An Awkward Reality in the Democratic Primary

Washington voters handed Hillary Clinton a primary win, symbolically reversing the result of the state caucus where Bernie Sanders prevailed.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Washington voters delivered a bit of bad news for Bernie Sanders’s political revolution on Tuesday. Hillary Clinton won the state’s Democratic primary, symbolically reversing the outcome of the state’s Democratic caucus in March where Sanders prevailed as the victor. The primary result won’t count for much since delegates have already been awarded based on the caucus. (Sanders won 74 delegates, while Clinton won only 27.) But Clinton’s victory nevertheless puts Sanders in an awkward position.

Sanders has styled himself as a populist candidate intent on giving a voice to voters in a political system in which, as he describes it, party elites and wealthy special-interest groups exert too much control. As the primary election nears its end, Sanders has railed against Democratic leaders for unfairly intervening in the process, a claim he made in the aftermath of the contentious Nevada Democratic convention earlier this month. He has also criticized superdelegates—elected officials and party leaders who can support whichever candidate they chose—for effectively coronating Clinton.

As Sanders makes those arguments, he runs up against a few inconvenient realities. He trails Clinton in the popular-vote count and has performed well in caucuses, which consistently witness depressed voter turnout relative to primary elections. What happened in Washington is a painful reminder of this for the campaign: Far more voters took part in Washington’s Democratic primary than its state caucus, preliminary counts indicate. Roughly 230,000 people participated in the Democratic caucus, The Stranger reported in March. In contrast, more than 660,000 Democratic votes had been tallied in the primary as of Tuesday, according to The Seattle Times. That lopsided reality makes it more difficult for Sanders to argue that his candidacy represents the will of the people.

Overall, Sanders has tended to focus his criticisms of the Democratic primary process on aspects of the nomination race that have put his own campaign at a disadvantage. Examples include his critiques of the superdelegates system and closed primaries, which shut out the Independent voters whose support has benefited Sanders. “Three million people in the state of New York who are Independents have lost their right to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary. That’s wrong,” he said in April.

The campaign has not had the same zeal for reforming other elements of the process that might also be described as undemocratic. That would include the caucus system, where it is generally more difficult for people to vote than primaries. That’s not entirely surprising, of course. Caucuses reward highly motivated and ideologically devoted voters, a dynamic which has tended to favor Sanders. The campaign’s critiques aren’t illegitimate because they’re uneven, nor are they necessarily insincere. They just show that Sanders is a politician, and he wants to win.