Why a Sanders Upset in the Midwest Tonight Would Matter

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Bernie Sanders Campaigns In Florida
Berns so good.Photo: Joe Burbank/TNS

Since his big upset in Michigan last week, Bernie Sanders has gained enormous ground in Tuesday night’s three Midwest primaries. How much ground, you ask? In Illinois, Sanders went from trailing Hillary Clinton by 42 points in a poll last week, to leading the former secretary of State by two points in one released Sunday. Similarly, the democratic socialist has cut what was once a 30-point Clinton lead in Ohio to a deficit of single digits. And in Missouri, the latest PPP poll, released Monday, shows Sanders one point ahead of the Democratic front-runner.

Still, even if Sanders ekes out victories in all of those states tonight, he will probably fall even further behind Clinton in the race for the nomination. On the Democratic side, delegate allocation is entirely proportional and Sanders still trails Clinton by wide margins in tonight’s races in Florida and North Carolina. Narrow upsets aren’t going to put Sanders in the White House — because of his landslide losses virtually everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, the Vermont senator will need a series of improbable blowouts to thwart Clinton’s coronation. All that considered, does it really matter who wins the Rust Belt Tuesday night?

Like every other political journalist looking to milk this horse race for everything it’s worth, I am inclined to say yes. But self-interested inclinations aside, any Sanders win would be significant because it would give him extra momentum going into a three-week stretch of the primary calendar that looks especially favorable for him. According to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, Sanders is likely to win seven of the eight nominating contests between March 16 and April 9. In six of those elections, Nate Silver’s site puts the probability of a Sanders victory above 75 percent. Now, such projections should be taken with a tablespoon of a salt — FiveThirtyEight put the probability of a Clinton victory in Michigan at 99 percent the night before Sanders’s victory. And these projections may be even less reliable, as they’re based entirely on the demographic patterns of support established in earlier contests, as opposed to a combination of demographic analysis and recent polling.

If Sanders scores some upsets in the Midwest tonight, there’s good reason to think his demographic advantages will hold up. In the 24 hours after Michigan, the Sanders campaign raked in $5 million. Any victory tonight would probably produce a similar cash infusion.

By the time the map becomes favorable to Clinton again, on April 19 in New York, Sanders could have about as much “momentum” as any insurgent could hope for.

To be sure, even if Sanders runs the table over the coming three weeks — the calendar after today includes a lot of largely white, Western states like Utah and Washington — he’ll have a hard time winning large-enough margins in populous-enough states to catch Clinton. But to the extent that the senator’s candidacy is about shifting America’s political conversation leftward, the more delegates he amasses, the stronger the mandate he and his supporters will have to push the Democratic Party in the direction of social democracy.