Two things are happening simultaneously in the Democratic presidential primary race.
2. With wins in the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary -- as well as a likely dominant day tomorrow on Super Tuesday -- Hillary Clinton is building something close to an impregnable delegate lead.
NBC's official Democratic superdelegate scorecard:
That brings overall Dem delegate race to:
— Mark Murray (@mmurraypolitics) February 29, 2016
Add it up and you get this: Sanders can stay in the Democratic race as long as he wants regardless of the results. Campaigns end, almost exclusively, because the candidate is running out of money and doesn't want to go deeply in debt chasing an unwinnable race. That won't happen for Sanders. He has already eclipsed every fundraising goal -- or any fundraising hope his campaign harbored -- in this race. No matter what happens tomorrow night or on March 15, Sanders has the resources to keep campaigning. Period.
You also get this: It's hard to see how Sanders can seriously challenge Clinton's already-large delegate lead. Why? Because Democrats -- unlike Republicans -- allocate delegates only on a proportional basis. (Republicans allow a variety of delegate allocation techniques including winner-take-all events in big states like Florida and Ohio.) That means that Clinton's margin after tomorrow's votes is not likely to change much unless Sanders can find a way to win a series of big states in a row. And that's an increasingly-tough-to-imagine scenario.
Yes, you might note that a) only four states have voted and b) Clinton only as a 91-65 edge among delegates apportioned by actual votes thus far. That's, obviously, a minuscule portion of the 4,763 total delegates available in the primary process. And that superdelegates -- elected officials and former elected officials who comprise the Democratic establishment -- are the primary reason that Clinton's delegate lead is so large.
But, simply because we are early in the process doesn't mean we can't see how this thing is almost certain to play out. Sanders's chances were always centered on disrupting Clinton's inevitability. The delegate math never added up for Sanders unless you accepted that in the early states he would score enough upset victories to raise questions within the Democratic party that would fundamentally reshape how the two candidates were viewed. Even the most optimistic Sandernista would couch predictions in the "Well, he's not ahead in March 1 or March 15 states yet...but wait until you see what happens after he wins [fill-in-the-blank early state]."
The problem for Sanders and his supporters is that he won only one of those first first states -- and it happened to be the one where the Clinton campaign had effectively lowered expectations due to his geographic edge. Yes, he came very close in Iowa. And close -- though not as close -- in Nevada. But, he didn't win. And as Clinton's massive South Carolina win -- 73.5 percent! -- proved, Sanders was not able to disrupt the broad-scale belief among the Democratic electorate that she will be the nominee.
And, her inevitability will be reinforced and furthered in tomorrow's voting across a dozen states. Sanders's delegate problem will be worse Wednesday than it is today.
Sanders's has already accomplished a huge amount in this race -- including dragging Clinton to the ideological left on things like the Keystone XL pipeline, economic inequality and most everything else. And, the longer he stays in the race and accrues delegates -- as he undoubtedly will given the proportionality of the Democrats's allocation process -- the more influence he might have over the issues Clinton takes forward into the general election.
But, exerting influence -- even considerable influence -- over the nominee's priorities is not the same thing as having a real chance to be the nominee in your own right. The former and not the latter looks to be Sanders's lot in the race going forward unless he is able to go on a major winning streak tomorrow and into the March 15 votes. That just doesn't look like it's in the cards.