BURLINGTON, Vt. — Top strategists for presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders sought to make the case Wednesday that the senator from Vermont still has a path to the Democratic nomination that involves winning in industrial Midwestern states and other delegate-rich targets such as New York and California.
Not so fast, said the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, who won seven of 11 states with primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday and considerably widened her lead over Sanders in the delegate count for the nomination. She also won in the territory of American Samoa.
In the post-game Wednesday, each campaign claimed that the math and the calendar work in their favor as the Democratic nominating contest moves ahead.
“We still think we have a winning hand in this game, and we’re going to continue to play it,” said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic operative working for Sanders, who appeared alongside Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager, at the morning briefing here.
After Tuesday, Clinton leads Sanders among pledged delegates by 544 to 349, according to a tally by the Associated Press. When super delegates are included, Clinton’s advantage widens to 1,001 to 371. A candidate needs 2,383 delegates to win the nomination.
Using slightly different numbers, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook claimed that Clinton's lead is prohibitive and will only get larger.
"By virtue of Secretary Clinton’s eight wins on Super Tuesday — most of which were by significant margins — we now have a lead of more than 180 pledged delegates over Sen. Sanders," Mook wrote in a "state-of-the-race" memo released by the Clinton campaign. "This lead is larger than any lead then-Senator Obama had at any point in the 2008 primary," Mook added. "We anticipate building on this lead even further making it increasingly difficult and eventually mathematically impossible for Sen. Sanders to catch up."
Devine argued that the demographics of Tuesday’s contests – which included half a dozen Southern states with sizable African American populations – were more favorable to Clinton than any other day on the nominating calendar going forward.
Devine said that Sanders is positioned to continue winning states in the weeks ahead and that the campaign has mapped out a scenario in which he can overtake Clinton in pledged delegates ahead of the party's convention in July. He did not share details.
“We have to win a lot of places, beginning this weekend, and that’s what we intend to do,” Devine said, referring to upcoming contests in Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska and Maine.
But it is in big, delegate-rich states in the industrial Midwest that each campaign sees opportunity, and a showdown.
Michigan votes Tuesday. Clinton and Sanders debate in Flint, Mich., two days before. Sunday's debate site was chosen to highlight a poisoned water crisis in majority-black Flint, which both candidates have said would never have happened in a richer, whiter city.
"Sen. Sanders’s campaign continues to pursue a strategy focused on states rather than delegates. For example, Sen. Sanders is competing very aggressively in Michigan, where he has already spent $3 million on TV," Mook's memo said.
"We are also competing to win in Michigan and feel good about where that race stands, but even if Sen. Sanders were able to eke out a victory there, we would still net more delegates in Mississippi, which holds its election on the same night. The end result is that Sen. Sanders will spend millions of dollars in Michigan but not make any net gain in pledged delegates, because he isn’t competing in states like Mississippi."
Weaver said Michigan, a state that has been battered by job losses from trade deals, is ripe Sanders territory.
“I think his message on trade in particular will be very powerful out there,” Weaver said. “He has been a consistent opponent of the kind of job-gutting trade deals that Secretary Clinton has consistently supported for decades. And I think there will be some serious questions that will have to be answered by the Clinton campaign about why people should vote for a candidate who has voted for the type of trade deals that have gutted the economy in Michigan, Ohio and other places, that have destroyed the black middle class in Michigan and other places. … I think there’s a lot to be answered for.”
Sanders has been a longtime opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal championed by President Obama and, at one time, by Clinton. She renounced the package last year in what Sanders allies called an election-season conversion meant to appeal to the economically disenfranchised and very liberal Democratic base that has backed his insurgent campaign.
On the stump, Clinton frequently cites the Detroit auto industry bailout as a success story of Obama's economic policies. She also talks about adding new manufacturing jobs to replace those lost overseas, and about rebuilding the middle class as the nation's economic engine.
Polls have shown Sanders trailing in the state by double digits, but Weaver and Devine said Sanders has come back from similar margins in other states when voters have gotten a chance to known him and his record.
Most of the states Clinton won Tuesday have large African American populations. Michigan has a much smaller proportion of black voters, although the voting blocs can be powerful by virtue of their concentration in cities such as Detroit and Flint.
But Mook cited Clinton's wide margin of victory generally as a sign that she has broader, more durable appeal.
"Clinton has established a sizable lead in pledged delegates because of the strong base of support she has built with a winning coalition of voters," Mook wrote. "She has overwhelming support among voters in communities of color: African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans Pacific Islanders in particular. She also has a dramatic advantage with women, and has been winning union households by double-digit margins. On Super Tuesday, she also prevailed with white voters in a majority of states."
Black voters have said they preferred Clinton for her record and her perceived commitment to racial justice causes over a very long career.
“We stipulate that we have to do better with African American voters," Devine said of Sanders, "but we think we can do a lot better."
He cited the history of civil rights activism by the independent senator from Vermont, his voting record in Congress and proposals he has put forward as a presidential candidate.
Sanders’s top advisers also argued that if Clinton does not consistently win states in the coming months, some of the super delegates who’ve rallied around her campaign could switch sides. Super delegates include elected officials and other party leaders who are free to side with whichever candidate they want.
If Clinton doesn’t win consistently, “questions will arise around her candidacy,” Devine said.
Weaver insisted that Sanders's showing Tuesday had not relegated him to the standing of a “message candidate,” as some pundits have suggested.
From the outset of his bid, supporters have been drawn to Sanders’s call to take on “the billionaire class” and remake a “rigged economy.”
“I know some people are ready to write this campaign off as a message campaign,” Weaver said. “This is a campaign to win.”
Weaver said he was undaunted by polls showing Clinton with a double-digit lead in Michigan.
“He has an ability to go to a place and talk about his vision and agenda, it really does move voters,” Weaver said of his candidate
Sanders is wasting his money, Mook suggested. He patted his own campaign on the back for a shrewd, penny-wise approach to where to spend and how to target voters.
"The disparity in strategies is reflected in the amount both campaigns spent on TV and radio in Super Tuesday states as compared to the number of pledged delegates won," Mook wrote. "Our campaign spent $10.5 million to secure more than 500 delegates. Sen. Sanders’s campaign spent a comparable amount at $9 million but only secured 350 delegates, which is ultimately the margin of difference in the race."
Sanders will keep winning some states, but never enough to overtake Clinton, Mook said.
"We have no doubt that as long as Sen. Sanders remains in the primary, he will continue to win elections along the way, but it will make little difference to Hillary’s pledged delegate lead," Mook said.
Mook suggested that Sanders could win Nebraska and Kansas this weekend, and noted that the Sanders campaign is investing heavily in those states.
But even if he does win, Clinton still comes out ahead, Mook said.
"We anticipate being able to win Louisiana by a larger margin and emerge from the day with more net delegates," Mook said. "In other words, over the upcoming weeks, we intend to steadily add to Hillary Clinton’s already sizable lead in delegates, and as we do, it will become harder and harder mathematically for Sen. Sanders to ever catch up."