Sanders Sees Opening Despite Clinton's Delegate Lead

Sanders Sees Opening Despite Clinton's Delegate Lead
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Arguing that the race against Hillary Clinton is tantalizingly close in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, Bernie Sanders stoked supporters to vote for him Tuesday while his campaign team sought to shatter online donor records.

But in charging forward, the Sanders camp also acknowledged it isn’t banking on victories in any of five closely watched primaries by margins large enough to overtake Clinton’s commanding lead in delegates before June.

“This is about as close as it can be for us to do well in these three states,” Sanders’ campaign manager told backers, referring to poll results in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, where the independent senator thinks he has the best chances to best Clinton.

Polls show the former secretary of state has significant leads in Florida and North Carolina, where voters also go to the polls Tuesday. Sanders is hoping to capitalize on the surprise victory he enjoyed in Michigan last week, driving home his anti-free trade and anti-Wall Street messages in a region sapped by years of lost manufacturing jobs and declining wages.

Citing polls Monday, Campaign Manager Jeff Weaver told supporters the senator is running neck-and-neck with Clinton in Missouri, three percentage points ahead in Illinois, and five points ahead in Ohio. Yet, because of the proportional division of delegates under Democratic Party rules, only blowout wins in states with big delegate prizes could propel Sanders out of second place.

Tuesday’s contests may be the democratic socialist’s last best chance to work some mathematical magic, although his success in winning states, exciting donors and organizing voter turnout can keep him in the race through June.

Clinton has amassed 767 pledged delegates compared with Sanders’ 553, and at least 2,383 are needed to win the nomination. Because each candidate can capture delegates using the complex proportional rules, the front-runner’s 14 victories afforded her a commanding lead in pledged delegates because she also pocketed delegates in the nine states Sanders has won to date.

In Florida, Clinton leads her rival by nearly 29 points, according to the RealClearPolitics average, and in North Carolina she’s ahead of her rival by nearly 24 points, according to survey results in March.

In the last week, the candidates pummeled each other on issues of trust and judgment during rallies, in campaign ads and at televised town-hall events. Since last year, Sanders has pulled Clinton increasingly to the left, and his plausible standing in the Democratic contest discourages Clinton from turning her attention to a general election match-up, despite her episodic efforts to train her sharpest barbs at Donald Trump and the Republican presidential field.

The two Democratic aspirants focused heavily this month on policies of concern to many blue-collar, Midwestern voters, who worry about jobs and the economy, as well as rising college tuition costs, health insurance, the auto and coal industries, and the best ways to stand up to competition from China.

Sanders faults Clinton for backing what he calls “disastrous” international trade pacts, which he believes result in lower wages and corporate moves abroad. In response, Clinton assures voters she wants to see changes in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiated by the Obama administration, before she can embrace the 12-nation pact she helped forge as secretary of state.

“We’ve got to really fight for our jobs,” Clinton said Monday during an MSNBC town-hall event.

Sanders also objects to what he suggests are Clinton’s cozy ties to New York financial firms and Wall Street donors. He continues to point to six-figure speaking fees she earned from New York financial firms, and he’s called on Clinton numerous times to release transcripts of her speeches, which she has declined to do unless all candidates follow suit.

Clinton accused Sanders of opposing the federal auto bailout (an assertion probed by media fact-checkers and judged inaccurate). She said last week that he was sympathetic in the past to ideas espoused by socialist dictators, and seeks reforms that are too expensive and impractical to win support in Congress.

If Clinton does not march out of Tuesday’s contests putting Sanders firmly in her wake, the senator and his backers want to keep the momentum, even if the eventual pledged and super delegate outcomes are mathematically inescapable. States with large delegate prizes ahead include Washington on March 26 (101); New York on April 19 (247); Pennsylvania on April 26 (189), and California (475) and New Jersey (126), both on June 7.

“It’s just so damn close,” the Sanders campaign argued Monday.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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