NEW YORK — Bernie Sanders took the fight to Hillary Clinton Thursday night in Brooklyn, questioning her judgment, and even putting her on the defensive at times on contentious issues that have recently dominated the debate in New York, like fracking and raising the minimum wage.
But he needed a knockout punch ahead of Tuesday’s critical Democratic primary and there were few signs the Navy Yard shout-fest Thursday night shook up what is a static race here, or expanded his appeal beyond his loyal and fired-up base.
In other states where Sanders has been successful, he managed to gradually cut down Clinton’s wide margins in the polls in the weeks leading up to the nominating contests, often turning her comfy double-digit leads into narrow nail-biters. But in New York, despite Sanders’ ability to draw tens of thousands of young supporters to his outdoor rallies, Clinton has held a consistent double-digit lead in her adopted home state — and a new Marist poll out Friday morning showed Clinton widening her lead here to 17 points.
Clinton allies attribute Sanders’ inability to move the dial here so far — even after a string of momentum-building primary and caucus victories — to a confluence of factors including the Clintons’ deep ties to their adopted home state; her strong backing from progressive leaders here; a closed primary system that does not allow independents to vote; and Sanders’ consistent inability to break through with communities of color. The Vermont senator’s own missteps, and his miscalculation of the power of the New York media, only compounded his predicament.
One asset has been Bill Clinton, whose sky-high favorability ratings across the state, relentless campaigning for congressional candidates in off-year elections and continued involvement in local politics made him a powerful surrogate. In the days leading up to the primary, the former president has worked harder here than anywhere else, huddling privately with labor leaders and ministers and sometimes packing his schedule with up to five public events a day across different boroughs.
But perhaps more than anything, Sanders’ attack strategy appeared ill-fitted for the New York electorate. Fighting from behind, Sanders ramped up his attacks, claiming that Hillary Clinton was not “qualified” to occupy the Oval Office, a message that failed to resonate with voters who twice elected Clinton to the Senate. On Thursday night, Clinton used that history as her defense. “The people of New York voted for me twice to be their senator from New York, and President Obama trusted my judgment enough to ask me to be secretary of state for the United States,” she said.
Sanders’ missteps in a sit-down with the New York Daily News editorial board also proved costly — the transcript of his meeting with the hometown newspaper showed him unable to explain in detail the core principles of his plan to break up the big banks. The tabloid also took him to task for basic New York gaffes that reminded voters how long it’s been since the Brooklyn-born pol enjoyed real ties to the city — Sanders guessed New Yorkers still use a token to board the subway, an outdated payment system phased out 13 years ago.
Clinton officials express confidence they’ll win on Tuesday, an outcome that could allow the Democratic front-runner to return to the general election pivot she was hoping to perform last month. “Under the spotlight and tough questions, he doesn’t seem to be holding up well,” said Clinton’s chief strategist Joel Benenson, suggesting Sanders has cracked under the pressure of New York’s pivotal primary.
Sanders didn’t help his cause in New York by dismissing Clinton’s Southern victories— wins largely powered by her landslide margins among African-American voters. His vulnerability on the issue of gun control — Clinton hammered him on it in the weeks leading up to the primary and in Thursday’s debate — also appears to have hurt his efforts to win over black voters in New York.
In large swathes of the city, like the congressional district that encompasses Harlem, Sanders has struggled to make inroads in communities with long ties to the Clintons. “He’s big, bad and bold on dealing with the big banks and climate change, but he’s meek and mellow as it relates to dealing with the gun violence that’s plaguing many of the communities that I represent,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Clinton supporter, who represents Brooklyn. “He’s going to continue to inspire those that he inspires, but that’s not enough to win a diverse state like New York. He hasn’t been able to connect with voters of color in either the black or Latino community in a way that would really shrink Secretary Clinton’s lead.”
According to Friday’s Marist poll, Clinton leads Sanders among nonwhite voters by 58 percent to 39 percent.
Sanders allies contended that his strong position on raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour — and Clinton’s struggle on the debate stage to concisely explain her complicated reasoning for where and by how much the minimum wage should be raised — was an issue that will buy him support with minorities.
“He is starting to break through in the African-American community,” insisted former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a prominent Sanders surrogate. Explaining Sanders’ dismissiveness of Clinton’s victories in the Deep South, she said: “African-Americans in general are more conservative… but the fact of the matters is the Clintons have a long-term perceived relationship. This was about brand loyalty.”
Recognizing that the clock is ticking on his efforts to make up ground, Sanders doubled down on his attack strategy here, releasing an ad Friday morning that implicitly criticized Clinton for taking money from Wall Street banks as campaign contributions and speaking fees.
But at the moment he’s not even present in the state — Sanders left for a 48-hour trip to the Vatican immediately after the debate Thursday night. And that last-minute journey to Rome — seen by some as a high-stakes, long-distance gamble to appeal to social justice progressives and Catholic voters in New York — was muddled by confusion over whether the senator was invited by the Vatican, or if he sought out the invitation for political gain. He also failed to meet with the Pope Friday while addressing issues of economic injustice at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
Clinton operatives said they still expect fierce challenges in progressive bastions on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, as well as in places like the Hudson Valley, where there are hard-core anti-fracking activist who helped boost the little-known progressive law professor Zephyr Teachout to a serious challenge against Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a 2014 Democratic primary race.
“The metropolitan areas of upstate will be strong,” said Clinton donor Jay Jacobs, who has been helping organize the state’s 27 congressional districts. “We’ll get out a lot of the vote, we’ll do very well in Syracuse, but there are pockets of folks who are more progressive, the anti-fracking folks in the Southern Tier and in Ithaca, who have been working very hard.”
But that may not be enough.
“It’s not clear he’s been able to catch fire in suburban Long Island or suburban Westchester,” said Jeffries. “There are areas where Zepyhr Teachout won when she ran against Andrew Cuomo — but she only got 33 percent of the vote. That’s the floor. The question is whether there ultimately be enough votes above and beyond what Zephyr Teachout did for him to do any real damage to Hillary Clinton and the answer is in all likelihood, no.”
If Sanders fails to win a major upset on Tuesday or to keep it close, he’s likely to face increasing questions about his rationale to stay in the race, given the delegate deficit he’ll be confronting. His argument will be almost completely reliant on his ability to flip superdelegates to his side — he can point to victories in seven of the last eight states, coupled with his ability to turnout rock-star-sized rallies across the country as evidence that voters don’t want Clinton. But some superdelegates who have received pressure from Sanders supporters to flip told POLITICO the argument is unconvincing given that she has racked up 2.3 million more votes than Sanders.
It was a point Clinton was eager to bring up in the debate. “I have gotten more votes than anybody running, 9.6 million at the last count,” she said. “That is 2.3 million more than Senator Sanders. And it is 1.4 million more than Donald Trump.”
In the end, the Clinton campaign’s closing argument to New Yorkers is the same one she’s been making since crisscrossing the icy plains of Iowa — there’s spicy rhetoric, and there’s an ability to get things done.
“He’s running a hard campaign; he brings passion to the race,” Benenson said Thursday night. “You gotta bring some real answers for people. New York is a testing ground, you just can’t come here and deliver a stump speech and that’s it.”
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