It’s perfectly plausible — though far from certain — that by mid-March, after the voting in another two dozen states or so, Hillary Clinton will have accumulated an advantage over Bernie Sanders in delegates that is all but insurmountable.
But even if that does happen, the Democratic contest probably won’t end there. Because it may be in Sanders’s interests to take this all the way to the Democratic convention this summer. And it’s likely that he’ll have the means to do so, as well.
MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald has a comprehensive piece of reporting explaining how the Sanders campaign views the long road ahead, in which he explains why Sanders does hope to prolong the nominating contest until the convention. A few key points from Seitz-Wald’s reporting:
— The Sanders campaign will probably have the resources to keep on going, no matter what happens, because his massive small donor base could very well send in cash again and again, particularly if he suffers some setbacks.
— Sanders will be able to pile up a lot of delegates even if he falters in the long run. That’s because he’s likely to win as many as five states on Super Tuesday to begin with; and beyond that, since delegates are awarded proportionately, he’ll pull in a lot of them even in states where he loses.
— The Sanders campaign still thinks it can win, but even if it doesn’t, taking the race all the way to the convention could still play an important role in the “revolution” Sanders hopes to set in motion.
Here’s another reason that last bullet point makes some sense: young voters are supporting Sanders in overwhelming numbers. And they may continue to do so.
Consider: According to the exit and entrance polls, Sanders won more than 80 percent of Democratic voters under 30 in Iowa, in New Hampshire, and in Nevada. Our handy Plum Line calculator tells us that this means more than four in five.
What’s more, according to 2008 media exit polls, in a number of the big states that vote in March — such as Massachusetts, Virginia, Michigan, Mississippi, Illinois, North Carolina, and Ohio — at least 14 percent of the share of Democratic voters in the 2008 primaries were under 30 years old. You could plausibly see large percentages this time, too, and large spreads for Sanders. It should be noted that in the more diverse electorates to come, we might see a lot more young nonwhite voters who support Clinton, reducing those spreads somewhat. But it’s possible that a lot of young voters in many states will have voted for Sanders by mid-March, perhaps putting him in possession of something akin to a national constituency among them.
As Philip Bump has detailed, turnout has been lower among Dems this time than it was in 2008 — and that lower turnout has been present even among younger voters. That has real implications for whether Sanders could produce the mass mobilization required to pull off the revolution he talks about.
At the same time, though, I’m not sure how much that will matter. The stark truth is that young voters are not voting for Clinton, and they are voting for Sanders. That could be visible on a much larger scale by mid-March. And young voters, according to one recent study, could matter a great deal in a number of key presidential swing states in the general election. If she does win the nomination, Clinton may not need quite the turnout among young voters in the general that Obama relied upon. But she’ll likely want to activate them in a big way, anyway.
“Senator Sanders has been dominating the youth vote in the Democratic primaries so far,” Peter Levine, the Associate Dean for Research at Tufts’ Tisch College, which houses a program designed to promote civic engagement among young people, tells me. “If young people continue to turn out at these rates and continue to prefer Senator Sanders by large margins, they will accumulate into a very substantial pro-Sanders voting bloc that the Democrats will have to take extremely seriously in the general election.”
Clinton knows this. In a recent interview with Rachel Maddow, Clinton made sure to indicate that she is “focused on letting young people who support Senator Sanders know I get it.”
That could give Sanders some leverage later. Clinton will need to get all those young voters to start supporting her in big numbers. Even if turnout is down this year, Sanders — to a far greater degree than Clinton — seems to hold the key to engaging this constituency. He has somehow conveyed to a whole lot of young people that politics can matter in their lives. And remember, Democrats are betting on a new generation of young voters to give them a demographic edge that lasts beyond 2016.
So you could see Sanders playing a role at the convention; in helping shape the agenda for the fall campaign; and in helping engage young voters, this time in preparation for the general election. As MSNBC’s Seitz-Wald reports, the Sanders camp sees such a role as a crucial part of his “political revolution.” Even if he doesn’t win.