Updated at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on May 3, 2016
Bernie Sanders just got the victory he desperately needed. The Democratic presidential candidate won in the Indiana Democratic primary on Tuesday, which will give him to the momentum he needs to stay in the race and fight on.
The victory does not not fundamentally change the trajectory of the Democratic race, in which Hillary Clinton holds a commanding lead in the all-important delegate count. But it offers some much-needed enthusiasm to the Sanders campaign at a crucial moment. After a string of defeats in Northeastern primary states last month, Sanders attempted to reframe the terms of the race, suggesting that even if he does not win the White House, he might still claim victory if he can leave a progressive stamp on the Democratic party platform.
To achieve even that, Sanders will need to prove that he can maintain widespread support. One of the ways the campaign has measured its success throughout the race is by touting its vast network of small-dollar donors. But in the past week, news surfaced that the campaign’s fundraising had taken a hit. Additional primary defeats risk accelerating that decline. The Indiana victory is an opportunity to reverse that. Donors are far more likely to give money when they believe their money will make a difference, and the campaign will have an easier time making that case after a win. Prevailing in Indiana will also help Sanders ward off pressure from Clinton allies who undoubtedly want him to exit the race so that the Democratic Party can coalesce behind its nominee of choice.
The Clinton campaign attempted to keep the focus on the general election after the Indiana results were tallied. John Podesta, the campaign’s chairman, spoke urgently of the need to defeat Donald Trump. “While Donald Trump seeks to bully and divide Americans, Hillary Clinton will unite us,” he said in a statement, failing to even mention Sanders. In contrast, Sanders trained his focus on his Democratic opponent. “The Clinton campaign thinks this campaign is over. They’re wrong,” Sanders said defiantly in a statement. “Maybe it’s over for the insiders and the party establishment, but the voters in Indiana had a different idea.”
Sanders nevertheless made clear on Tuesday evening was that he and Clinton resoundingly agree that Donald Trump must be defeated. “I know that all over this country there is a fear that Donald Trump will be elected president of the United States,” Sanders said, speaking to a crowd of supporters in Kentucky. “I am here to tell you that won't happen.” Sanders made a pitch that sounded nearly identical to what Clinton has been saying on the campaign trail: Trump will not divide the country, and diversity is one of America’s greatest strengths. “The American people understand that coming together always trumps dividing us up,” Sanders said. “At the end of the day, love always trumps hatred.”
It is nothing new for Sanders to denounce Trump. Still, his message, and the fact that it echoes Clinton’s own, suggests that Democrats already have a strong degree of unity, no matter what hand-wringing they may do over divisions within the party. Even as the Democratic race drags on, and the candidates continue to spar, they share a common goal: Trump cannot be permitted to win.
Yet even as he called on Americans to come together, Sanders signaled he would not go easy on Clinton. In his Tuesday speech, he went after his rival for her ties to Wall Street and reliance on super PACs to bolster her White House bid. He spent a considerable amount of time talking about the significance of the Iraq War. (Sanders voted against authorization for the war. Clinton did not, a vote she later said was a mistake.) His campaign has escalated its condemnation of Clinton in recent days, seizing on a Politico investigation to denounce the former secretary of state’s fundraising methods.
At first glance, it might seem contradictory that Sanders would call for unity while keeping up his drumbeat of criticism against Clinton. A softer tone might boost his odds that he will have a fair hearing at the Democratic convention and influence the party platform.
But Sanders has always been in the race to change politics-as-usual by taking on the problems he sees in American politics. Currying favor does not fit with his political persona. So it makes sense that he would keep up his intense scrutiny of Clinton as long as he stays in the race. That tactic might not do much to improve Democratic Party unity. But Sanders never wanted to strengthen and solidify the party, anyways. He wanted to change it. And tonight, Indiana decided to help him do that.