Bernie Sanders’ upstart campaign slipped into a stall Tuesday as voters in one state after the next flocked to front-runner Hillary Clinton.
The self-described democratic socialist from Vermont, powered by microdonations and economic angst, lost significant ground to Clinton, the monied favorite of the Democratic Party’s old guard running on a rich resume and talk of pragmatic politics.
She was trailing by just 2,000 votes in Missouri with 98 percent of the vote counted. She barely won Illinois while mostly running away with primaries in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina. The margins matter because they propel her delegate collection forward.
Her mounting wins make her nomination at the party’s convention in Philadelphia look all but certain and cast Sanders’ prospects as the stuff of liberal wishful thinking.
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That puts the Democrats on course to nominate a candidate who fought off the left flank of the party partly by voicing its pain on economic inequality. She’s the candidate Republicans love to hate, and she could face Donald Trump, the most confounding politician of modern history, in the general election.
In fact, Clinton timed her victory speech from North Carolina to come just moments before Trump had scheduled a press conference — pre-empting him by grabbing the cable news live feeds. And she jabbed at him both by inference — “bluster and bigotry” — and by name.
“The next president needs to be able to defend America, not embarrass it, engage our allies, not alienate them,” Clinton said.
It was a signal that the primary race had all but ended, the general election campaign getting underway.
“There just doesn’t seem to be a viable route left for Sanders to pull ahead of her at any point,” said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “She would much rather talk about Trump rather than deal with another Democrat.”
For all the criticism of her as a flawed candidate — including her own declaration in recent weeks that she’s no “natural politician” — she’s repeatedly proved she can turn out voters for her cause.
It might take a political miracle or an undeniable scandal to deny her the nomination now.
Her critics on the right already contend she’s smeared badly by her response to the killing of diplomats in Libya when she was President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, and how she routed government communications through a private server while in that job. Democrats — both politicians in their support for her and voters in the casting of their ballots — suggest that none of the flaws disqualify the former senator and first lady.
Prospects for a Sanders comeback surpass daunting. Unlike Republicans, Democrats don’t hold winner-take-all primaries. That means he needs almost unimaginable margins of victories in nearly every state left on the primary calendar to overcome Clinton’s delegate lead.
He pulled a surprising upset in Michigan earlier this month, but any momentum from that win seemed absent Tuesday night. Still, Sanders leads in seven of eight states that vote before April 9.
Before Tuesday, Clinton had won nearly 770 delegates based on caucuses and primary voting. Sanders had about 555. Count so-called superdelegates — mostly current and former elected officials — and her lead grew to 1,235 to 580.
Superdelegates, however, are free to vote for whomever they want. Their pre-convention commitments don’t bind them. And they tend to rally to the person entering the convention in the lead.
After Tuesday’s voting — Clinton and Sanders appeared to be splitting delegates won in both Missouri and Illinois — her lead ballooned to more than 1,000 among committed delegates, nearly 1,500 if superdelegates are counted. Sanders combined total stood at about half that. It takes 2,383 to win the nomination.
Missouri sends 84 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Of those, 13 are superdelegates free to choose any candidate they want, and to do so regardless of any public commitments they make. The remaining 71 are chosen based on the Tuesday vote. Of that 71, 47 are picked based on the proportion of the vote within each of the state’s eight congressional districts. The remaining are divvied up based on the statewide vote totals.
Results were slow to roll in across the Missouri, especially from St. Louis and Kansas City, where election officials warned that problems with electronic voting would delay returns. But the two Democrats appeared on track to roughly split the delegates determined by the popular vote.
“These are big wins,” said Steve Glorioso, a Kansas City Democratic consultant backing Clinton. After Sanders’ Michigan win, some analysts suspected he might surprise Clinton again in Ohio. Instead, she took the state handily.
“It matters that she heads into the convention without any question of doubt about things,” Glorioso said. “It means she has the true support of the party.”
▪ In Illinois, Clinton won with a margin of less than 2 percent.
▪ In Ohio, Clinton had about 56 percent with two-thirds of votes counted.
▪ In Florida, Clinton took about 65 percent of the vote.
▪ In North Carolina, about 55 percent of voters went for Clinton.