up their minds," Clinton told a cheering crowd at her victory rally that night. "The White House is won in the swing states. And I am winning the swing states."
Sanders pledges to fight until the conventionMay 7, 201604:38
Similarly, Sanders this year has been arguing to voters and superdelegates that he is the better Democrat to challenge Trump in the general election because polls show him outperforming Clinton in head-to-head match-ups with with the presumptive GOP candidate.
“If Democrats want to have the strongest candidate against Donald Trump they should look at those polls,” Sanders said while campaigning in New Jersey Sunday.
Clinton’s supporters argue those poll numbers are essentially meaningless, because Sanders has never been subject to the kind of media scrutiny or Republican attacks she has endured.
Meanwhile, Clinton has faced additional headwinds in West Virginia, and in Kentucky, which votes next week.
She was confronted by a large group of protesters in West Virginia last week, and has spent days apologizing for an in-artful comment she made about the coal industry, a major economic engine in both states.
"We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” Clinton said in Ohio last month, while trying to suggest she wanted to find ways help those in the dying industry.
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The coal industry has been on a downward slide thanks to the rise of cheap natural gas and increasing pressure from regulators and environmentalists.
"What I was saying is that the way things are going now, we will continue to lose jobs. That's what I meant to say,” Clinton told an angry coal miner in Williamson.
While Sanders may not be able to win the nomination, he can give Clinton a headache by making her spend time and money in states that will likely won't pay dividends in a general election.
All of the May contests are merely prelude to the main event: California, which votes on June 7 along with New Jersey and four other states. It’s one of the most delegate-rich single days on the calendar, and it's Sanders’ last chance to haul in some supporters. But it's also an expensive state to operate in, and one Clinton would probably like to avoid.