Another week brings another win for Bernie Sanders, which will lead to another spate of “why can’t Hillary Clinton close the door?” stories. Well, dammit, why can’t she?
In one sense, it makes no difference. She just lost another overwhelmingly white state that going to be irrelevant in November. West Virginia is 94 percent white, and come November, Donald Trump is going to beat her there by 25 points or more. He might have beaten Sanders by only half that, but even so, it’s a red state. And Sanders is picking up only a handful of delegates Tuesday night, three or four, probably.
Clinton would have had a better shot in West Virginia were it not for that one fateful sentence she uttered seven weeks ago in that debate about how “we’re going to be putting a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She followed it up with hey, we’re going to retrain them, but the genie was out of the bottle by then.
The irony of course is that Sanders, who waxes moralistic about climate change on what seems an hourly basis, is every bit as anti-coal as Clinton. He’s just had the sense not to say so outright, as my colleague Betsy Woodruff noted the other day. Although, now that I think about it, not “every bit”—the double irony of the Sanders position is that his proposed fracking ban would actually help coal, since natural gas is coal’s No. 1 competitor in the energy kingdom these days. His admirers on the left haven’t noticed this, but maybe West Virginians did. But in either case, the West Virginia Coal Association endorsed Trump last week.
There’s also the fact that Clinton hasn’t even been trying. She’s been spending nothing on TV ads in these last couple states and hardly setting foot in them. She seems to be making a little more of an effort in Kentucky, where just Tuesday morning, at an appearance in Louisville, she unveiled a new set of proposals aimed at capping child-care costs at 10 percent of a family’s income (from each according to their ability—Sanders’s people ought to like that one!). And she is evidently running a few TV ads in the sparsely polled Bluegrass State, where she led by five points two months ago, but where I would guess she’s probably a little behind right now.
So, you know, they don’t make any difference, these losses. Except...I don’t know, we’re just not conditioned to be willing to lose. It’s like when NFL teams that are headed to the playoffs sit out their stars the last week of the season lest the quarterback end up concussed in a meaningless game. You understand why they do it. But it’s cheesy and it doesn’t sit well. You’re in a competition. Go compete.
Some people say, well, Barack Obama limped to the finish line in 2008, and it didn’t hurt him. And that was true. But a big part of the reason it didn’t hurt him was that his primary opponent (ahem) was unusually gracious and graceful in the way she bowed out and immediately got completely behind him. “Gracious” and “graceful” aren’t words we associate with Sanders. Every win, every delegate, every vote is going to make him more obstreperous. That’s why I argued last week she should have put the pedal down in Indiana, where, unlike West Virginia, she had a real shot.
Here are the remaining Democratic contests: Kentucky, Oregon, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, District of Columbia. Without even thinking, we can parcel them out.
Sanders: Kentucky, Oregon, Montana, the Dakotas (175 total delegates).
Clinton: Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, New Jersey, New Mexico, D.C. (247 total delegates).
The biggest win with the most delegates at stake is likely to be Clinton’s expected romp in Puerto Rico (60 delegates), where she’ll probably get two-thirds or so of the vote and net 20 to 25 delegates. Sanders may net 20 in Oregon.
That leaves California.
California is the only state that’s remotely up in the air. In the RCP average, Clinton is up around 10. But the polling is weird. The four polls in April had Clinton +6, +12, +2, and in the most recent one +19. So who knows? Again, Sanders is too far behind in the pledged delegate count for the outcome to matter numerically. For example, if he were to beat her there 52-48, he’d net 27 delegates—but she’d still collect 224 and would, combined with her expected win in New Jersey that day—in all likelihood push over the 2,056 threshold. That would give her a majority of pledged delegates.
So it won’t matter numerically. But if she loses California, it’ll matter spiritually during the crucial period when she has to coax Sanders into backing her and persuading his supporters to do the same. It will provide leverage for one camp or the other in those negotiations. Clinton better hop off the bench and put in the first string.