NEW YORK -- Bernie Sanders is at a crossroads.
With the Democratic presidential nomination now further out of reach after his drubbing in New York on Tuesday, the Vermont senator faces the difficult question about what comes next. Does he set a do-whatever-it-takes course to wrest the nomination from rival Hillary Clinton? Or does he return to the message campaign, as his long-shot White House bid started out to be?
The Sanders campaign poured itself into New York, throwing a Hail Mary pass to try to change the delegate math while they could. They spent $5.6 million in the state (twice what Hillary Clinton did), made 3 million phone calls in the final weekend alone, and organized the biggest rallies of a campaign already defined by big rallies.
But in the end Sanders came up far short -- not just of winning, but of the delegate target allies had aimed to hit, which might set them up for a path through California, the campaign’s final hope.
There’s no question that Sanders will stay in the race either way. “Bernie made a decision after Nevada that he was going to go through this process and finish it up by letting everybody who wanted to vote, vote,” senior strategist Tad Devine said.
Sanders took Wednesday off the campaign trail at home in Vermont with his wife, leaving his top aides behind in Washington to cool their heels.
“He wanted an opportunity to think,” Devine said. “It’s affording him an opportunity to think about where we are in the campaign, what he wants to say in the weeks ahead. He hasn’t had a real chance to do that” in weeks.
Sanders was spotted leaving his home for lunch with his brother Larry, a politician in the U.K. who introduced the younger Sanders to politics. But he told reporters the night before that he just wanted to “recharge” before getting back in the saddle Thursday in Pennsylvania, which will vote next week.
Democratic primary voters have shown no sign they’re in a rush for the race to settle down, and seem hungry for Sanders’ message, if not his presidency.
He’ll continue to draw massive crowds from zealous fans, who have almost literally given his campaign a blank check to do as they wish. On Wednesday night, the campaign announced raising $15 million more than Clinton in March, though they also spent much more.
But even some Sanders allies cringed at parts of the candidate’s message in New York, where his agenda was sometimes obscured by a focus on Clinton and issues with the election process.
“Going forward, what we're encouraging Senator Sanders to do is to continue to keep the campaign focused on the issues," said Neil Sroka, the communications director of Democracy for America, which backs Sanders.
The campaign says they want to return to more substantive issues – but only as long as the Clinton campaign joins them. So far, at least, they believe Clinton forces are keeping up the heat and see it as sign Clinton still views Sanders as a threat.
Privately, some Sanders allies say it’s time for the candidate to start to thinking more about how he maximizes his leverage at the Democratic National Convention, and afterwards, and less about beating Clinton at all costs.
One indicator of which kind of campaign Sanders wants to run is how much he and his aides continue to talk about relying on super delegates to hand them the nomination.
The strategy, which calls for wooing the unelected delegates even if Sanders loses more primaries and caucuses, was floated by campaign manager Jeff Weaver with MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki late Tuesday night.
But it would put Sanders at odds with some key allies.
MoveOn.org and Democracy for America, both of which have endorsed Sanders, have since 2008 been pressuring super delegates to support whichever candidate gets the most votes.
More than 380,000 people signed petitions from the group agreeing that “the race for the Democratic Party nomination should be decided by who gets the most votes, and not who has the most support from party insiders.”
Both groups confirmed to MSNBC Wednesday that they still hold that position.
"MoveOn members overwhelmingly endorsed Sanders for president, and we want him to win the most pledged delegates, become the nominee, and become president. But superdelegates shouldn't overrule the will of the Democratic grassroots," said MoveOn Washington Director Ben Wikler. "If the primary and caucus winner is Hillary Clinton, then Clinton should be the nominee."
Devine said the campaign’s main focus is still to win pledged delegates. But if Sanders falls just short of a majority, it’s negligible -- “de minims," Devine said -- and the campaign will pitch super delegates that Sanders is the stronger general election candidate.
Another indication of Sanders’ intentions will be where he devotes his precious time in the days leading up to Tuesday’s contests.
Five states are voting and Maryland is expected to be Sanders’ worst showing.
If he invests heavily there it’s a sign his campaign is still focused on winning and scraping together delegates. If he spends time in states like Connecticut and Delaware to try to eek out wins despite limited delegate opportunities, it’s a sign he’s more focused on moral victories than ones that lead to the nomination.
What Sanders decides to do, and how aggressively he decides to continuing pursuing Clinton, will help determine the shape of the rest of the primary and how quickly Clinton, the odds-on nominee, can unite the party.
Clinton’s favorability rating has tumbled during the primary, especially among Sanders voters, presumably at least in part due to his attacks.
But as Democratic leaders worry about the damage, the party seem to be enjoying the contest.
National polling between Clinton and Sanders has tightened to a virtual dead heat, suggesting voters are not ready to settle on Clinton. Exit polls showed two-thirds of New York primary voters found the heated contest in the state to be energizing, not divisive.
“Mr. Sanders’s presence has made this an immeasurably more substantive race,” The New York Times wrote in an editorial Wednesday calling on Sanders to ignore calls to leave the race, which was shared by the Sanders campaign. The enthusiasm of his supporters “should be a wake-up call to leaders of both parties. They are missing something big about their own members’ priorities, and their mood.”
Still, Sanders’ entire campaign has been about bringing new people into politics and the Democratic party. At some point, he might risk pushing them back out again.