ESSEX JUNCTION, VT. — Before the results started rolling in Tuesday night, the 4,000 Bernie Sanders supporters packed into the Expo Center here were in a festive mood.
They sang along as pop star Ben Folds performed on stage in what he called “the best opening gig I ever had.” Beer and wine flowed freely. And the night reached an early climax when Sanders took the stage to claim a huge victory in Vermont, one of 11 states holding primaries or caucuses on Super Tuesday.
It was only later that it began to sink in how different things looked elsewhere — and how more difficult things would look for Sanders on Wednesday.
The senator from Vermont walked away with four victories to Hillary Clinton’s seven, and most of hers were more decisive. She finished the evening with a significantly larger lead in the delegate count than when it started.
With Tuesday’s results, Sanders risked reverting to his original role as a message candidate, influencing the conversation with his relentless focus on income inequality but holding little hope of becoming the Democratic nominee for president.
“He can stay in the race as long as he wants to, but at a certain point, he’s got to ask himself what he wants,” said Mo Elleithee, executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. “His path to the nomination becomes as narrow as a tightrope. The question becomes whether he wants to continue to push a message and be there waiting in case the Clinton campaign somehow collapses.”
Besides his home state of Vermont, Sanders prevailed in Oklahoma, Minnesota and Colorado. Clinton won lopsided victories in six Southern states, as well as Massachusetts, one of those Sanders had targeted.
Even before the polls opened, Sanders had vowed to soldier on regardless of how many delegates he claimed. A campaign war chest built on small-dollar contributions will give him ample resources to do so. The question is how seriously voters will take him.
Sanders’s boosters argued that the political elite were too eager to write his obituary.
“We’re going to come out of tonight with a solid number of delegates and still plenty of time,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, a grass-roots group backing Sanders.
In the days leading up to Tuesday’s crucial contests, Sanders had demonstrated that he could still draw a crowd and inspire passion among his core supporters.
Colleen Fullbright was perched in a front-row seat in a basketball arena in Fort Collins, Colo., on Sunday as she waited to see the person she said is the only politician in a long time to truly inspire her.
The 62-year-old substitute teacher acknowledged deep disappointment with Sanders’s dismal showing against Clinton in South Carolina on Saturday, wondering aloud about his campaign’s ability to connect with black voters.
But then Fullbright took a look around at the 6,500 people who had packed the place where the Colorado State Rams play. “It’s events like this that keep up the hope,” she said.
Sanders did not disappoint when he took the stage. The crowd erupted in deafening screams as the rumpled, white-haired septuagenarian pivoted in several directions and offered a broad wave and beaming smile.
“You are a large crowd and a raucous crowd,” he screamed into the microphone before launching into a stump speech that would keep the rapt attention of his supporters for close to an hour.
Sanders targeted five of the 11 Super Tuesday states, including Vermont, where his election-night gathering was held just outside Burlington, where he was mayor in the 1980s.
In most of the states that Clinton won, she did so with commanding margins. Most were in the South, and most have sizable African American populations.
Despite considerable efforts at outreach, and endorsements by an eclectic group of black politicians and entertainers, Sanders has not been able to make much headway with African Americans. His audiences at campaign rallies remain disproportionately white.
Sanders and his advisers insist that the calendar now becomes more favorable to his campaign, once most of the Southern states are behind them and several more delegate-rich targets arise, including Michigan and other states battered by trade.
Ben Cohen, a founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and a fellow Vermonter, made no predictions about where Sanders’s campaign is headed but said his motivation from the outset has been airing the issues.
“Some of these politicians specialize in glad-handing and kissing babies,” Cohen said. “That’s not what he’s in this for.”
In his speech here Tuesday night, Sanders vowed to stay in the race until voters in all 50 states have had their say.
The fervor for Sanders was evident among his supporters here.
Margali Hanson, 28, said that at first she thought she should vote for Clinton because she’s a woman.
“But then when Bernie ran, I realized that there could be actual good people running for president, people who weren’t just running for themselves but running for us,” Hanson said. “If she’s the nominee, I’m moving to Canada. I would move to Puerto Rico, but it’s almost a state.”
Ben Terris contributed to this report.