Bernie Sanders nearly quadrupled Hillary Clinton’s margins in Idaho and Utah Tuesday night, but it was Arizona that mattered most to team Sanders, and he came up well short.
Already losing sight of any plausible path to the nomination after getting swept in last week's contests, Sanders badly needed a win in a larger state. His victories in caucuses in the two smaller states helped salvage the story he can tell his supporters, but they won’t do much to help close Clinton’s massive lead among delegates.
Sanders invested heavily in Arizona. He more than doubled Clinton’s ad spending there, dropping $1.3 million on television advertising over the past week compared to Clinton’s $600,000. And he campaigned in the state on virtually every one of the past seven days.
But Sanders has yet to prove he can win a contest unless conditions are just right.
Arizona was a closed primary, meaning only registered Democrats are allowed to participate, and not the independents who tend to favor Sanders. About a third of the state is not white, and it also has a large senior population, which also worked against Sanders.
A win in Arizona would have not only revived Sanders’ campaign after Clinton’s blowout in the five states that competed last week, but it would have shown he can perform significantly better among Latinos than he has among African-Americans.
But with 90 percent of precincts reporting in the state, Sanders is barely within 20 percentage points of Clinton, who leads 58 percent to 40 percent.
Still, Sanders picked up wide wins in Idaho and Utah, beating Clinton by roughly eight-to-two margins. The conditions were perfect for a Sanders victory: Open or semi-open caucuses in majority white states.
“The impressive numbers of young people and working-class people who participated in the process are exactly what the political revolution is all about. These decisive victories in Idaho and Utah give me confidence that we will continue to win major victories in the coming contests,” Sanders said.
And the good news for Sanders is that Clinton might not win again for another four weeks, until New York’s primary on April 19.
His team is anticipating wins in this weekend’s caucuses in Alaska, Hawaii and especially Washington, which would give Sanders a chance to actually pick up some delegates. And a primary win in Wisconsin on April 5 would be another boost to morale and fundraising for Sanders.
But morale victories don’t lead to actual victory and his supporters may begin to realize it soon.
Despite his Idaho and Utah victories, NBC News projects Clinton’s 300 pledged delegate lead will remain largely unchanged. With some delegates still unaccounted for early Wednesday morning, Clinton held 1,201 delegates to Sanders’ 905.
In a victory speech delivered from Seattle, Washington, the site of the next contest, Clinton made it clear she was already looking ahead to battling Donald Trump in the general election.
“What we saw happen today in Brussels reminds us of how high the stakes are,” she said. “The last thing we need, my friends, is leaders who incite more fear in the face of terror. America doesn’t panic. We don’t build walls or turn our back on our allies.”
To be the one to face off against Trump, Sanders needs to win virtually every contest from now until the end of the primary calendar in June and by extremely large margins.