Opinion writer

A fundamental question about the endgame of the Democratic primaries is this: If and when Hillary Clinton finishes with more pledged delegates and popular votes, and wins the nomination with super-delegate support, will Bernie Sanders do what is necessary to persuade his supporters that the outcome was legitimate?

The answer could help determine whether Sanders’s supporters get energized behind Clinton against Donald Trump — and, possibly, whether they will continue to be engaged in politics or become disillusioned with what they have come to believe is a hopelessly rigged and corrupt system.

In an interview with me today, top Sanders adviser Tad Devine — while stressing that Sanders would support the eventual nominee — demurred on the broader question of whether he would, in the end, do everything necessary to persuade his supporters of the legitimacy of the process.

At the same time, in a separate interview, a top supporter of Sanders — Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon — bluntly told me that if Sanders finishes behind in pledged delegates and the popular vote, he should not continue to try to win over super-delegates, and should concede rather than take the battle to the convention.

I asked Devine: If Clinton wins the nomination after all the votes have been cast, will Sanders issue an unequivocal declaration that the outcome was legitimate?

“We’re still involved in this process, so it’s hard for me to declare what’s going to happen at the end,” Devine said. “As we look forward, there are a lot of issues of deep concern.”

Devine cited the DNC’s appointment of former Rep. Barney Frank as the chairman of the Democratic National Convention’s Rules Committee and the appointment of Connecticut governor Dan Malloy as the co-chair of the Platform Committee, arguing that both had been “partisan” in their “attacks” on Sanders.

“If we’re going to talk about the fairness of the process, we should look at the people who are charged with responsibility of administering the process,” Devine continued. “It’s hard for us to pronounce the process fair when you have committee chairs who have been overt partisans who attacked Senator Sanders in a way that’s way beyond support of Secretary Clinton.”

The Sanders campaign had previously criticized these appointments, but in our interview, Devine went further, suggesting that the Sanders camp might have to see them pulled as chairs in order to view the process as legitimate.

“To have chairs of committees who have not been overt partisans attacking Senator Sanders [would be] a very positive step in terms of building trust and good will between the campaigns,” Devine said.

Devine took pains to reiterate that Sanders would support the eventual nominee and do everything possible to defeat Trump, though it’s worth noting that this does not really settle whether Sanders will make a genuine, fully committed effort to persuade his followers that the outcome was the result of a legitimate process.

Yesterday, as concern over the skirmishing that took place over the weekend in Nevada mounted, the Sanders campaign issued a statement that doubled down on criticism of the process as rigged. The statement also condemned the violence and death threats leveled at the Nevada state chair, but didn’t lead with that condemnation.

I pressed Devine on whether that statement questioning the process in Nevada — and other suggestions from Sanders that aspects of the primaries are rigged — risked going too far, in that it might persuade Sanders supporters that the whole process is illegitimate. I asked whether that risked creating a situation that can’t be repaired.

Devine rejected those suggestions. “I don’t think it’s going too far at all,” he said. “Telling the truth is the right thing to do. I think it’s always been a part of what Bernie has done in his career in politics. He’s spoken truth to power….I think it’s helpful….The best way to build the party is to bring people in, not set up rules and procedures that they can’t have confidence in.”

All this, however, raises questions about how some of Sanders’s other top supporters will react if this continues. Sanders and his top aides have vowed to continue fighting all the way to the convention to flip super-delegates, and have also suggested they will try to win concessions on rules and the platform.

But Senator Merkley — who is from Oregon, where Sanders won yesterday — told me he’s not necessarily on board with a scorched earth approach. I asked him whether Sanders should keep fighting for super-delegates in June, after losing the pledged delegate count and popular vote.

“When a nominee wins a majority of both those categories, it is time for us to come together, link arms and go forward,” Merkley said. “It would be inconsistent, given the commentary on super-delegates, to depend on super-delegates to turn over those first two categories of evaluating party members’ support.”

Asked if he would support Sanders’s decision, under these conditions, to keep the battle going to the convention floor, Merkley said: “Absolutely not.”

It’s hard to say how this will unfold. As aggressive as the Sanders campaign’s rhetoric seems, it would still be consistent with a strategy that includes fighting as hard as possible until the last votes are counted, with the deliberate aim of maximizing whatever leverage Sanders can muster without causing a lasting rift. Such a strategy might include winning as many votes as possible before making a last-ditch effort to flip super-delegates, failing, and entering into unity talks in June that get resolved somehow before the convention, perhaps via platform and process concessions of some kind.

Or maybe things will be more contentious than that, all the way to the convention floor and beyond. Right now, the only person with any real inkling of how this will all go down may be Bernie Sanders.