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Bernie’s Comeback Calendar

Sanders is favored to beat Hillary Clinton in seven of the next eight states, which means the media narrative is about to shift in his favor.

Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders had a bad night on Super Tuesday II. He was unable to repeat his Michigan upset in the similar Rust Belt state of Ohio. Hillary Clinton won by 13 points in the Buckeye State, by 14 in North Carolina, and she blew him out in Florida by over 30 points, continuing her dominance in the South; she even eked out wins in Illinois and Missouri. According to this careful count, Clinton leads by 317 pledged delegates. Because every Democratic primary awards delegates proportionally, making it hard to run up the score without a series of blowouts, Sanders’s path to overtake Clinton looks prohibitive.

But there’s one “comeback kid” narrative left in Bernie Sanders. It will have nothing to do with re-jiggering his message, which seems immutable anyway. It’s merely a function of the primary calendar.

Sanders held his primary night speech in Phoenix, Arizona, probably because that’s the only state he might lose between now and the New York primary on April 19. Indeed, because of a quirk in the calendar, Sanders is favored to win seven of the next eight states, according to Nate Silver’s primary model, which plugs in demographic data to estimate the state-level Sanders/Clinton vote.

The states are mostly homogenous, and clustered in the West, where Sanders has done well. Six of the nine are caucuses, another Sanders strength. For example, Arizona votes next week, along with Idaho and Utah. Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington state go to the polls on March 26, a prelude to an April 5 showdown in Wisconsin, another Rust Belt state that has a fairly liberal history in primary elections. Then Wyoming votes on April 9.

Because most of these states are small, even resounding Sanders victories won’t deliver the number of delegates needed to meaningfully close the gap. But they will give the traditional media an opportunity to herald a “fundamental change” in the Democratic primary, even though that change will be largely geographic. You will surely hear pundits talking about how Clinton “can’t close the deal,” and hours of theater criticism about her stump speeches, when the truth is that we’re just hitting an air pocket of pro-Sanders states. The delegate math will remain relatively unforgiving. 

Still, Clinton’s campaign will have a hard time saying that the primary is effectively over and that Sanders should pack it in—because eight years ago, she was in Sanders’s position.

Barack Obama ran the table in several states after 2008’s version of Super Tuesday, building up a delegate lead that was similarly imposing (though not quite as big as Clinton’s). Clinton struck back in Ohio and Texas in early March, but there was a six-week lull until the final handful of states, and the delegate math didn’t add up for Clinton. After all, John McCain had already wrapped up the nomination on the other side, unlike the unsettled GOP race this year. Many said it was incumbent upon Clinton to let Obama get on with the general election, and that to stay in would harm the party.

Clinton did not leave the race, winning seven of the last ten primary contests despite having no real shot at reversing the delegate count. And the idea that it crippled Obama for the general election was completely unfounded. In fact, organizing in all 50 states bore fruit in November. New voters brought into late primaries in North Carolina and Indiana led to general election victories for Democrats in those states for the first time in decades.

Clinton stayed in the race in 2008 because she owed it to her supporters to play things out. You could say the same for Sanders. As Martin Longman points out, if he can control 40 percent of the total delegates at the convention, he can have substantial influence over the writing of the party platform, the rules committee governing future primaries, even potentially the selection of a vice president. That power is significant for someone who wants to spark a political revolution; it’s the way you begin to take over, or at least refashion, a party. 

Moreover, the way the Sanders campaign is organizing in the primaries, making millions of calls and exponentially expanding capacity for field campaigns, could offer lessons to Democrats down the ballot. Sanders supporters helped Kim Foxx to victory in the Cook County State’s Attorney race, a progressive triumph that could be replicated nationwide.

The biggest implication for Bernie’s Comeback Calendar is the perceived momentum shift driven by a media that always prefers a horse race over a gallop to victory. Will that somehow alter the fundamentals of the race heading into a spate of Northeast primaries on April 19 (New York) and 26 (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island)? That’s unclear. But it will be the constant chatter for about a month, delegate math notwithstanding.