WEST PALM BEACH, Florida -- Bernie Sanders’ upset in Michigan last week may have simply delayed the inevitable. Political gravity came crashing down on the insurgent candidate Tuesday night as front-runner Hillary Clinton swept Sanders in all five states that held contests, dealing a likely fatal blow to his candidacy.
Clinton headed into Tuesday’s contests with a more than 200 pledged delegates lead, and her campaign now expects to walk away from the night ahead by far more than 300 -- double the largest lead Barack Obama ever had over Hillary Clinton in 2008.
“Boy I’ll tell you, this is another Super Tuesday for our campaign!” Clinton exclaimed at a raucous primary night party here. “We are moving closer to securing the Democratic party nomination and winning this election in November.”
Clinton not only won her favored states of Florida and North Carolina, but Ohio, Illinois and even Missouri, which offered Sanders his best shot at a victory Tuesday night. His aides had had March 15 circled on their calendar, but it ended up being a day that could mark the beginning of the end of Sanders' candidacy, rather than his ascendency.
Sanders’ campaign will likely continue, but in what form? His message is still resonating with Democratic primary voters and money is still flowing in, but the nomination itself looks virtually out of reach. It’s not impossible, but now highly improbable for Sanders to win.
If Sanders was going to suffer a major loss, now is a good time to do it. With a slew of Sanders-friendly caucuses and two primaries they’re targeting, the Vermont senator's aides expect he could win seven of the next eight contests.
The first comes March 22 in Arizona, where Sanders was spending Tuesday night. A series of back-to-back wins would keep the morale of his supporters from flagging and keep their donations flowing.
Still, the rest of this month's contests are mostly in smaller states with fewer delegates, and nickle-and-diming his way through caucuses will not get him the nomination. Sanders is simply running out of runway. Half the states have now voted, and more than half the delegates have been pledged.
At his election night party in Phoenix, Sanders gave an hour-long speech without mentioning the election at all. Sanders and Clinton had not spoken on the phone, according to a Clinton aide, by the time each spoke.
Meanwhile, at Clinton's event, a live band played Latin covers and the crowd went nuts as soon as the former secretary of state was declared the winner of Florida. Those cheers quickly turned to boos when television networks also called the state for Trump -- who held his own election night party at his lavish Mar-a-Lago club just three miles away.
By the time Clinton’s plane touched down at the West Palm Beach Airport this afternoon, Trump's private 757 was already parked on the tarmac, foreshadowing potential future run-ins throughout states like Florida and Ohio in the general election.
Trump seemed to be on Clinton's mind tonight. "Our commander-in-chief has to be able to defend our country, not embarrass it. Engage our allies, not alienate them. Defeat our adversaries, not embolden them," she said. "When we hear a candidate for president call for rounding up 12 million immigrants, banning all muslims from entering the United States -- when he embraces torture, that doesn't make him strong, it makes him wrong.”
Some Clinton allies were also pleased to see Florida Senator Marco Rubio exit the GOP race. He had been considered the most dangerous general election challenger among Republicans, though he exposed himself as a weaker candidate than expected.
Team Sanders had hoped to keep Clinton’s lead in Florida to around 20 or 25 points, which would limit her net delegate gains to 50 or 60. But her larger margin means she could now net as many as 70 delegates from the state alone, making the already deep hole even more difficult for Sanders to escape.
Ohio, a general election swing state that seemed favorable to Sanders’ anti-free trade agreement message, turned out to be critical as well. Sanders strategists were counting on the Rust Belt to deliver for them, having seen hope in their surprise Michigan win. And in wins that surprised even her staff, she won Illinois and Missouri.