Politics & Policy

The Bern Hits a Brick Wall in New York

Clinton celebrates at a rally in New York City. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty)

Bernie Sanders’s weeks-long winning streak ended abruptly Tuesday night, as the upstart Democratic insurgent smacked into an immovable New York City electorate happy to hand Hillary Clinton a double-digit victory.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of Sanders’s loss. The Brooklyn-born Vermont senator threw everything but the kitchen sink into New York, outspending every candidate on either side by a massive margin and deploying an army of paid staffers and volunteers to crisscross the state. He lost by a 15-point margin, ceding another 31 pledged delegates to Clinton and perhaps fatally damaging his ability to attract the Democratic superdelegates he must convince in order to challenge Clinton at the convention in Philadelphia. New York City went overwhelmingly for Clinton: She won 66 percent of the vote in Manhattan and nearly 70 percent in the Bronx, swept the remaining boroughs and Long Island, and even won Staten Island by a six-point margin.

Sanders had been scheduled to campaign in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, but abruptly canceled his plans and flew to his hometown of Burlington, Vt., after the scope of Tuesday’s loss became clear, citing a need to “recharge.” His traveling press corps left stranded in the Keystone State, Sanders sent congratulations to Clinton through the local Vermont press, sounding very much like a man defeated. “We have come a long, long way,” he said. “We have a very, very strong grass-roots movement. . . . Activism wins elections.”

Clinton reveled in her victory during a speech in midtown Manhattan. “We’ve won every region of the country, from the North to the South to the East to the West. But this one’s personal,” she told a crowd of supporters. She later declared the Democratic contest all but over. “The race for the Democratic nomination is in the home stretch, and victory is in sight,” she said, noting that she was now the only candidate in either party to surpass 10 million primary voters.

Sanders’s defeat in New York came after weeks of acrimony in the once-cordial Democratic primary.

Sanders’s defeat in New York came after weeks of acrimony in the once-cordial Democratic primary. The two candidates spent the run-up to Tuesday trading bitter accusations and attacks, and Sanders, in particular, seemed determined to up the rancor. First, the Vermont senator called the former secretary of state “unqualified.” Then one of his surrogates lumped her in with “corporate Democratic whores” during an event in New York City. Sanders disavowed that remark, but the Clinton campaign refused to let it go, particularly after Sanders supporters pelted Clinton’s motorcade with one-dollar bills in Los Angeles. Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook cried that it was “as if they were at, shall we say, an adult entertainment venue,” in an e-mail to supporters Monday night. That same evening, the Sanders campaign accused Clinton of conspiring with the DNC to commit “serious apparent violations” of campaign-finance law.

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Clinton and her team gave as good as they got. Mook called the campaign-finance allegations “irresponsible and poisonous” and noted that they were “occurring just as Bernie’s mathematical odds of winning the nomination dwindle towards zero.” Several other prominent surrogates demanded that Sanders apologize to the families of those who died in the Sandy Hook massacre, with Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy calling the senator’s support for limited-liability laws that protect gun manufacturers “just wrong.” At a rally on Monday night, Clinton said she “couldn’t believe it when Senator Sanders said the parents of the Sandy Hook children did not deserve their day in court” and that she was “appalled” when Sanders deemed Donald Trump’s promise to “punish” women who had an abortion a “distraction.”

Some Democratic strategists said the race’s antagonistic new tone was due to the peculiarities of campaigning in New York, a very liberal state where voters expect politicians to go for the jugular and capitalize on perceived weaknesses. While Sanders focused on Clinton’s close ties to Wall Street and corporate America, she zeroed in on some of Sanders’s own liberal heresies — particularly on gun control.

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“She has to have an issue that generates interest for women over forty and African-Americans, people that have voted for her in those groupings in the past,” Hank Sheinkopf, an unaffiliated Democratic strategist in New York, told National Review at the height of last week’s campaigning. “And the heart of the issue is, Bernie’s wrong on guns in New York.”

