Clinton not only won her favored states of Florida and North Carolina, but Ohio, Illinois and even Missouri, which offered Sanders his best shot at a victory Tuesday night. His aides had had March 15 circled on their calendar, but it ended up being a day that could mark the beginning of the end of Sanders' candidacy, rather than his ascendency. Sanders' campaign will likely continue, but in what form? His message is still resonating with Democratic primary voters and money is still flowing in, but the nomination itself looks virtually out of reach.
When Bernie Sanders scored a surprise victory in Michigan's Democratic primary last week, the questions surrounding Hillary Clinton reached a new volume. Could she win in the Rust Belt? Are her biggest victories limited to the red states in the South? Is she able to earn support from white working-class voters?
Last night's victories answered those questions in a rather dramatic way. MSNBC's Alex Seitz-Wald reported:
In a written statement issued overnight, Sanders said, "[W]e remain confident that our campaign is on a path to win the nomination." It's very difficult to understand the source of that confidence. It's not mathematically impossible for the Vermont senator to prevail, but it's awfully improbable: Andrew Prokop did some number crunching at Vox and found that Sanders "would have to win practically every remaining state by gigantic margins to catch up in pledged delegates."
The problem for Team Sanders isn't just the fact that Clinton won all five of yesterday's contests. That's certainly discouraging -- the campaign believed it had a real chance of success in two or three of these primaries -- but the far greater problem is the margins and the increasingly brutal delegate math.
Because Democrats allocate delegates proportionally, Clinton's double-digit wins in Ohio and North Carolina, coupled with her landslide victory in Florida (the day's biggest delegate prize), means she took a major step towards the nomination, effectively positioning herself as the presumptive nominee.
The Sanders campaign has long realized that catching up to Clinton among pledged delegates was going to be very difficult, but the senator and his team believed they could nevertheless shift the momentum in their direction. If Sanders started racking up wins -- even close ones -- in big states, exposing Clinton's weaknesses in key regions and with important Democratic constituencies, he believed could plausibly tell the party's superdelegates that he's the stronger national candidate, Clinton's lead among pledged delegates notwithstanding. The senator would ride a wave of momentum into the early summer.
That no longer appears to be an option. The Democratic frontrunner has more votes, more states, more delegates, and more superdelegates. Sanders could, in theory, win each of the remaining contests by 16 points, but anything short of that means he will not win the nomination.
Alex Seitz-Wald's report added, "Clinton headed into Tuesday's contests with a more than 200 pledged delegates lead, and her campaign now expects to walk away from the night ahead by far more than 300 -- double the largest lead Barack Obama ever had over Hillary Clinton in 2008."
The question now is what the candidates intend to do about it. Clinton will understandably shift her attention to the general election and speculation about possible running mates will begin in earnest. But Sanders faces a different kind of challenge: how to stay in the race in a way that does the most benefit to his cause and his platform.
There is no denying the fact that the Vermonter has become a hero to many progressive activists, and coming up short in the Democratic presidential race won't (and shouldn't) change that.