MIAMI — No matter what happens Tuesday night, the Democratic primary will continue. But the outcome could determine whether Bernie Sanders remains a real threat to the nomination for Hillary Clinton, or is relegated to the role of protest candidate.
Those are the stakes. Here’s what will determine the outcome going forward as five states vote Tuesday:
Delegate count — Even under the rosiest of scenarios for Sanders, Clinton is likely to net more delegates and add to her lead, thanks to expected large margins in Florida and North Carolina.
Clinton currently leads Sanders by more than 200 pledged delegates (766 to 553) and her strategists believe that after tonight, if things go well, she will have a lead that is mathematically insurmountable.
But unlike Republicans, Democrats only assign delegates proportionally, meaning Sanders will pick up delegates even in states he loses. That makes margins as important as outright winning.
Momentum — Clinton had hoped to put Sanders away last week before his upset victory in Michigan, which gave him a shot in the arm and made both campaigns distrust the polls, since they showed her winning in the state by more than 20 points.
And Sanders has long prioritized momentum over delegate math. A good night for him will fill his coffers and slingshot him into a string of victories in friendly states later this month before New York’s primary in April.
His campaign says he’s in the race until California, the last primary in June. And considering he raised $5 million in the 24 hours after Michigan alone, Sanders will press on as long as his supporters want him to stay in.
Ohio — The best case for Sanders on Tuesday is to win Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri, and keep delegate losses to a minimum in North Carolina and Florida. While Sanders made a late push for North Carolina, he barely competed in Florida and Clinton chose to spend election night here.
His most likely win, aides believe, will be in Missouri, where polls have showed a tight race. Next would be Illinois, where Sanders has been campaigning hard against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a longtime Clinton ally who has become a top target of Black Lives Matter and labor activists in the city.
For it to be a good night for Sanders, however, he’ll need to win Ohio. Clinton can explain away losses in two states, but a loss in this key general election state would likely start a new round of panic and elevate doubts about the strength of her candidacy.
Ohio and Michigan share much in common. Sanders won Michigan thanks to a large youth turnout and by eating into Clinton’s margin among African-Americans. Sanders’ campaign feels they’ve made progress targeting African-American areas, and they were boosted by a court ruling that will allow 17-year-olds to vote in the state’s primary. But working against them may be the fact that many Ohio colleges are on spring break.
The road ahead — The back half of March into early April is perhaps the most favorable calendar stretch of the entire year for Sanders, and his allies think he has a real shot at winning seven of the next eight contests.
The next four weeks feature six Western states with caucuses, a format that tends to favor Sanders, and two primaries, each symbolically important, that appear within reach for the Vermont senator.
The first primary is in Arizona on March 22. Sanders chose to spend Tuesday night in the state, showing his emphasis on a place that could deliver him a rare victory in a diverse state. The other primary is Wisconsin on April 5, where Sanders drew his first enormous crowd last summer and which has a history of supporting liberal insurgents.
Of the caucuses, Washington state is the biggest prize with 101 delegates at stake. Sanders made a tour through the Pacific Northwest last year that drew huge crowds and aides feel confident about the race there, as they do about Idaho, Alaska, Utah and Wyoming. More diverse Hawaii, which also caucuses this month, might be tougher.
That sets things up for a battle royale in New York on April 19, the state Clinton represented in the Senate and where her campaign placed their headquarters. But with his still-thick Brooklyn accent, Sanders has his own claim on the delegate-rich state.