Every time the [Democratic] 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.
After losing five out of six primaries over the last two weeks, Bernie Sanders was eager to win Indiana. While Hillary Clinton shifted her focus to Donald Trump and the general election, the Vermont senator made a real effort in the Hoosier state, investing nearly $400,000 in television advertising -- Clinton spent literally $0 -- and holding multiple events to rally the faithful.
The good news for Sanders is that his efforts were successful enough to deliver a primary victory. The bad news for Sanders is that the delegate math required him to win by a huge margin, and that didn't happen. MSNBC's Alex Seitz-Wald reported overnight:
It's a dynamic that causes endless frustration for Sanders' die-hard supporters. He'll win a race, which raises his backers' hopes, only to learn soon after that the victory wasn't significant enough to change the trajectory of the race.
So let's be more specific about Sanders' quantitative challenge. The senator can try to win the nomination by convincing party insiders to overrule the will of the voters, but even Sanders' top aides recognize this is unrealistic. The other avenue is catching up to Clinton among pledged delegate -- he'll need roughly 66% of those still available -- by racking up some big wins in the calendar's remaining contests.
How big? If Sanders won each of the remaining primaries and caucuses by 30 points each -- an improbable task, to be sure -- he'd still come up short. That's how significant his current deficit it. None of this, by the way, factors superdelegates into the equation. I'm referring only to pledged delegates, earned exclusively through nominating contests decided by rank-and-file voters.
Unfortunately for his ardent fans, this equation includes Indiana, where he prevailed last night with a six-point victory, but where he needed a win that was vastly larger if he intends to catch up to the rival he trails. It may seem counter-intuitive, but a modest win in Indiana actually leaves Sanders worse off than he was 24 hours ago -- it was not only too narrow a victory, it also shrinks the number of remaining opportunities he'll have to close the gap.
I suppose the obvious question is why Sanders and his supporters seemed so pleased last night if the results were actually discouraging. The answer, of course, is winning beats losing. A victory in Indiana will lead the Sanders campaign to once again return to his activist base for more fundraising, touting last night as a morale booster for the whole team.
But the underlying arithmetic nevertheless remains stubborn.