A Tough Road Ahead for Bernie Sanders

The Democratic presidential contender promises to keep fighting, but a drawn-out primary battle isn’t without risk.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

After the dust settled on the results of Super Tuesday, the bad news was everywhere. “Sanders Campaign Will Travel On, but Path to Victory Is All but Blocked,” The New York Times declared, offering a grim assessment of the odds facing the insurgent presidential candidate. “After Super Tuesday Losses, Bernie Sanders Is in a Whole Lot of Trouble,” Mother Jones lamented.

A sense of inevitability returned to Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in the wake of her victory in seven states across the country in Super Tuesday match-ups. Sanders won just four states. Clinton holds a commanding lead in the race for delegates, and her campaign suggests that lead may soon become insurmountable. The Vermont senator faces an increasingly steep climb in his effort to win the Democratic nomination, but he has nevertheless vowed to fight on. As he does, the campaign confronts the possibility of risk and reward. The challenge will be to show that Sanders can maintain a critical mass of momentum, while evading missteps that could hurt his standing and the Democratic Party.

There are certainly reasons for Sanders to fight for the nomination as long as possible. An unforeseen development could always re-shape the race, and increase his odds. Plus, the longer Sanders stays in the race, the more time the campaign has to introduce him to voters who might throw their support behind the candidate and his ideals. Sanders frequently talks about starting a political revolution powered by a groundswell of populist discontent. But while he has assembled a devoted following, Sanders still lacks Clinton’s national name recognition. Additional time in the race could expand his reach. That would help Sanders elevate his progressive agenda. If increased visibility translates into an uptick in popular support, Sanders will gain leverage that he could use to convince elected officials to follow his lead—leverage he could wield from the campaign trail or from Capitol Hill.

For now, Team Sanders is projecting a sunny outlook. “This is a campaign to win,” campaign manager Jeff Weaver told reporters at a Wednesday press conference convened to discuss the results of Super Tuesday. To hear the campaign tell it, the senator’s Super Tuesday victories in states across the country—Colorado, Oklahoma, Vermont, Minnesota—prove broad appeal. The campaign argues that Sanders would be a formidable challenger to a Republican candidate in a general election, and that minority voters will side with Sanders as they learn more about him. Clinton is not inevitable, Sanders’s senior strategist Tad Devine stressed on Wednesday. “If Hillary Clinton does not consistently win in the weeks and months ahead, in big states and in small, questions will arise around her candidacy,” he warned.

Still, there are plenty of risks to a protracted primary battle. The mark Sanders leaves on presidential politics could hinge on how strong a fight he ultimately puts up, and the way he chooses to take on Clinton in the weeks to come. Over the course of his presidential bid, Sanders has risen from relative obscurity to the status of a national progressive icon. He has shown that it is possible to raise vast sums of money while rejecting super PACs, the much-reviled political-spending operations capable of taking in unlimited corporate donations. He has demonstrated that praising Democratic socialism isn’t automatically disqualifying in a presidential race. But his ability to set precedent and shape the way future insurgent progressive campaigns are run could come down to popular perception over how seriously he challenged Clinton for the nomination. If Sanders drops out after a crushing defeat, it would be easier for next-in-line presidential candidates to write him off as a not-so-serious challenger and unworthy of emulation.

Sanders certainly has the financial resources to stay in the race. The campaign’s remarkable ability to bring in small-dollar donations has been held up, by the campaign and political observers, as a measure of its success. Sanders’s fans continued to donate in droves even after he suffered defeat in the South Carolina primary and the Nevada caucuses. Supporters could be even more motivated to give if they believe Sanders is under attack. But donations are typically easier to extract when people think their money will make a difference. If the race appears to heavily favor Clinton as the primary drags on, Sanders’s small-dollar cash could start to dry up. That would not only hurt the campaign financially, but would also make Sanders look like a far less viable candidate. Party elites and elected officials might be more inclined to dismiss him as a result.

The way Sanders chooses to campaign in the coming weeks could also be an important determinant of how his impact on the race is ultimately judged. Last month, Sanders started to articulate a more forceful critique of Clinton, effectively painting her as a politician who can’t be trusted and promising he would continue to “contrast my record to Secretary Clinton’s” as the race progressed. It’s common for politicians to spell out what they believe are differences with their opponents. For Sanders, the strategy could fire up supporters. But Clinton allies have worked to paint allegations that she is untrustworthy as part of a partisan hatchet job. If Sanders appears to give voice to the same kind of criticism that Clinton’s GOP opponents have lobbed at her, that could hand an advantage to the Republican challenger if Clinton prevails and Sanders does not.

Speaking to supporters after securing a victory in the Vermont primary, Sanders emphasized that winning isn’t everything. “This campaign is not just about electing a president,” Sanders called out, to cheers and applause. “It is about making a political revolution.” Sanders must now try to avoid missteps that might threaten to derail that revolution. The campaign appears to recognize the importance of deciding how the race will be run as the primary drags on. “We understand that we have a long road ahead of us that we’re going to have to take if we want to win the nomination of the Democratic Party,” Devine said Wednesday. “In order to win that nomination, we’re going to have to make very deliberate and strategic choices.” The question now is: What comes next?