For Bernie Sanders, it doesn’t get any easier after New York.
The collection of states scheduled to vote next week is a gauntlet of closed primaries and Hillary Clinton strongholds that figure to make for a tough night across the Northeast for the Vermont senator.
Sanders trails by double-digits in polls in Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the three biggest of the five Acela Corridor states that will go to the polls on April 26. In Delaware and Rhode Island, Clinton has the support of the state Democratic establishments. None of the states offer the open primary format where Sanders has thrived. Equally problematic, all of them feature the kind of diverse electorate where Sanders has struggled.
“They’re running out of places to kind of plant the flag,” T.J. Rooney, an unaligned former Pennsylvania Democratic Party chairman, said of the Sanders campaign. “They’ve had relatively little success in states that are constructed like Pennsylvania [with] a closed primary. It tends to be a much harder hill for them to climb but they’ve got to try somewhere.”
In the wake of his bruising New York defeat Tuesday, Sanders’ determination to go forward will be tested by next week’s results. While Sanders insisted Wednesday in an email to supporters that “we still have a path to the nomination,” a five-state Clinton sweep could deal a devastating blow to the expectations of his backers.
In all five of the April 26 primaries, party leaders are aligned with Clinton: Four of the five states have Democratic governors, and each has endorsed the former secretary of state. By comparison, there are no top elected Democratic officials in those states who are backing the Vermont senator.
“She’s a fighter and people respect that. She’s not laying out there these pie-in-the-sky ideas,” Delaware Gov. Jack Markell told POLITICO, alluding to a common Clinton criticism that Sanders is light on policy details.
In most states – including those he has won decisively – Sanders has confronted a Democratic establishment standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Clinton. But caucuses or open primaries – where non-Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary – have enabled him to overcome that resistance. Some of his biggest victories – in New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin and Vermont – have come in states with open contests.
Sanders won’t have that advantage anywhere next Tuesday. The only state that isn’t a closed primary is Rhode Island, which qualifies as semi-closed because unaffiliated voters can choose to vote in the Democratic primary.
“It’s not a 10-point factor, it’s a one- or two-point factor,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Clinton supporter, speaking Monday to the political value of Clinton’s support from elected Democrats. “And she has all the institutional support, if you count New York, in all six of the next six primaries.”
The demographic profiles of the five states present additional hurdles for Sanders. Sanders has run well in New England to date but his wins came in the region’s three whitest states – Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, each of which has a black population of under two percent. Connecticut and Rhode Island, however, are considerably more diverse. Each state has a sizable African-American and Latino population – and Sanders has struggled to make inroads among those electorates.
In Delaware and Maryland, African-Americans will cast even higher portions of the primary vote. In 2008, black voters made up 28 percent of the Democratic primary vote in Delaware, according to exit polls; in Maryland, the figure was 37 percent.
In New York Tuesday night, Sanders lost the black vote by 75 percent to 25 percent.
“These are states that are much more diverse than the last eight or nine that Bernie Sanders has been doing well in,” Rendell said, noting here are more “Latinos, more African Americans” than in many of the Western caucus states where Sanders dominated.
The Clinton campaign has already moved to consolidate her African-American support in Maryland – where the last two public polls put her lead at over 20 percentage points — traveling to Baltimore in early April to accept the endorsement of veteran Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings.
“The Clintons are well known here. I say both of them because when I was governor Bill Clinton used to come to the state fairly regularly,” said former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, who also served as the top elected official in majority-black Prince George’s County, a rich source of Democratic votes. “And the African-American community has an affinity for Bill Clinton, which is transferring fairly easily to Hillary Clinton.”
The campaign in Pennsylvania, the biggest gem on the map next week, is also well underway: Over the last week the Sanders campaign has spent over $1.4 million on advertising there while the Clinton campaign has spent about $860,000. With 189 pledged delegates and 21 superdelegates, it’s one of the biggest prizes of the Democratic primary season — and Clinton begins with a head start.
She won the state by 10 points in 2008 against Barack Obama, and has the support of Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey this time around. But the Sanders campaign sees some promise with progressives in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and with the state’s large population of college students – which explains why he held a raucous rally on the Penn State University campus Tuesday evening.
“Next Tuesday here in Pennsylvania there will be an enormously important Democratic primary. What I have learned so far from this campaign is that when voter turnout is high we win. When voter turnout is low, we lose,” Sanders told the capacity crowd of 6,655. “So next Tuesday let us have the highest voter turnout in Pennsylvania history. And let Pennsylvania go forward and tell the world you are going to lead this country into a political revolution.”
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