Let’s get one thing out of the way. As Bernie Sanders himself put it, his campaign “got decimated” in South Carolina. With the lone exception of voters under 30, Hillary Clinton won every demographic on the way to a lopsided 47-point victory. She actually exceeded Barack Obama’s share of the African-American vote—in the very state where her 2008 campaign began to unravel. With Super Tuesday and its trove of delegates in Southern states fast approaching, many commentators are rushing to anoint Clinton as the nominee and write Sanders’s political obituary. Sadly, this kind of preemptive speculation is not new. When Clinton scraped together her first clear victory in Nevada—barely 5 points in a state where she’d been 23 points ahead just two months earlier—media megaphones declared Clinton the winner not just of one state, but of the whole primary campaign, even though the two candidates were practically tied in pledged delegates at that point and, thanks to his historic victory in New Hampshire, Sanders was at least 50,000 votes ahead of Clinton.
To all this, we say—not so fast. Hillary Clinton now has a 92 pledged delegates to 65 for Sanders—out of 2,383 needed to win. (She’s way ahead on superdelegates, but if Sanders wins enough primaries to close the gap, those superdelegates will have to respect that momentum or risk destroying the party.) South Carolina is not the end of the Democratic contest. Not with 17 states voting in the next two weeks. It isn’t even the beginning of the end, with crucial battleground states like Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, and Ohio voting later on in March. It is just the end of the beginning.
The next two weeks are not going to be easy for Sanders supporters. Remember, Super Tuesday (or the SEC Primary) was devised—and pushed by the Democratic Leadership Council—as a counter to the Democratic Party’s progressive tendency. But after tomorrow, the terrain changes. One reason Super Tuesday functioned as a break point was its impact on a candidate’s ability to raise enough money to continue the fight into major media markets, where airtime is expensive and the kind of face-to-face campaigning needed to win Iowa or New Hampshire just isn’t possible. With over 1.5 million donors—only 2 percent of whom have maxed out—Sanders shouldn’t have that problem. And though he failed to persuade African-American voters in South Carolina, the rural South’s racial politics may be a poor bellwether for urban voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, and Pennsylvania. Unlike South Carolina, those are all states the Democrats need to win in the fall—and where Sanders’s economic message is likely to resonate with white and black workers alike who have been left behind by Wall Street’s recovery.
Which means we’re in for a long campaign. Bad news for those who still hope for a speedy coronation—and for any candidate reliant on wealthy donors. Good news, though, for the party—and the country. In addition to providing a running contrast with the Republican assault on decency, a prolonged Democratic contest means both candidates keep competing to register voters, identify donors, and organize supporters. Whoever wins the nomination should be grateful for that—and for not having to face the Republicans untested.
Hillary Clinton is again the favorite, backed by the party establishment, the big donors, and much of the media. To catch her now, Sanders will need a message that allows him to overturn those odds. He’ll also need to find the tactical levers that will get his supporters to actually vote. That’s what it means to wage an insurgent candidacy—a “political revolution.”
As we argued a year ago, when a presumptive front-runner “faces serious competition, one of two things happens: that candidate is defeated, or … sharpens his or her message sufficiently to move beyond ‘safe’ politics.” A year ago, Hillary Clinton was still on the fence on the Keystone Pipeline and thought the Trans-Pacific Partnership “sets the gold standard in trade agreements.” She didn’t call for criminal justice reform until last year. Though critics might question her sincerity on these shifts, none of them would have happened without the prod of competition.
So let’s see what happens in Illinois, where Clinton will have to choose between loyalty to Rahm Emanuel and allying with #BlackLivesMatter. Let the voters in New Mexico and New Jersey, Oregon and California have their say. Because whether the Republicans opt for Trump, Rubio, or Cruz, the one certainty is that the Democratic nominee will get no respite. If only to ensure the eventual nominee is prepared for that onslaught, we hope the Democrats’ clash of ideas and issues continues for some time.