Bernie Sanders supporters are likely feeling a certain sense of exasperation. Bernie’s been winning a lot of states lately – after Hillary Clinton’s sweep on March 15, Sanders has won every contest except Arizona. Head-to-head polls with the likely Republican nominees show Sanders to be a stronger candidate in general election match-ups, and his favorability rating is considerably better than Clinton’s. Bernie has momentum, they say, and is better positioned to win in November. And yet, in spite of all this, today’s New York primary is being treated as a last stand of sorts for the Sanders effort. The New York Times editorial board is casting its state’s primary as a turning point after which the party must focus on unity.
The problem for Sanders and his supporters is that “momentum” and “electability” aren’t sufficient answers for what continues to be his most persistent problem: delegate math. Sanders’ path to a majority of pledged delegates is extraordinarily difficult, and to get there he has to beat Hillary on her turf, and he has to do so by substantial margins. That means not just winning in places like New York, but winning by substantial margins. Coming into Tuesday's voting, Sanders trails Hillary in the state by double digits, and New York’s demographic mix, along with the fact that is a closed primary, makes it less likely that he’ll be able to mount a Michigan-style upset. Hence the frustration among the Sanders faithful – they see a surging campaign that, by the metric that determines the race, is getting closer and closer to drawing dead.
That sense of frustration is starting to worry Democrats and liberals who view the protracted primary as increasingly toxic and divisive. Here’s the New York Times editorial board again: “Democrats are now so divided and dug-in that no matter who wins the nomination, it will take a considerable effort to heal and unite them.” I’m skeptical of this notion and I think it’s being used as a bad argument for pushing one of the candidates – namely, Sanders – out of the race.
We’re now into our third straight contested Democratic presidential primary in which outsider “movement” candidates have posed credible threats to establishment favorites. Way back in 2004, Howard Dean rode confidently atop the polls and put together a fundraising juggernaut by running as the liberal alternative to John Kerry. In 2008, the primary dragged on to the bitter end as Hillary refused to give in to Barack Obama until every contest had been fought and every vote counted. In both cases, there was a good deal of public hand-wringing over whether the rancorous primary campaigning would leave Democrats too divided to defeat the Republicans. There were “Deaniacs” who swore up and down that they wouldn’t vote for anyone but their candidate in the general election against George W. Bush. The later stages of the 2008 primary were plagued by the risible PUMA (Party Unity My Ass) sect of Hillary supporters who drew a lot of media exposure by threatening to blow up the party if Clinton didn’t get the nomination.
In both those cycles, the concerns over irreparable division proved to be wildly overblown, and it certainly seems like the same thing is happening this cycle. Right now the chasm between Clinton and Sanders supporters seems vast because people are caught up in the passions of the primary and the media is naturally focusing on social media-driven squabbling to tell the sexier story of a party riven by internal conflict. But there are several months between the moment the nomination is awarded and Election Day – more than enough time for partisan loyalty or political self-preservation to insinuate themselves as rationalizations for voting for a candidate you once wrote off completely. Sanders supporters who today swear against ever voting for Hillary would very likely find their resistance weakened by the prospect of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz nominating the next Supreme Court justice. (This same dynamic, I should add, is why I’m deeply skeptical of the #NeverTrump movement surviving the prospect of a Clinton-Trump showdown.)
Even if one were to take it as granted that Hillary will eventually capture the nomination, I actually think the best thing Sanders can do for party unity is to keep right on campaigning. He’s engaging younger voters in the Democratic process and setting a bold standard for what it means to be a liberal inside the Democratic Party. And as Paul Waldman writes, the stronger the Sanders movement grows, the more likely it is that the opportunistic and ideologically malleable Clinton will tack leftward: “As president, Hillary Clinton will be as liberal as liberals force her to be.” Sanders supporters may not love or even like Clinton, but keeping pressure on her is the best way to turn her into a candidate they can live with.