When Will Sanders Start to Help His Party Heal?

Clinton has built dominant leads in delegates and the popular vote, but the tenacious Vermont senator is blocking her effort to consolidate support.

Seth Wenig / AP

Democrats are facing the springtime of their discontent, and maybe the summer too.

The recent flurry of national polls showing an unexpectedly close general election race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has punctured the Democratic hope that the Republican’s historically high unfavorable ratings would render him uncompetitive. Instead, the polls underscored that Clinton’s own public image is comparably battered after her surprisingly difficult primary race against Bernie Sanders. While the polls show Trump rapidly gaining among Republican voters (if not GOP leaders), Clinton’s general-election position looks to be deteriorating within the key Democratic constituencies that are still drawn to Sanders, particularly among liberals and young people.

Trump still faces deep structural challenges in appealing to a diversifying America. But Clinton’s ability to exploit that vulnerability is, for now, constrained by her own weakness. Democratic strategists almost universally believe Clinton can’t repair that damage until she concludes the nomination fight and starts to consolidate Sanders and his movement behind her. The deepest source of anxiety for Democrats is that none are sure exactly when that will be. Hence, the season of discontent.

Counting both pledged and super delegates, NBC News calculates that Clinton is now within 100 of the total she needs to secure the nomination. Yet Sanders has offered no hint of when he might concede and lock arms with her—after the final major primaries on June 7, before the Democratic convention in July, or perhaps not at all. The nightmare precedent for Clinton strategists is a replay of the 1980 convention, which was dominated by Jimmy Carter’s largely unrequited pursuit of reconciliation with his own liberal challenger, Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Since Clinton’s lopsided victory in the April New York primary effectively ended Sanders’s chance of winning, his tone has oscillated. Initially, Sanders appeared to accept the inevitable, blunting his attacks on her. But his series of May wins sparked a shift back toward confrontation that peaked with the extraordinarily belligerent statement his campaign released after his supporters disrupted a Nevada state convention. That statement—which denounced the Democratic Party more than it condemned the violence—set off alarms among Democratic leaders that only grew louder when Sanders and his allies charged that the primaries had been somehow tilted or “rigged” against him. Even if inadvertently, that argument dovetailed with Trump’s efforts to brand Clinton as “Crooked Hillary.”

Sanders has some legitimate complaints. The Democratic National Committee did minimize and obscure the primary debates (though ironically they didn’t provide a decisive advantage to either candidate). On the so-called super delegates, the ledger is more nuanced. The party leaders who, as super-delegates, can vote at the convention, are largely supporting the candidate they consider most able to win and govern, which is precisely how the system was designed to function. But it’s understandable that Sanders is frustrated they have broken toward Clinton far more lopsidedly than the voters themselves.

Yet, although Sanders has proven a remarkably able challenger, he hasn’t been cheated out of the nomination. Clinton has beaten him—and by most measures quite decisively.

Overall, in the best estimates that include both primaries and caucuses, she’s won about 13.2 million votes—about three million more than his 10.2. That means she’s won about 55 percent of the total vote, compared to his 43 percent.

Her popular vote lead is rooted in her dominance of the big states. Nine of the ten largest states have already voted; Clinton has won eight of those nine (losing only Michigan). Nine of the next ten largest states have also voted, and Clinton has won six of those too. That means Clinton has won 14 of the 18 largest states that have participated. By contrast, 12 of the 20 states Sanders has carried rank among the 20 smallest. The principal reason for the contrast is that in virtually all of the big states, the Democratic electorate is diverse, and Clinton has won about three-fourths of all African Americans and about three-fifths of Latinos, according to a cumulative analysis of all exit polls. (Whites have split about evenly between the two.)

Clinton has amassed larger victory margins, too. Sanders has beaten her by at least 100,000 votes only in Wisconsin. Clinton has beaten him by at least that much in 14 states, with margins exceeding 200,000 votes in states including Florida, Texas, Georgia, New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Sanders has galvanized young people, revolutionized small-donor fund-raising, and formulated a visionary (if expensive) agenda that may rally liberals for years. But he’s lost this race to Clinton—in the voting booth, not the backroom.

When Sanders appeared in Santa Monica late Monday afternoon he again looked to be accepting that reality. Against a perfect azure sky, with palm trees swaying behind him in an ocean breeze, Sanders criticized Trump much more than he did Clinton. In his closing words, he placed his campaign in the lineage of previous social-change efforts like the labor and civil-rights movements, implicitly acknowledging that his uprising too might not succeed on the first try. The speech had a softer, almost elegiac, tone than he struck earlier in the campaign. Yet when the sun had set, Sanders was still making the case for his nomination.

The history in both parties is that primary wounds eventually get healed. But with Trump stirring in these early polls, that healing process can’t start too soon to soothe the nerves of anxious Democrats.