WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — As Bernie Sanders stepped back out on the campaign trail Wednesday, he gave much the same feisty hour-long speech that he has for the past year, decrying the outsize influence of the billionaire class in front of a large crowd.
But Sanders was confronting a new reality, one in which he has virtually no chance of catching Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The senator from Vermont seemed to acknowledge his dwindling fortunes early in his remarks, suggesting another rationale for staying in the race after losing four of five Eastern primary states on Tuesday: shaping the Democratic party platform.
“We are in this campaign to win, but if we do not win, we intend to win every delegate we can, so that when we go to Philadelphia in July we are going to have the votes to put together the strongest progressive agenda that any political party has ever seen,” Sanders said to boisterous applause.
His declaration echoed a statement he issued late Tuesday, in which he listed many of the proposals that have been at the core of a campaign that has exceeded every expectation since the self-described democratic socialist launched his long-shot bid nearly a year ago.
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager, said he still sees a “mathematical possibility” of catching Clinton, saying Sanders is poised to go on a winning streak and will continue to try to convince the party’s superdelegates that he would be the stronger Democratic candidate against Republican front-runner Donald Trump in the fall.
“There will be a lot of obituary writers out there, but we’re going to enter a number of states where he can make a run,” Weaver said. “He’s going to win the vast majority of contests in May and into June, and he’s going to enter the convention with a tremendous amount of momentum.”
However, even if Sanders wins some of the upcoming states, the race is now all about delegates, and he would need not only to win, but win by huge margins to erase Clinton’s lead.
In an interview later Wednesday, Sanders acknowledged the odds are stacked against him, saying, “I would be a fool and dishonest if I said otherwise.”
“Of course the odds are against us,” Sanders said. “We have a very steep hill to climb. But do I think we have a narrow path and we can win, I do. And what I will tell you is we’re going to use all of our energy, all of our resources and all of our capabilities to try to win this.”
That said, the aim is much the same for Sanders whether he is seeking to become the nominee or influence Clinton’s platform: The more delegates he takes to the convention, the greater influence his aides think he will have crafting Democratic priorities or otherwise influencing Clinton.
In a sign that the campaign is nearing its end, however, Sanders announced Wednesday that he was shedding “hundreds” of staffers in an effort to “right-size” for the remaining contests. Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said the move had been planned for some time and wasn’t a refelction of Tuesday’s showing.
One of the biggest questions looming now is whether Sanders will alter his tone on the trail. At an election-night rally in West Virginia on Tuesday and again here on Wednesday, Sanders dialed back some of his criticism of Clinton, perhaps offering a preview of what he has said will be an “issue-oriented” campaign in the remaining 14 states.
But Sanders’s camp has also played hardball with Clinton as recently as Tuesday. As voters were going to the polls in the five states — Pennsylvania, Maryland, a f Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island — his campaign emailed a fundraising solicitation that featured a photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton attending Trump’s wedding.
The same day, Sanders’s wife, Jane, who serves as a political adviser, was on TV saying that her husband would release more of the couple’s past tax returns once Clinton releases the transcripts of her paid Wall Street speeches.
Sanders said there are no plans for him to alter his message on the trail. He chose to campaign Tuesday night in West Virginia, a state that holds its primary in two weeks. His Wednesday schedule included two stops in Indiana, which votes next Tuesday.
At the first, here in Lafayette, Sanders still pointed out some of his disagreements with Clinton, including on trade policy and the minimum wage. But he did so, in some cases, in a more polite fashion.
Sanders, for example, said that Clinton supports rasing the federal minimum wage to $12.
“I respectfully disagree,” he said, citing his support for a $15 minimum wage.
Clinton’s campaign will be watching closely to see if Sanders strikes a more conciliatory tone in coming weeks. Her aides are aware of the challenges they face in wooing many of Sanders’s supporters, who view Clinton as part of the political establishment he is challenging.
At Tuesday night’s rally in Huntington, W.Va., Suzanne Hornsby, a retired art teacher, said she is still “praying” that Sanders will become the Democratic nominee and said she was heartened by the roughly 6,500 people who turned out to see him. Even as Sanders’s odds have grown longer, his rallies have remained big, boisterous affairs.
If Sanders does not prevail over Clinton, Hornsby, 67, said she is prepared to write his name in during the general election.
“A lot of us are ‘Bernie or bust,’ ” Hornsby said, adding that she’s turned off by Clinton. “She keeps changing her views to suit whoever she’s talking to.”
His audience Wednesday included some people who described themselves as fans but said they are likely to vote for Clinton.
Debra Kearns, 64, said she hopes Clinton will adopt some of Sanders’s positions on issues including health care and getting money out of politics.
“I like him,” said Kearns, a retired food services manager at a hospital. “He’s great. If it weren’t for Hillary, I’d be for him. She’s just more qualified. She has all the past experience.”
Kearns said she would support Sanders if he becomes the Democratic nominee, but she held her thumb and index finger very close when asked about the chance of that happening.
The math for Sanders has become all but insurmountable.
With her four wins Tuesday, including by wide margins in Pennsylvania and Maryland, the two states with the most at stake, Clinton has increased her lead in the delegate count to close to 300.
Moreover, she has an overwhelming lead among superdelegates, the Democratic elected officials and other party insiders who get a say in the nomination and are not bound to the outcomes of nominating contests in their states. As of Tuesday, Clinton’s advantage among superdelegates who have committed publicly was 519 to 39.
Prior to Clinton’s decisive victory last week in New York, Sanders had won seven of eight consecutive state nominating contests, a streak Weaver argued could be replicated in coming weeks, as the calendar once again becomes more favorable to his candidate.
Weaver argued that a strong finish by Sanders — including a dominating win June 7 in California, the largest trove of Democratic delegates — could prompt many superdelegates to change their allegiances.
Others see that proposition as fanciful.
In his remarks Wednesday, Sanders emphasized that many state and national polls have shown him beating Trump in a general election by a greater margin than they have for Clinton.
“If we want a candidate who will be the strongest Democratic candidate to defeat Trump or any other Republican nominee, you’re looking at that candidate,” he told his audience of more than 2,600 people.
Sanders and his aides also argue that his performance among independent voters is something that superdelegates should consider.
On Tuesday, the state Sanders won, Rhode Island, was the only one of the five that allowed independent voters to participate in the Democratic primary. In most of the contests to date where unaffiliated voters can cast ballots, they have sided with Sanders by lopsided margins.
Sanders has made no secret that he would like to see all primaries and caucuses opened up — another point he said he might push at the nominating convention in July. He said he would also like to see the number of Democratic superdelegates cut back.
In his speech Tuesday night, Sanders also peppered his words with a degree of resignation about what the future holds.
“This campaign is not just about electing a president,” he told his followers. “It is about transforming our nation. It is about having the courage to demand a political revolution, and you are the revolutionaries.”