Bernie Sanders may be down, but – much to Hillary Clinton’s undoubted frustration – he is still not out. With an increasingly fractious Democratic presidential race entering its endgame, the Vermont Senator has kept up his attacks on Ms Clinton, the near-inevitable nominee, even as his campaign secures major concessions from the party establishment.
Speaking to a crowd of 6,750 supporters who had filled a high school football ground in Santa Monica on Monday evening, Mr Sanders said he was “disturbed but not surprised” by the former Secretary of State’s decision to forego a promised Democratic debate in the Golden State, a decision he described as “insulting to the people of California”.
Ms Clinton, meanwhile, has tried to turn her attention to a general election against the presumptive GOP nominee, Donald Trump, whose poll numbers have improved alarmingly in recent days. A Clinton spokesperson told CNN that her time was “best spent… preparing for a general election campaign that will ensure the White House remains in Democratic hands.”
Mr Sanders, now all but incapable of winning the nomination, has turned the race into a battle not only against Ms Clinton, but against the entire Democratic Party hierarchy. He was late and limited in his condemnation of unrest at the Nevada Democratic convention last weekend, where his supporters threatened and harassed party leaders.
Mr Sanders has endorsed the candidate running against Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz for her Florida congressional seat. His supporters also filed a lawsuit demanding California’s voter registration deadline be extended to allow more potential Sanders voters to take part in the state’s 7 June primary.
Speaking to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos at the weekend, Mr Sanders suggested he still believed he could still win the nomination by securing approximately 70 per cent of the remaining primary votes, though the progressive Senator admitted it would be “a very steep uphill climb”. The climb is more than simply steep; it is vertical.
Ms Clinton has won several more states than her opponent, hundreds more delegates and millions more individual votes. Mr Sanders has threatened to contest the party’s convention in Philadelphia in July, but to mount a successful challenge there he would have to convert many so-called super-delegates, who are unlikely to be swayed to his side by recent events.
To listen to his supporters and surrogates, Ms Clinton’s commanding lead over Mr Sanders is mostly the fault of arcane party rules and the “corporate media”, which drew more boos at Monday’s rally than Ms Clinton herself. Yet Mr Sanders too has benefited from those arcane rules, winning multiple states where the nomination is decided by caucuses, not primary votes.
In a bid to heal party divisions, the DNC announced on Monday that it had struck a deal with the Clinton and Sanders camps, giving Mr Sanders’s supporters a significant presence on the 15-person convention platform committee, which writes the party’s policy platform. Ms Clinton has picked six members of the committee, Mr Sanders five and Ms Schultz the remaining four.
Some of the Senator’s fans remain undeterred by the primary arithmetic. Gabby Ducasse, a 23-year-old student from Los Angeles, carried a “Bernie or Bust” placard at Monday’s rally. “It’s an uphill battle, but I still have hope – and I’ll probably abstain from voting for anybody other than Bernie,” she said. “There is nothing in this world that could make me vote for Hillary.”
Nico, 29, another Sanders supporter who declined to give his last name, was more circumspect. “Hillary didn’t bow out of the race in 2008, so Bernie shouldn’t either,” he said. “But his attitude worries me. We should really be worrying about Trump, and it’s embarrassing to see the same s***-show that’s happening with the Republicans being carried over to the Democrats.”
Mr Sanders is staking everything on California, which has more delegates at stake than any other state. The Senator has been holding large rallies up and down the state and, by the time the primary comes around on 7 June, he estimates that he will have spoken directly to more than 200,000 Californians.
Yet there are also signs that Sanders knows the nomination is out of reach. His campaign has urged its supporters to donate to a dozen Sanders-endorsed candidates in primaries for seats in state legislatures, suggesting it is now focused not so much on its figurehead’s presidential chances as on encouraging lasting, grassroots change.
Mr Sanders nonetheless maintains his argument that he would be a stronger general election candidate than Ms Clinton, a claim borne out by speculative polls. “We need [an election] which does not have two candidates who are really very, very strongly disliked,” he told Mr Stephanopoulos. “I don’t want to see the American people voting for the lesser of two evils.”
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