The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does Bernie Sanders need to win New York for the media to take him seriously again?

Highlights from Bernie Sanders’s campaign, in pictures

WASHINGTON, DC- JUNE 14: Presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders arrives at the Capital Hilton to meet with Hillary Clinton on Tuesday June 14, 2016. (Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

Bernie Sanders thinks the media has been too quick to write him off.

“If you ignore what you hear on corporate media, the facts are pretty clear,” he told supporters on April 5, the night of his Democratic presidential primary win in Wisconsin. “We have a path toward victory, a path toward the White House.”

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held a rally after winning the Democratic primary in Wisconsin. (Video: AP)

On Tuesday the Vermont senator has a chance to prove himself right when he faces front-runner Hillary Clinton in her home state of New York with the biggest delegate prize to date on the line. So the question is this: How well does Sanders need to do to change the political press's mind about the state of the race?

An upset win would surely elevate him back to contender status. New York, which Clinton represented in the U.S. Senate from 2001 to 2009, looked a short time ago like the place where she might finish off Sanders once and for all. As recently as April 2, Clinton led in the Empire State by 27 points, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. A victory by that kind of margin could bury Sanders in a delegate hole out of which even his most optimistic supporters would struggle to imagine him digging.

But Sanders's deficit is down to low double-digits now. He won Michigan last month when the polling average showed him down by 21. Some unique circumstances probably contributed to the polls' inaccuracy there, but he is clearly capable of mounting a big comeback.

One thing that could diminish a victory in New York is the possibility of Sanders winning the popular vote but losing the delegate count. Clinton appears to have a 34-delegate head start, thanks to unpledged superdelegates who have expressed their support. (Sanders has argued that he still has time to woo superdelegates before the Democratic National Convention in July.)

Setting superdelegates aside, 247 pledged delegates will be awarded in the primary. Eighty-four will be allocated proportionally according to the statewide vote; the rest will be assigned proportionally in each of 27 congressional districts. That's a lot of math, but the bottom line is this: Sanders could win the statewide popular vote and still wind up with fewer delegates if his support is concentrated in just a few districts.

Even in that scenario, however, a Sanders victory would force the media to take him seriously. Or, to put it another way, a Clinton defeat on her home turf would signal that she is in real trouble or, at the very least, looks shakier than most people believe her to be.

Assuming Clinton holds off her challenger, however, how close does Sanders have to come to be viewed as back in the game?

This type of question is always difficult because the answer changes. In Iowa, for instance, Sanders's decimal-point loss was good enough for the media to dub him a real threat. News outlets such as CNN, NBC, Politico, the New York Times and The Washington Post reported that the senator's surprisingly strong showing signaled a long, drawn-out nominating contest.

But just a few weeks later, after Sanders rallied but ultimately came up short in Nevada, "Meet the Press" moderator Chuck Todd suggested in an interview with the underdog that coming close wasn't good enough anymore.

"Don't you have to beat her in a place like Texas or Virginia or Tennessee?" Todd asked. "A big state, to say, 'You know what, I can win this nomination. I can't just come close.' Don't you have to do that?"

Sanders agreed with the premise. And lately he hasn't been coming close; he's been winning. He's won seven of the past eight states, in fact. Yet these actual victories have done little to alter the prevailing sentiment — largely crystallized by Clinton's dominance on Super Tuesday and her five-state sweep on March 15 — that Sanders is on a quixotic quest.

A recent Daily Beast headline summed things up perfectly: "Bernie Sanders wins Wisconsin, changes nothing."

It's a dizzying media standard: Sometimes candidates get a lot of credit for narrow losses; other times they get little for outright wins.

A sub-head on the same Daily Beast story declared that "If he can take New York, then we've got a contest. If not, Clinton has it."

New York is almost here. Sanders probably doesn't need to "take" the primary to restore some of the press's faith, but he can't lose by 30 points. I'm not even sure that a margin of defeat in the high single digits would be seen as terribly impressive. But if he can claw to within five points in the popular vote, Sanders can make Clinton appear newly vulnerable again and make himself look more viable than he has seemed in a couple months.