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Indiana will test new Democratic reality

While the race is unlikely to have much impact on who wins the Democratic Party's nomination, it will test how voters behave at this late stage of the race.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton looks on during her primary night gathering at the Philadelphia Convention Center on April 26, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pa. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton looks on during her primary night gathering at the Philadelphia Convention Center on April 26, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pa.

In the grand scheme of the Democratic nominating contest, Tuesday’s primary in Indiana will have little impact on who actually wins the party’s presidential nomination. But it will test some key questions about how voters behave in this this late stage of the primary race.

After winning four of five contests last week, front-runner Hillary Clinton has all but foreclosed Bernie Sanders’ path to the nomination. With nearly three-quarters of all pledged delegates already awarded, and only 10 state contests remaining, Sanders would have to win the remaining primaries and caucuses by improbable margins to catch up.

Indiana will not change that basic dynamic. The state holds 83 delegates, and the candidates are likely to split them roughly evenly, leaving little impact on Clinton’s 321 pledged delegate lead (Washington State's delegates have yet to be allocated).

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But the primary will test what impact the new reality of the race has on voters. Sanders' campaign has been built on the support of young people, but will they still stand by him now that the senator no longer seems viable? Will voters want to pick a winner in Clinton? Or will Democratic voters feel liberated to pick Sanders? Anything seems possible.

Indiana will be the first laboratory of this new phase of the race, which was solidified after Clinton’s win in New York two weeks ago and Pennsylvania and Maryland last week. Whatever happens in Indiana could foreshadow what happens in larger contests down line, and especially California, which votes June 7.

And both candidates would very much like to win Indiana for reasons other than delegate accumulation.

For Clinton, a win Tuesday night would be a useful feather in her hat as she tries argue that the Democratic Party is uniting behind her candidacy. Her campaign last-minute added a stop in Indianapolis Sunday, underscoring their interest in the state.

For Sanders, Indiana would be a critical fundraising and momentum boost when the candidate could use a dose of both.

The Vermont senator has won only one contest -- Rhode Island -- in nearly a month. Sanders’ fundraising in April took steep tumble, dropping from more than $40 million in both February and March to just $26 million last month. It was the first time in three months that Clinton outraised Sanders. And last week, his campaign announced they had laid off hundreds of staffers.

Neither candidate will be in Indiana Tuesday night. Clinton is taking the night off the  campaign trail for only the third time during an election night all year. Sanders, meanwhile, will rally in Kentucky, which votes May 17.

Polls consistently show Clinton ahead, but narrowly, and both campaigns say the election is a tossup. A new NBCNews/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll found Clinton ahead four points, 50-46%, among likely voters. But the race looks like a dead heat among the larger pool of potential voters. As Sanders always says, if turnout is high and more people from that bigger pool show up, Sanders may win.

Demographically, the 77% white state looks winnable for Sanders. And unlike recent contests in New York and Pennsylvania, it’s an open primary, meaning independent voters can participate along with Democrats. That should be a major boon for Sanders, who tends to perform much better with non-partisan voters than true-blue Democrats.

Sanders has a good shot at winning, but even if he does, his path to the nomination at this point is largely an illusion.

The Vermont Senator won Indiana’s neighbor to the North, Michigan, while Clinton won its neighbors on either side, Illinois and Ohio.

Sanders is hoping his message about international free trade deals costing jobs will resonate in the manufacturing state. The decision by air conditioning maker Carrier to outsource 1,400 Indiana jobs to Mexico has become a touchstone on the campaign, especially for Donald Trump.

Last month, the union that represents those Carrier workers decided to endorse Sanders.

Indiana kicks off a sparse May for Democrats. After Tuesday, only three state contests remain in the month, along with a caucus in Guam. Those states are West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oregon, all of which are expected to be more favorable territory for Sanders.

The most important remaining day of the primary comes on June 7, when Claifornia votes along with five other states. Sanders strategists have made it clear they’re going all in on the Golden State, and even pulled television advertising money out of Indiana to focus on the state.