Bernie Sanders is now a third wheel in the presidential election -- though Democratic primary voters may want it to stay that way, at least for now.
The Vermont senator’s upset victory Tuesday in the Indiana primary shows Democrats are not quite ready to end this thing just yet. Every time the race seems headed to the finish, voters decide to extend it, as they did in Michigan in March. But that could change now that Ted Cruz has dropped out and Donald Trump has effectively secured the Republican nomination, putting Hillary Clinton squarely in the billionaire's sights.
Sanders’ win does nothing to knock Clinton off her glidepath to the nomination, since the few delegates he picks will barely dent her massive 300-plus pledged delegate lead.
But it will be a much-needed fundraising and momentum boost to a fading candidate who has pledged to stay in the race until the Democratic National Convention in July, even though his only path to victory involves improbable landslides and fanciful schemes to flip superdelegates.
Clinton’s campaign and nervous Democratic leaders may now reassess their indifferent attitude to Sanders. They had hoped for a head start on Trump, but the Republican will instead have the drop on them and Clinton will face incoming attacks on both sides.
Sanders is still slamming the Democratic front-runner on releasing the transcripts from her paid speeches -- he did so again Tuesday evening -- while Trump has ramped up his attacks on Clinton, his likely general election rival.
Speaking with reporters Tuesday night, Sanders made it clear he has no plans to quit: "The Clinton campaign thinks this campaign is over," he said. "We are in this campaign to win and we’re going to fight until the last vote is cast."
His Indiana victory will likely inoculate him against any renewed pressure to fall in line behind Clinton -- at least for a moment. Sanders got in this race to change the Democratic Party and the country, and his best chance to do that will come at the convention in July.
Anxious party leaders may recall that Sen. John McCain clinched the Republican nomination in early March of 2008, months before Clinton finally dropped out in June, after voters decided to extend the primary again and again. Democrats worried the lengthy race would damage the eventual nominee then, too.
For now, at least, Sanders has a powerful argument on his corner: The Democratic electorate seems to want to extend the contest, even if they don’t want Sanders to end up as their nominee.
A new NBC News/Survey Monkey online poll out Tuesday found 57 percent of national Democrats want Sanders to stay in the race through the Convention, while only 16 percent said they think he should drop out now.
Every poll leading up to Indiana’s primary showed Clinton leading Sanders. But in the final days before the vote, which was dominated by media coverage declaring Sanders’ hopes finally shot, the state’s voters gave him a new lease on life.
They may be uncomfortable handing the nomination to Clinton. They may like Sanders personally, or just want to see the race play out more.
Nearly three-quarters of Indiana Democratic voters said they found the primary energizing, rather than divisive -- a pattern that held true in New York and Pennsylvania, as well. Republicans, on the other had, have had a dimmer view of their contest and are far more likely to say they found the race divisive.
That doesn’t mean voters want or expect Sanders to win. Fully 73 percent of Indiana Democratic voters said they expect Clinton to be the party’s nominee in November, and 79 percent said they would definitely or probably vote for her, according to NBC News exit polls.
Despite protestations from Clinton allies that Sanders’ attacks have damaged Clinton, voters don’t seem to agree. Just 18 percent of Indiana Democratic voters said Sanders attacked Clinton unfairly, while 78 percent argued he did not.
That said, all of this data pre-dates Cruz’ decision to drop out, and Democrats’ views could swing dramatically in the opposite direction if they feel Clinton needs to spend weeks before the convention focused solely on Trump.
And Indiana was a state Sanders should have won.
Clinton’s campaign largely ceded the battlefield, knowing the outcome would make little difference on the delegate race and eager to conserve resources for the general election.
Sanders spent more than $1.8 million on television advertising, while Clinton spent exactly zero.
Sanders held nine full size events in the state over three separate trips, including a massive rally Sunday in Indianapolis’ iconic Monument Circle that drew more than 8,000.
Clinton held just three official campaign events over two trips to Indiana, only one of which was open to the public, though her husband and daughter stumped more aggressively for her.
“I’m really focused on moving into the general election,” Clinton told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Tuesday.
Unlike the recent string of states where Sanders lost, Indiana’s was an open primary, meaning both independent voters and Democrats could participate. Sanders has lost every closed primary on the map, but often doubles or even triples Clinton’s vote share with independents in open primaries. And Indiana’s economy, hurt by the decline of manufacturing jobs thanks in part to free-trade-enabled outsourcing, was tailor-made for his Sanders’ message.
Beyond being a fundraising and morale boost for Sanders supporters, the outcome will have negligible impact on the race.
Clinton will easily the clear the 35 percent of delegates she needs to stay on track to have a majority of pledged delegates by the end of the contest in June.