Badly trailing Hillary Clinton in delegates and the popular vote despite his eight-of-nine winning streak, Bernie Sanders needs a dramatic moment in New York on Tuesday night to shake up the Democratic nomination contest before it’s simply too late.
An emphatic win by Clinton, on the other hand, could finally put to rest lingering doubts about her struggles to stamp out the Vermont independent — and allow her to finally pivot in earnest to the general election as the slugfest continues on the Republican side.
Polls close at 9 p.m., and a wave of results is expected shortly after. A huge haul of 291 delegates is up for grabs, though the state’s complex, proportional allocation scheme makes a big swing in the totals for either candidate unlikely.
As voters cast their ballots on Tuesday, polling pointed to a sizable win for Clinton — the main question Democratic insiders were debating heading into Tuesday was whether she would prevail by single or double digits. Sanders played the expectations game from all angles, breathlessly telling supporters in an email over the weekend that a win would be “the most shocking upset in modern political history” and arguing that polls have repeatedly underestimated his strength, before seeming to acknowledge a likely defeat.
“What does it mean if I lose?” Sanders told CBS’ Charlie Rose on Monday. “It means that I lose.”
Speaking to supporters on Penn State University’s campus hours before polls closed across the border, Sanders predicted, “We’re going to do just fine tonight in New York.”
Clinton, a seasoned veteran in New York politics and elections after eight years as its senator and multiple statewide wins, campaigned with gusto, knowing a loss on her home turf would be a huge embarrassment. As she focused her efforts largely on New York City, making the rounds on niche media to compensate for Sanders’ $2 million spending advantage on the airwaves, Bill Clinton barnstormed upstate New York with as many as four events a day.
Clinton told a hip-hop radio show Monday that she carries hot sauce with her everywhere she goes, and she sipped on bubble tea at Kung Fu Tea in Queens.
“I am hoping to do really well tomorrow,” Clinton told supporters at one campaign stop Monday. “I am hoping to wrap up the Democratic nomination. But! But. But I’m not taking anything for granted. I gotta quickly add that before anybody has the wrong impression.”
The tailored approach appeared to be paying off: The RealClearPolitics polling average for the New York Democratic primary had Clinton ahead of Sanders by 12 points.
Sanders was just as aware of the stakes. New York has long leaped out on the primary calendar as a crucial opportunity for Sanders to have any semblance of a case that his late winning streak makes him the stronger general election candidate. Overtaking Clinton is all but impossible — he trails by 244 pledged delegates, or nearly 700 counting superdelegates — but an upset in the state would give the Vermont lawmaker a potent talking point that the momentum and enthusiasm heading into the home stretch of nomination season is decidedly on his side.
Fresh off a big streak in recent contests, most notably Wisconsin two weeks ago, Sanders went after Clinton aggressively in New York. He mocked Clinton’s refusal to release transcripts of her $200,000-plus-a-pop speeches to Wall Street banks and accused her of playing both sides of the fracking debate. A rally he staged in Washington Square Park drew 27,000 people, another glaring reminder of the disconnect between delegate counts and raw enthusiasm for the two candidates.
But missteps hurt his efforts in New York. His suggestion last week that Clinton was unqualified to be commander in chief dogged Sanders for days, and he was eventually forced to clean up, saying it was really Clinton’s judgment he was questioning.
Also working against him was New York’s closed primary system; only registered Democrats can cast ballots in the primary, walling off independents who make up a big chunk of Sanders’ support. Roughly 3 million voters in the state are not registered as Democrats or Republicans, including nearly a half-million registered independents.
“Today, 3 million people in the state of New York who are independents have lost their right to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary,” Sanders complained on Election Day. “That’s wrong.”
His campaign also seized on reports of voters having problems casting ballots on Tuesday.
“We are deeply disturbed by what we’re hearing from polling places across the state,” the Sanders campaign said in a statement. “From long lines and dramatic understaffing to longtime voters being forced to cast affidavit ballots and thousands of registered New Yorkers being dropped from the rolls, what’s happening today is a disgrace.”
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