Bernie Sanders' Campaign: The Math And The Path Forward

May 13, 2016

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders says a big victory in West Virginia this week keeps his hopes alive that he can win the Democratic nomination. And there are two key elements to Sanders’ campaign strategy.

When you look at this race in terms of the "elected" pledged delegates, you'll find that Sanders is trailing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by roughly 280 delegates. But when you factor in the non-elected superdelegates, Clinton’s lead increases to almost 750.

At a victory party Tuesday night, Sanders said his goal is to win a majority of the "elected" delegates. If he can do that, he says he'll ask many of the Clinton superdelegates in states where he had big victories to switch their support to him. 

“Now, we fully acknowledge we are good at arithmetic, that we have an uphill climb ahead of us, but we are used to fighting uphill climbs,” Sanders said to applause.

Next week, Oregon and Kentucky will hold their primaries, and Sanders is expected to do well in both states. That sets the stage for the California primary on June 7.

Former Middlebury College political science professor Eric Davis notes that these delegates will be awarded proportionately. This means that Sanders needs to win the California contest with at least 65 percent of the vote to secure an overall majority of elected delegates.

"We fully acknowledge ... that we have an uphill climb ahead of us, but we are used to fighting uphill climbs." - Sen. Bernie Sanders

Davis says it's a daunting task.

Friday on Vermont Edition: What's Next For The Sanders Campaign

“It's really a make-or-break state for the Sanders campaign,” Davis says. “And even though their fundraising has slowed down a little bit from earlier in the year, the Sanders campaign certainly has enough cash on hand to pay for a robust media effort in California, as well as an extensive program of candidate travel and field operations."

UVM political science professor Garrison Nelson is more blunt. He says there's virtually no chance that Sanders can win a majority of elected delegates.

“He continues to trail, and that's 300 delegates and it's three million votes that he trails [Clinton] by as well,” Nelson says.

"I think he would like to see more polling evidence that he would run more strongly against Trump than Clinton." - Eric Davis, Middlebury College political science professor emeritus

Sanders also wants the superdelegates to realize that many polls show him doing better than Clinton against expected Republican candidate Donald Trump.

"But it is not only national polls where we defeat Trump by bigger numbers than Secretary Clinton, it is state poll after state poll after state poll,” Sanders said on Tuesday.

Professor Davis expects Sanders to emphasize this issue in the coming weeks.

“That's an argument he may try to present to voters in California,” Davis says. “I think he would like to see more polling evidence that he would run more strongly against Trump than Clinton."

If Sanders doesn't become the Democratic nominee, Professor Nelson says there's no question that he's had an enormous impact on many of Clinton's policies in this race, including her decision this week to propose expanding Medicare to anyone over 50.

"Bernie's presence and the continued presence of the campaign is obliging her to take positions that she would never have taken were he not there,” Nelson says. “And that's why it's important for Bernie to remain in the fray until the convention, to make sure she remains committed to those positions in the platform."

If Clinton does win the Democratic nomination, Nelson says it will be important for the Democratic Party to give Sanders a prime time speaking slot at their National Convention in July. He says that will help the party secure its base going into the general election campaign.