Trailing in the hunt for delegates but still winning important state contests, the No. 2 Democrat in a hard-fought primary had this to say about whether it was time to withdraw to make way for the front-runner: “The more people get a chance to vote, the better it is for our democracy.”
That was not Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in 2016. It was Hillary Clinton in 2008, answering calls in March that year to pull out and endorse then-rival Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. She refused to leave the race until June.
Now, it’s Clinton who is far ahead in the delegate count and, as her campaign aides regularly say, nearing the point at which it would be functionally impossible for Sanders to catch her. And now it’s Sanders who is making the argument that voters should have a choice — and that a narrow path to victory remains for him.
“What excites me so much as I go around the country is to see the incredible energy of people who love this country but know we can do so much better,” Sanders said Tuesday night, when Clinton won four of five states, inching ever closer to locking up the Democratic nomination. The fifth state, Missouri, remained too close to call on Wednesday.
All of it puts Clinton in an uncomfortable bind: eager to turn her attention to the general election and the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, but loath to alienate Sanders’s supporters by urging him out of the race.
“Where we stand right now, as of now, before we’ve gotten the results tonight, I’ve gotten more votes than anybody, including Donald Trump,” Clinton said Tuesday. “I think I’m ready to take him on if he is in that position.”
If anything, Clinton is uniquely prepared to face this moment. Her team includes veterans from both her and Obama’s 2008 campaigns. They see no advantage in pressing Sanders to drop out, and they know that she fell short eight years ago in part by focusing on state victories instead of the delegate count. The central lesson of 2008, they say, is for Clinton to keep her head down, stay the course and do the math.
“It’s the complete role reversal,” said Neera Tanden, a senior aide to Clinton in 2008 and a supporter and sometime-adviser now. “She learned a really central lesson then, which is delegates matter the most. In fact, it’s the only thing that matters. And she has run her campaign accordingly.”
Clinton’s team had been hoping Tuesday’s primaries in big, delegate-rich states such as Florida, Illinois and Ohio would be the tipping point after which Sanders would have no real path to the nomination. In a memo to supporters Wednesday, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook called her lead “commanding.”
“Hillary Clinton’s pledged delegate lead grew by more than 40 percent, to a lead of more than 300,” Mook wrote. Sanders is now “overwhelmingly behind . . . and without a clear path to catching up,” he asserted.
Nonetheless, Sanders made it clear Tuesday night, again, that he intends to remain in the race through the Democratic National Convention in July. He thinks the second half of the primary calendar, starting now, favors him. The Clinton campaign is planning for him to be a force at least through the spring.
Clinton’s own experience is part of the reason she has offered no advice on how long Sanders should remain in the race.
“I absolutely respect Senator Sanders. He has a right to run his campaign in any way that he chooses, and I’m proud of the campaign we’ve run,” Clinton said Tuesday.
Her wrenching loss in 2008 came after a campaign sustained by intensely committed supporters — a parallel to the zeal of the Sanders throngs now. With that in mind, Clinton is careful to say that Sanders should run as long as he chooses, although she has exhorted her own supporters to turn out in force and perhaps hasten his exit.
“I remember those days well,” said a senior Clinton aide who worked on the Obama campaign in 2008. “We thought then, and it’s the same thing we think now: The other candidate has a total right to stay in. It would be untoward, not to mention that it would alienate a lot of people, for us to encourage them to drop out.”
Clinton knows better than most that Sanders has very little incentive to cede the nomination to her early.
“If we go to the end, we go to the end,” Clinton said in Tampa last week. “Just as I did in 2008.”
There is also the view that a sustained nominating process will make her stronger by forcing her to examine her weaknesses and hone her message. Even though Sanders is costing her money and perhaps scraping her up some, many of her advisers and uncommitted Democrats caution that, as long as the Democratic contest remains largely civil, there is no hurry to end it.
“It’s really refining both of the campaign messages, and they are talking about things that people really care about,” said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “I think it’s good, as long as we continue to have a substantive debate about who best can carry on the legacy of the president.”
After Clinton dominated the South Carolina primary in late February, she began pivoting to take on Trump. But after her stinging loss in Michigan last week, she campaigned hard against Sanders in the five states that voted Tuesday: Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio and Missouri.
For instance, the former secretary of state has moved to fortify her opposition to the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, a position Sanders suggests is a johnny-come-lately shift born of political expedience. Clinton has also focused on bringing back manufacturing jobs, but she has resisted the urge to shift her campaign’s message too much away from the strategy she intends to deploy in the race against the Republicans this summer.
She has had little choice. As Clinton did in 2008, Sanders is mounting an aggressive challenge that appears to set aside the issue of delegate math. In recent days, he has bored in on Clinton’s record on trade issues, a vulnerability in economic Rust Belt states including Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Tommy Vietor, who worked for Obama in 2008 and backs Clinton now, said the long slog through the spring made Obama a better candidate and will do the same for Clinton this year.
The longer exposure to Sanders, and what Vietor described as his “completely unrealistic” agenda, may also give some voters time to reassess — even though he and other Clinton supporters acknowledge that her message of preparation and practicality can sound dull by comparison.
“I think the key is she has done a very good job, especially lately, of pushing back but not getting to the point where you turn off his supporters,” Vietor said.
The senior Clinton aide, who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity, said those supporters, many of them young, idealistic and new to the political process, should have the chance to vote for the candidate who energizes them. Clinton is counting on the fact that most such supporters, given the chance to dance with the one that brung ya in their state’s primaries, would then support her in November.
“A narrow path is a very different thing than no path” to the Democratic nomination, the Clinton aide said. It bears remembering, he added, that Clinton won a big victory in Pennsylvania in late April 2008, temporarily setting Obama back on his heels.
Still, Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, responded to Clinton’s setback in Michigan by simultaneously congratulating Sanders and saying that the victory would be meaningless in the end.
Sanders would have to win so many contests in such an improbably “lopsided” fashion from here on out now that the die is cast, Mook told reporters the morning after Clinton’s loss in Michigan. While Clinton is strategically racking up the delegates who ultimately determine the winner, Sanders is focused on winning a few selected states, Mook said.
That argument is even stronger this week, when Clinton appears poised to register a sweep of all five states contested Tuesday.
“You have to set a 50-state strategy,” said Robert Wolf, a former chairman of UBS who was an economic adviser for Obama in 2008 and now advises Clinton. “I think that whether you like it or not, you can’t change what your vision is for each and every state.
“For the president’s campaign in 2008 and now the secretary, when you’re running a 50-state primary, it is the way you have the best opportunity to win and then run in the general. You have to look at the issues that have the largest themes and have the largest impact.”
Privately, Clinton backers concede that “the math is on my side” is not a very compelling message when compared with Sanders’s call to the ramparts for economic justice.
But they’ll take it, and many are not surprised to find themselves here.
“Nothing is ever easy with the Clintons,” said one senior Democrat with long ties to Clinton and her husband who spoke on a similar condition of anonymity. “She’s going to grind it out. It’s like crawling through glass with them. She’ll get to the promised land, but it’s going to be a slog.”