The truth about the Sanders surge: The optics may be terrible for Hillary after Wisconsin pummeling, but the math is still solidly on her side

It's almost impossible for a Democratic candidate to close a gap this wide this deep into the primaries

Published April 6, 2016 2:35PM (EDT)

Hillary Cllinton, Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Brian Snyder/Jim Young/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Cllinton, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Brian Snyder/Jim Young/Photo montage by Salon)

Bernie Sanders had a good night on Monday. He won the Wisconsin primary by 13 points. Although the delegate yield was minimal, this was a big victory for the Sanders campaign. He's now won seven of the last eight contests against Hillary Clinton. The delegate math hasn't changed significantly, but the string of victories is an indication of how competitive this race is.

There will be a lot of talk after Wisconsin about the “burst of momentum” for Sanders. Heading into the critical New York primary on April 19th, pundits will wonder whether Sanders can “reset” the race. It's a fair question to ask. If Clinton is the runaway front-runner, it's seems odd that she would lose so many contests in a row.

As bad as it looks, however, Clinton is still on firm ground.

David Plouffe, the strategist who ran President Obama's 2008 campaign, offered some useful historical context in a recent post on Plouffe argued that Clinton has actually “strengthened her hold on the nomination in the most recent contests...because for every state that holds a contest, more delegates come off the board, and the percentage of remaining delegates Sanders has to win grows larger.”

This is a crucial point. All those early lopsided victories for Clinton were hugely consequential. Because the delegates are awarded proportionally, it's very difficult for a Democratic candidate to close a gap this wide this late in the game.

So what, if anything, does Wisconsin tell us about the Democratic race and about Clinton's viability as a general election candidate? For one, it's not unusual for the eventual nominee to limp across the finish line. As Plouffe points out, Obama lost 6 of the final 9 contests in 2008. Contrary to many claims at the time, that wasn't an indication of Obama's competitiveness in a general election.

And there are other helpful historical parallels. Plouffe writes:

“Ted Kennedy won five of the eight contests on the final day of the 1980 primary, including California. But Jimmy Carter won all four just the week before. What changed in one week? Nothing but demography. And in 1992, the political world was aflutter when Jerry Brown won Connecticut and Vermont consecutively, suggesting somehow Bill Clinton whom lost early to Paul Tsongas was facing a new, existential threat. No, just two good states for Jerry Brown amidst a sea of Clinton wins.”

The truth is that Wisconsin was tailor-made for Sanders, and he was expected to do well in each of the primaries and caucuses he won. None of this is intended to dismiss his campaign. Sanders has run an extraordinary race thus far, and he will compete with Clinton until the convention this summer. But we can't infer too much from his recent winning streak. Clinton is still well-positioned moving forward.

Delegate-rich New York will tell us much more than Wisconsin. As it stands, Clinton is still leading by double digits there, but a lot can happen in two weeks. Plouffe's analysis is less ambiguous: “I believe Hillary Clinton has zero chance of not being the Democratic nominee. But she is still going to lose a bunch of states to Bernie Sanders the rest of the way into the clubhouse.” Given Clinton's lead in delegates (both pledged and total), Plouffe believes she “will end the primary, even if she underperforms the rest of the way, with a pledged delegate lead greater than Barack Obama's in 2008.”

I'm less certain than Plouffe, but the math clearly favors Clinton. It's near-impossible that Sanders will match Clinton's pledged delegate count heading into the convention, and even less likely that superdelegates will abandon Clinton in the final hour – Sanders own staffers understand that.

Losing Wisconsin was a narrative hit for Clinton, but that's about it. Covering this election primary-by-primary is an easy way to lose sight of the bigger picture. Clinton will continue to lose primaries, both because that's what happens and because Sanders is a strong candidate with a solid base. She's a flawed candidate with some obvious vulnerabilities, but her inability to put Sanders away says more about his campaign than anything else.

No matter how difficult the final stretch, Clinton's performance in the Democratic primary says little about her prospects in November. Sanders is a unique candidate with a unique message. There is an enthusiasm gap on the Democratic side to be sure, and that could hinder Clinton down the road. But so long as it's Trump or Cruz on the other side, there's no reason to panic.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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Bernie Sanders David Plouffe Democratic Party Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton