After a Tough March 15, Is Bernie Sanders Past the Moment Where He’s Running to Win?

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Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Holds Ohio Campaign Rally
Still in the game?Photo: Ty Wright/© 2016 Bloomberg Finance LP

Bernie Sanders’s path to a successful March 15 was to build off his Michigan surprise by winning three midwestern primaries where Hillary Clinton was earlier the favorite, and then do well enough in Florida and North Carolina to avoid a net loss of delegates. He didn’t manage to win any of them. 

He kept it very close in Illinois and Missouri, and was beaten soundly in Ohio (a state a lot of us thought Sanders might win). But the worst of it was the landslide Clinton won in the largest state voting today, Florida, which along with a solid win in North Carolina guaranteed her a meaningful delegate win on the night — a net gain in the range of 100 delegates. Yes, there are some tasty white-liberal-dominated caucus states on the immediate horizon where the Bern is felt very strongly. But odds are it will take several wins to make up for the damage the Sanders cause experienced on the Ides of March. And keep in mind that in a proportional system like the one Democrats are using, every net loss of delegates ratchets up the percentage of the popular vote the trailing candidate needs.

Looking at the exit polling from the midwestern states, Illinois looks a lot like Michigan did last week, with a few small variations — slightly lower under-30 voting, slightly lower independent participation — that allowed Clinton to squeak through to victory. (Even if she had lost, her supporters could plausibly claim her problems there derive from embattled Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose name was not on any ballot but has always been closely associated with the Clintons). Missouri’s exit polls aren’t terribly surprising, either, though Sanders did win a relatively strong 38 percent of nonwhite votes.  Bernie won his usual 80 percent among under-30s, who represented a decent-sized 16 percent of the primary electorate, and then won 70 percent of independents, who were a full quarter of the vote. All in all, not enough though.

Ohio, though, was another matter.  Clinton managed to win the white vote even as she posted the standard 68/30 margin among African-Americans that is clearly her expectation outside the South.  She even very nearly won non-college-educated whites, and self-identified liberals — both groups that have been going hard for Sanders. Her huge 63/36 win among Democrats far offset Bernie’s 67/31 margin among indies. Combine that with the 70/28 margin among Democrats she won in Florida, and you can see she might run up the score in the closed primaries coming up later on the calendar.

So Bernie Sanders may step up the pace in the days just ahead.  But in many respects he’s on a treadmill.

This post has been updated throughout.