LOS ANGELES — Eight years to the day after she conceded the hard-fought Democratic primary to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton has achieved her long-awaited goal of becoming the first female presidential nominee of a major party.
But the primary season isn’t over yet — voters are going to the polls in six states Tuesday for the final Super Tuesday contest. And Clinton’s historic moment is clouded by uncertainty about what rival Bernie Sanders might do next.
Would he remain defiant through the Washington, D.C. contest next week and carry on to Philadelphia? Or would he cave to the mounting pressure from Democratic leaders for him to bow out of the race?
Democratic strategist Bill Burton predicted that the forces of political gravity would begin to take effect. Even if Sanders doesn’t immediately drop out, he said, “there is going to be a coalescing of support around Hillary.”
“You’ll see a large chunk of his supporters start moving away from him, just because people get that the stakes are high here,” said Burton, who was Obama’s national press secretary during his 2008 campaign. “We’re moving toward a general election where if we don’t start coalescing — we’re losing days to take this fight to Donald Trump.”
“I don’t think there’s going to be a point where Hillary Clinton just puts this thing away, I think it’s going to be a dogfight,” Burton said. “And if we’re losing days because we’re catering to parochial concerns about process than the actual fate of our country is in the hands of that process.”
Campaigned with gusto
The Sanders team rejects that argument however, and the Vermont senator has campaigned with gusto in the final days of his campaign in California, insisting that he will take his fight to a contested convention in Philadelphia. When news broke Monday that President Barack Obama planned to endorse Clinton in the coming days, Sanders refused to tell reporters what the President had said to him during a recent private conversation.
Supporters were outraged by the media’s decision to call the race for Clinton on Monday. The Sanders campaign dismissed the naming of Clinton as the nominee as a “rush to judgment” that ignored the Democratic National Committee’s suggestion that news networks should not count the votes of superdelegates until the convention.
As they cling to the hope of a contested convention, Sanders and his allies have vociferously argued that the media should not include superdelegates in their tallies. Those party insiders will not technically vote until July and could change their minds before then, switching their allegiance from Clinton to Sanders (as many switched from Clinton to Obama eight years ago).
Sanders allies like Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley said the Vermont senator could not focus on party unity until all the ballots had been cast.
“Bernie has three choices: He can be a party leader in the Senate, in the nation; he can be a statesman and unite behind Hillary Clinton or he can be a spoiler and I think he will choose the first two options,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on CNN’s “New Day” Tuesday.
But Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Sanders supporter, said the Vermont senator could not focus on party unity until all the ballots had been cast.
“To come together, people have to feel they have been respected and they have been heard and that issues they care a lot about are being taken into account by the party,” Merkley said on “New Day.” “So that is where both sides need to reach out to each other.”
One huge challenge for Sanders is that when all the votes are tallied tonight in California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota and North Dakota, Clinton is still expected to have a majority of pledged delegates — who are assigned on the basis of each candidate’s vote share.
That outcome will erode Sanders’ argument that he is the strongest candidate to take on Donald Trump.
In an interview in Los Angeles on Tuesday morning, Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said when it comes to swaying superdelegates “the case is obviously much stronger if we win California,” because of its size and diversity. But he said a loss would not force Sanders from the race.
Weaver noted however that a California win would help the Sanders campaign rebut the Clinton campaign’s argument that he has struggled to win in large diverse states. Another key piece of case to superdelegates is that Sanders’ campaign has grown in strength over time and he has a far stronger appeal to independent voters.
“Whoever the nominee is they will be able to bring the Democratic core base together, the question is who can go beyond the base in a general election,” Weaver said. He added that Clinton’s delegate lead “is largely attributable to the first half of the contests.” “As people have become familiar with (Sanders) and gotten to know him, they have moved to him. Winning in California would obviously be a demonstration of that.”
Facing the growing pressure to bow out, Sanders sounded more tentative about his plans Monday in a news conference than he had been over the weekend. Asked at what point he becomes a spoiler in the race. The Vermont senator hedged, stating he would assess his next moves based on how well he does on Tuesday night.
“If I win tomorrow in California, and if we do very well, and I don’t know that we will, we may, if we do well in other states, if there are superdelegates out there who say, you know what? Looking at the objective evidence of polling, looking at the objective evidence of who has the strongest grassroots campaign and can bring out the larger voter turnout, which I think is crucial for November, if some of those superdelegates begin to think it is Bernie Sanders, I think that that is not an insignificant fact,” he told reporters.
Asked about his chances of winning California as he left a San Francisco breakfast spot on Tuesday, Sanders was terse: “I think we’ve got a shot,” he told reporters.
While Sanders is right that many superdelegates agreed to back Clinton long before they knew how competitive the primary would be, there is no indication of a stampede in his direction.
It is also worth nothing that the candidate and his campaign have also been so focused on winning the final Super Tuesday states that they have not turned their full attention to flipping superdelegates. A surrogate team has taken the lead on that front, but that will change after Tuesday, Sanders advisors said.
“The senator will become personally engaged once we get out of California,” Weaver said. “He’s really going to become engaged more next week and the week after.”
All of the nomination metrics are currently are pointing in Clinton’s favor. She has won 9 of the last 13 Democratic primaries — and is running strong in states like New Jersey and California, which Sanders hoped would be a lynchpin in his case for carrying on.
The flood of endorsements for Clinton continued Tuesday, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi formally backed Clinton during an interview with ABC.
“I’m a voter in California and I have voted for Hillary Clinton for President of the United States, and I’m proud to endorse her for that position. But I hasten to say that it’s not over until it’s over,” Pelosi said.
The overriding concern for both the Clinton and the Sanders campaign on Tuesday was that the early call by the Associated Press would depress turnout in Tuesday’s contests, particularly in California and New Jersey.
From Clinton’s perspective if voters stay home, Sanders could well win California — which has been within the margin of error — and that could give him a fresh burst of momentum to press ahead to a contested convention.
Looking to avoid that outcome, Clinton essentially waved off the news Monday night that the AP was calling the race for her (even though her campaign sent a fundraising email after the news was announced).
“According to the news we are on the brink of a historic, historic, unprecedented moment, but we still have work to do, don’t we?” Clinton said to her supporters Monday night in Long Beach. “We have six elections tomorrow and we are going to fight hard for every single vote, especially right here in California.”
Sanders made no mention of the AP’s call during his final rally in San Francisco where he spoke with the Golden Gate Bridge as his backdrop.
“If there is a large voter turnout, if working people and young people come out in big numbers and demand change, we are going to win big tomorrow,” Sanders said Monday night.
At the same time, he sounded a touch more subdued than he has been in recent days, taking a moment to reflect on the movement that he has led for nearly a year.
“We need to transform America. This campaign has been to me an extraordinary experience and I’ll tell you why. Been all over, met in meetings like this with millions of Americans. I look out in this country and see so many people who know we can be so much more gives me enormous optimism about our future.”