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First Read: How Hillary Clinton clinched

After a rollercoaster of political highs and lows since launching her campaign, Clinton took advantage of four factors in her race against Bernie Sanders.
Hillary Clinton speaks during a town hall event at the Columbia Museum of Art Boyd Plaza in Columbia, S.C., Feb. 26, 2016. (Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg/Getty)
Hillary Clinton speaks during a town hall event at the Columbia Museum of Art Boyd Plaza in Columbia, S.C., Feb. 26, 2016. 

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

How Clinton beat Sanders in the Democratic race

It wasn't as easy as many of us thought it would be -- the razor-thin victory in Iowa, the blow-out loss in New Hampshire, the sigh of relief in Nevada, and the landslide win in South Carolina. But last night, Hillary Clinton surpassed the magic number of 2,383 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, becoming the first female presumptive presidential nominee of a major political party in U.S. history. Tonight, she needs to win 214 pledged delegates (out of the 694 at stake in the six states holding contests, including California and New Jersey) to obtain a majority in delegates won during primary/caucus contests. So how did she get here? After a rollercoaster of political highs and lows since launching her campaign 14 months ago, Clinton took advantage of four factors in her race against Bernie Sanders.

  • She ran up the score in large states with large minority populations: Clinton's biggest delegate hauls were in large states with large minority populations, which allowed her to build a comfortable delegate lead over Sanders by March 15. By contrast, only one of Sanders' wins -- in Washington state -- netted him more than 40 delegates. All of the other big wins were Clinton's.
  • Self-identified Democrats were her firewall: The chief reason why Sanders was unable to run up the score in the states he won is because of Clinton's strong performance with self-identified Democrats. When Sanders won, it was due to independents. But in the 27 states with exit polls, Clinton won self-identified Democrats by a 64%-35% margin, as the Atlantic's Ron Brownstein has observed.
  • Party establishment embraced her and resisted Sanders: "The Party Decides" didn't work in the Republican presidential race, but it certainly did in the Democratic contest. Superdelegates have overwhelmingly backed Clinton by a 572-to-46 margin. It is very hard to lose a Democratic race when 1) self-identified Democrats and 2) Democratic Party elites are behind you.
  • A no- (or little-) drama campaign: Unlike her campaign eight years ago, Clinton's 2016 campaign team never lost its cool or composure, even when things weren't going that well. Producing little drama is a benefit to any campaign -- and it's very hard to achieve.

Three reasons why Sanders was able to go toe-to-toe with Clinton

But you also have to give credit to Sanders. It's really not fair to say he lost this contest; instead, he gave Clinton a race that no one saw coming, especially over the last three months. And we can think of three reasons for Sanders' better-than-expected performance. One, he lapped Clinton among the youngest voters, 71%-28%, according to the composite exit polls. Two, he benefitted from a more liberal Democratic electorate: 62% identified themselves as liberal this primary season, versus 47% who did in the 2008 Democratic presidential race. And three, there was his money: From January through April, Sanders outraised Clinton -- unprecedented for a candidate trailing in a race. According to the laws of political gravity, Sanders should have run out of money after his Super Tuesday and March 15 losses. Instead, his small-donor machine kept generating money, making him a unique political insurgent. His campaign spent $59 million in ads, compared with $44 million for the Clinton campaign. Who saw that coming a year ago? Here's a timeline of the Democratic race:

April 12, 2015: Clinton formally announces her candidacy

April 30, 2015: Sanders formally announces his presidential bid

Aug. 11, 2015: FBI takes custody of Clinton's private server and thumb drives

Oct. 13, 2015: Clinton, Sanders and three others participate in first Democratic debate

Oct. 21, 2015: Biden announces that he will not run for president

Oct. 22, 2015: Clinton testifies before the House Benghazi Committee during a marathon 11-hour hearing

Dec. 18, 2015: DNC temporarily revokes Sanders campaign's access to its voter data files after members of his team were found to have improperly accessed proprietary information from Clinton's campaign

Jan. 2016: Sanders outraises Clinton for the month - and for the first time

Feb. 1: Clinton barely beats Sanders in Iowa, 49.9% to 49.6%

Feb. 9: Sanders blows out Clinton in New Hampshire, 60%-38%

Feb. 20: Clinton tops Sanders in Nevada, 53%-47%

March 1: Clinton beats Sanders in a majority of Super Tuesday contests

March 8: Clinton wins Mississippi, but Sanders upsets her in Michigan

March 15: Clinton sweeps Sanders in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio

March 26: Sanders sweeps races in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington state

April 5: Sanders tops Clinton in Wisconsin, 57%-43%

April 19: Clinton wins in New York, 58%-42%

April 26: Clinton wins in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, while Sanders takes Rhode Island

May 3: Sanders wins Indiana, 53%-48%

May 25: State Department inspector general criticizes Clinton's email practices

June 2: Clinton gives blistering speech on Donald Trump in San Diego, CA

Sanders camp: We are going to convince the superdelegates to change their minds

Last night, after NBC News and other news organizations announced that Clinton had surpassed the 2,383 delegates needed the clinch the nomination, the Sanders campaign protested the declaration. "Secretary Clinton does not have and will not have the requisite number of pledged delegates to secure the nomination. She will be dependent on superdelegates who do not vote until July 25 and who can change their minds between now and then," Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said. "They include more than 400 superdelegates who endorsed Secretary Clinton 10 months before the first caucuses and primaries and long before any other candidate was in the race. Our job from now until the convention is to convince those superdelegates that Bernie is by far the strongest candidate against Donald Trump."

The problem with that: Superdelegates have never changed the outcome from the primary season

But here are two important reminders about superdelegates:

1. Since they were established beginning in the 1984 presidential cycle as a way to give party leaders more say in the process, superdelegates have never changed the outcome of the primary season. So Sanders is trying to convince superdelegates to contradict the outcome from the primaries and caucuses.

2. No more than about 30 superdelegates switched from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama before Clinton dropped out of the race in early June 2008, according to former Obama campaign officials. And that is after Obama took the lead in pledged delegates. In order for Sanders to beat Clinton with superdelegates, he will need more than TEN TIMES the number of defections that Obama got in '08. Here is the current delegate math:

In pledged delegates, Clinton currently holds a lead of 292 delegates

  • Clinton 1,812 (54%)
  • Sanders 1,520 (46%)

Clinton must win 30% of remaining pledged delegates to get a majority in pledged delegates

Sanders must win 70% of remaining pledged delegates to get a majority in pledged delegates

In overall delegates (pledged + super), Clinton holds an overall lead of 818 delegates

  • Clinton 2,384 (60%)
  • Sanders 1,566 (40%)

Tonight's six contests in California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota

Despite Clinton clinching on Monday, we still have six contests taking place tonight that award 694 delegates.

8:00 pm ET: Polls close in New Jersey (126 pledged delegates at stake)

9:00 pm ET: Polls close in New Mexico (34 delegates), North Dakota (18 delegates) South Dakota (20 delegates)

10:00 pm ET: Polls close in Montana (21 delegates)

11:00 pm ET: Polls close in California (475 delegates)

On the trail

Clinton holds her Election Night rally in Brooklyn, NY… Sanders holds his in Santa Monica, CA… And Trump tonight is in Westchester County, NY.

Don't forget to check out the political unit's rolling minute-to-minute coverage of all the latest 2016 developments at the On the Trail liveblog at

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