NEW YORK — As voters head to the polls Tuesday, Bernie Sanders better hope for a miracle in New York.
With a daunting pledged deficit gap, a dwindling number of remaining contests and polls showing him trailing Hillary Clinton by double digits here, Sanders supporters are in for an unpleasant reckoning in Tuesday’s primary in the Empire State unless there's some kind of divine intervention.
Sanders supporters have kept hope alive by claiming the stars will align in the remaining contests. But it will be all the more difficult for them to claim he has a real shot at the nomination if he loses anywhere near what the polls suggest on Tuesday.
Sanders won eight of the last nine contests, as he often touts, and has raised unprecedented sums of money that now consistently dwarf Clinton’s monthly hauls. But that good news has obscured the grim delegate math.
The fact is that Sanders is currently not on a trajectory that gets him enough delegates to win the nomination by the Democratic National Convention in July, even when superdelegates are discounted.
Beating expectations is not enough to close the 200-plus delegate gap, meaning Sanders needs to win nearly every remaining contest by wide margins to gain on Clinton.
Sanders supporters have already conceded that Plan A — winning the nomination outright by hitting the “magic number” of a majority of delegates — is out of reach. Plan B is to edge Clinton in pledged delegates by the end of the primary calendar.
Right now, to do that, Sanders must win 57 percent of remaining contests to finish with a majority of pledged delegates. But a loss in New York will make even Plan B all the more out of reach.
New York holds 247 delegates, the second largest number on the entire map after California. Sanders and his aides have tried to avoid calling the state a must-win, but has come pretty close.
“It’s an enormously important primary because there are a lot of delegates at stake,” Sanders said Monday night at a massive rally in Long Island City, Queens. “If we get a large voter turnout here, tomorrow we're gonna win here in New York.”
Meanwhile, his campaign has been downplaying the importance of the state to supporters. "Here’s the truth: we don’t have to win New York on Tuesday, but we have to pick up a lot of delegates," his campaign said in a fundraising email to supporters Monday.
But Sanders faces a number of headwinds. Clinton was elected statewide here twice and has deep roots across the state. The state does not allow independents, who have traditionally been Sanders’ strongest supporters, to participate in the Democratic Party. And the New York City area, which has a majority of the state’s Democratic primary voters, is very diverse (Sanders has struggled with non-white voters).
Sanders’s impressive fundraising machine has allowed him to easily outspend Clinton on television advertising. His ads have both compared himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and slammed Clinton (though not by name) for paid speeches from Wall Street firms.
His team is counting on big wins upstate to make up for Clinton’s expected strength downstate.
An WNBC 4/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll last week showed Clinton leading Sanders in New York and its suburbs 60 percent to 36 percent. But Sanders edged her by one percentage point upstate.
Clinton, for her part, has been running around New York City at a breakneck pace in her famous “Scooby Van” to close out the contest as strong as possible. On Monday alone, she held eight events across the city before capping things off with an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert."
"I am hoping to do really well tomorrow, I am hoping to wrap up the democratic nomination," she told supporters at a phone banking center for her campaign Monday. “But, but, I am not taking anything for granted. I have to quickly add that before anyone has the wrong impression."
In the past two weeks, she’s taken the press on a subway ride, broken her rule to never eat in front of the cameras, danced with local officials on stage, and played (and won) a game of dominoes in Harlem. She’s focused on local, bread-and-butter issues and held mostly smaller events.
The approach stands in contrast to Sanders’ mega-rallies, which have shattered even Barack Obama’s turnout records and created impressive images in the days leading up to the primary.
In Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on Sunday, he drew what his team claimed was the largest crowd of the entire campaign — 28,300 people. “When I was a kid growing up in Flatbush, our parents would take us to Prospect Park. But I was never here speaking to 20,000 people!” he said. “This is a campaign that is on the move.”
National polling has tightened in recent days to the point where Clinton and Sanders are now statistically tied.
But it could be too little, too late. There are only 17 contests left on the calendar, and three out of the four biggest are, like New York, closed primaries that tend to hurt Sanders.
There’s always California and its 475 delegates, but a loss in New York would make the percentage Sanders needs in the Golden State go from difficult to near impossible.