Hours before Bernie Sanders won a slimmer-than-he-needed victory over Hillary Clinton in Indiana on Tuesday night, a New York Times editorial all but retired his presidential hopes and thanked him for his service. Though it noted the value of his often less-than-polite criticism of Clinton and other Democrats, the editorial’s insistence that Sanders’s voice had elevated the discourse during the primary still felt more like an epitaph, the kind of lionizing doled out as a campaign is lowered into the grave. “The Democratic Party and Mrs. Clinton are better off for Mr. Sanders’s presence in this race,” the editorial read. That may have been true at one point. I’m not sure it still is.
Whether Sanders should drop out of the Democratic presidential primary is a different question than whether his presence in it is still helpful. His five-point Indiana win ensured that he can no longer win enough pledged delegates to seal the nomination, but I don’t think Sanders should end his campaign until those “feeling the Bern” in every state and territory have had a chance to vote for him. The Vermont senator isn’t actually a Democrat, but he has earned the right to help lead the conversation about how the party improves itself going forward. As I’ve written before, I welcome some of Sanders’s capital-D un-Democratic rhetoric; the party has seen a lot of its blind spots illuminated by his campaign. The appeal of his message to younger voters is also a clear sign that his approach to progressivism may be the future. (Perhaps for that reason, neither Clinton nor the party are publicly trying to force him out.)
Sanders and his campaign advisors aren’t making that case for staying in the race, however, so much as they’re saying he can still win it. Barring a supernatural reversal of the polls in the few remaining primaries, that won’t happen. But mathematical reality isn’t stopping the Sanders camp from making small-d undemocratic arguments that subvert the very “revolution” he claims to want.
Democratic superdelegates, the independently voting party members who can choose whichever candidate they like, have sided with Clinton by a huge margin in this cycle: 522 to 39, after Indiana. Sanders suggested during a speech to the National Press Club in Washington last Sunday that any superdelegates in a state should be beholden to a candidate who wins a landslide victory there. “If I win a state with 70 percent of the votes, you know what? I think I’m entitled to those superdelegates,” he said. (Sanders, thus far, has won only two states with more than 70 percent of the vote: Utah’s caucus and a primary in Vermont.)
I get why he’s putting that idea out there, and I might have bought it had Sanders not later, according to the report, “refused to agree that Clinton is ‘entitled’ to a share of superdelegates proportional to her margin of victory nationally.” (So his 70-percent rule applies in states he won big, not states she won big. Just because.) Sanders also stated that he doesn’t think superdelegates should necessarily reflect the will of Democratic voters nationwide. But again, I get it: This is what presidential candidates sound like when they have no realistic path to victory and need to conjure one to sustain supporter belief, and, it follows, donations.
What’s more concerning, though, is what Sanders advisor Tad Devine told the press after the address. If his candidate were to record a streak of victories to end the primary season, Devine said, superdelegates should reconsider whether they should support Clinton (even though, in this scenario, she’d still lead in the popular vote and have won more delegates and states than Sanders). A reporter asked Devine whether he believed that primaries closer to July’s party convention somehow are worth more than ones in states placed earlier on the schedule. “I think they are,” he replied. “You know why? Because they are closer to November, that’s why, you know. And what happened a year ago is not as important as what’s going to happen in June of this year.”
That wasn’t just a self-serving thing for Devine to say; it was disenfranchising for the voters of this country. It’s also coming from a campaign that previously argued that Clinton’s near-sweep of the South was of minimal importance, because those states are likely to vote Republican in the fall. Given the large percentage of African-American voters in that region and their level of national support for Clinton, this understandably pissed off a lot of people.
Make no mistake: Devine’s comments represent the same strategy in different words. They’re continuing to devalue whichever primaries (and the voters) the Sanders campaign chooses to (in the process erasing many of his own supporters in those earlier states). If you voted in South Carolina or any of the Southern states (all earlier on the primary schedule), Devine is arguing that your vote means less. Same with New Hampshire, which held the very first primary, and where Sanders won handily. It doesn’t make any sense for a candidate who says that Democrats should fight for votes in all 50 states to then weigh any of those states more heavily than others on the basis of a calendar.
I wrote in February that Sanders should do his best to own the issue of voting rights, seeing how essential these rights are to elect the politicians he’d need for any “revolution” to take place. Voter suppression also ties into every priority of his campaign, from economic inequality to mass incarceration. While he has spoken of the need to restore the Voting Rights Act, he hasn’t exactly seized the issue. Instead, you’ve heard Sanders say things like "poor people don’t vote" when asked why Clinton won 16 of the 17 states with the highest level of income inequality. This was a way for Sanders to note the problem without offering a strategy for fixing it, all within the context of how the issue affected him directly.
As his chances of defeating Clinton have grown worse and worse, it has been both discouraging and revealing to see Sanders and his team turn what has been a campaign seemingly organized around the idea of a movement into one that is just about getting him elected to the White House. Sanders has always been a politician running to win, but this desperation is particularly unbecoming for a candidate who says his whole mission is to change politics.
This campaign rhetoric is even more disappointing given that Sanders had seemingly pivoted away from attacking Clinton. At an April 28 rally in Oregon, Sanders showed signs that he’d use his remaining time on the presidential stage to further the mission of progressivism. “Do we stand with the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor? Or do we stand with Wall Street speculators and the drug companies and the insurance companies?” he asked. “Now our job is not just to revitalize the Democratic Party, not only to open the doors to young people and working people — our job is to revitalize American democracy.”
How does one do that, then, when he and his top aide claim openly that some votes matter more than others?
It’s clear that Sanders will fight on to the convention in Philadelphia in two months, as he has every right to do. Clinton nearly did the same in 2008, despite facing a similar deficit in her race against Barack Obama. But it’s past time for Sanders to recognize that he isn’t the candidate most voters have chosen, and to start working toward advancing the “revolution” to which he has devoted so many words. Sanders won’t fix whatever he sees wrong with the Democrats by trying to jimmy the math and delegitimizing some primaries over others. Those arguments don’t advance the party’s ideals, nor his own.