Tomorrow, the last Democratic presidential primaries before the June finale will be held in Kentucky and Oregon. There’s very limited polling in either state (which is why FiveThirtyEight is refusing to set odds), but the one available poll in each has Hillary Clinton in the lead. Everything else about the two states tells you she’s not.
Outside of Vermont, the Pacific Northwest has been the area where the Bern has probably reached its most intense levels. Sanders won over 70 percent of the vote in the caucuses in next-door Washington. Oregon’s primary electorate was 85 percent white in 2008. It also has a “good government” and reform tradition that’s friendly to Sanders’s “political revolution”; it is, after all, the place where Gene McCarthy beat Bobby Kennedy (who referred to Oregon as being like “one big suburb”) in 1968. The Sanders campaign has been talking about running up the score there, and path-to-nomination scenarios for Bernie have him winning big in Oregon. As far as I’m concerned, it would be a big upset if Clinton won.
And yet: The one recent poll — and it’s a very recent one (May 6-9) — from a reputable Northwestern pollster (DHM), has Clinton up 48-33. It is a closed primary state, which isn’t good for Bernie. Its most distinctive characteristic is its 100 percent mail-ballot process, which tends to produce high turnout and probably helps campaigns with highly sophisticated field efforts. It also makes polling tricky. DHM shows Clinton running even with Sanders among voters who had not mailed their ballots in as of the polling date, but Clinton holding a comfortable lead among those whose votes are already “banked.” If that’s accurate, her organization may have beaten Bernie’s to the punch. But if Sanders wins, the poll makes it arguably an upset.
The only public poll taken in Kentucky this year was in March, when PPP found a small Clinton lead of 43-38. But this primary is being held in the long shadow of Bernie Sanders’s big win in West Virginia last Tuesday. The two states are by no means identical, but they do share a tradition of dependence on the coal industry — which Hillary Clinton is thought to have disrespected crucially in a recent quote on the impact of green energy technologies — and an unusually large number of relatively conservative Democrats (it’s another closed-primary state where conservadems cannot stray into Republican primaries and caucuses). In the PPP survey, Sanders was beating Clinton badly among self-identified conservative Democrats. If it gets even worse, she probably cannot win.
Why am I dwelling on expectations for these two primaries? Because that’s mostly what is at stake. Neither state is going to do much to Clinton’s pledged delegate margin over Sanders. But if Sanders can pull off two more “upsets” in Oregon and Kentucky, it will continue his primary-caucus “winning streak” and reinforce his argument that his late momentum and general-election poll strength should enable superdelegates to take their thumb off the scales for HRC and instead give Sanders a boost that pledged delegates alone might not give him. If Sanders loses either state, however, this argument could be history, though Team Bernie will in that event complain a lot about closed primaries as though they are inherently illegitimate.