Exit polls conducted by CBS found that Clinton won 75 percent of the African-American vote in the state. And by a 59–37 margin,  Democrats who voted on Tuesday said they thought Clinton would do a better job than Sanders of handling gun policy.

#share#Even before Tuesday night’s loss, it was difficult to envision a scenario where Sanders could beat out Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Her pledged-delegate lead of over 200 was already all but insurmountable, to say nothing of her overwhelming lead among Democratic superdelegates.

Nevertheless, the stakes were high for both campaigns going into Tuesday’s vote. Reeling from losses in eight of the last nine primaries, Clinton needed to stave off the growing chorus of “Bernie-mentum” coming from her left flank. If she couldn’t win — and win big — in her adopted home state, her standing in the party would be undermined, and doubts about her general-election viability might return with fresh vigor.

“If she were to win by less than ten [points], Democrats throughout the country would be in shock, and Republicans would be dancing in the streets,” said Sheinkopf.

Even before Tuesday night’s loss, it was difficult to envision a scenario where Sanders could beat out Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

Sanders, for his part, needed a close night in New York to prop up a campaign sagging under the weight of a crushing delegate deficit. Though the Democratic party’s proportional delegate allocation meant there was little chance for him to fundamentally alter the scoreboard, a narrow Sanders win in New York — or even a narrow loss — would’ve done more for his chances than the string of victories he achieved in several sparsely populated, majority-white caucus states over the past several weeks. By demonstrating the ability to woo a large, diverse, urban primary electorate away from its favorite daughter, Sanders could’ve improved his odds immensely in the hunt for the uncommitted superdelegates he needs to make a convincing stand against Clinton in Philadelphia.

Both campaigns sank enormous amounts of time and money into the New York race. Clinton and her husband blanketed the state, with Bill visiting multiple upstate cities a day while Clinton canvassed New York City’s subway trains and bubble-tea shops in a manner reminiscent of a mayoral candidate. Despite key upcoming primaries in Maryland and Pennsylvania — to say nothing of California, the massive delegate prize lurking farther down the line — the Clintons kept their eye on New York, venturing out of the state only a handful of times in the three weeks before Tuesday’s vote.

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Sanders was more aloof than his rival, opting for mega-rallies, including one last week in Washington Square Park that attracted 27,000 people. But his energized volunteers spread out across the state, working neighborhoods and inundating New Yorkers’ social-media feeds. The Sanders campaign also dipped liberally into its massive war chest, dropping $5.6 million on New York advertisements and outspending Clinton two-to-one. 

But it wasn’t enough, and both sides seemed to recognize as much well before the results were announced Tuesday night. “I don’t think it’s gonna be close,” said New York mayor Bill de Blasio, a Clinton backer, on CNN Tuesday morning. Sanders also appeared to be steeling himself for a loss, bemoaning the “bad New York state election law” that prevented independents from voting in party primaries during an interview with CBS on Monday.

#related#For weeks, and despite the Sanders campaign’s seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Democrats on both sides of the race have been steeling for a long primary fight. Sanders’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, promised as much in an appearance on MSNBC mere minutes after the race was called on Tuesday night. “The fact that [Clinton] did very well in New York doesn’t mean she’ll do well in the other states,” Weaver said, promising that Sanders would remain competitive in California and Pennsylvania, where the campaign’s “internal polls are much better than some of the public polls that are out there.”

“When we get to the convention, look — the Democrats are going to have to decide who they want to elect in terms of who’s going to be the best in November,” Weaver added. “And clearly, the polls are almost unanimous now that Bernie Sanders is a much more electable candidate in November.”

That may be true. Clinton’s national unfavorables remain high, and some national polls show Sanders performing better than she does against Cruz or Trump in November’s general election. But in New York, and across the country, one thing seems clear — Democrats have made their decision. And it certainly isn’t Sanders.

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.