For a candidate who is constantly told he has no chance of winning the Democratic Party nomination for president, Bernie Sanders has certainly made things interesting in this particular election cycle. Just as the Republican contest has been largely determined, things seem to be heating up on the Democratic side, and the California primary next month will be pivotal. The danger in Clinton losing California—or even in winning by a small margin—is that it reinforces the perception that she is a weak candidate, not particularly loved by rank-and-file Democrats, and vulnerable, especially in the event of a worst-case scenario with the FBI email investigation.
The need to continue a primary contest against someone with little to no chance of being nominated while also fending off increasingly heated rhetoric from Sanders supporters—who she will badly need in the general election—has to be of deep concern to Hillary Clinton and her campaign. The nomination fight still has more than two weeks to go, culminating in California on June 7, a race she should win, given support from the black and Hispanic community. But it is clearly not a contest she can take for granted. A loss in California (she should sweep the other June 7 primaries, including New Jersey), or a narrow win like Kentucky, would be debilitating, and raise even more questions about her qualities as a candidate—questions that have a tendency to take on a life of their own. But barring something really unexpected coming out of the FBI investigation, she has the nomination in hand, but has to be concerned about what this is doing to her general election prospects.
None of this means Sanders can win the nomination. The conventional wisdom, which in this case is almost certainly correct, is that it would take an incredible bombshell to thwart Clinton’s long, painful slog to the nomination. At this point, the only thing on the horizon that would qualify would be an indictment over her use of a private email account for conducting confidential business while holding the job of U.S. secretary of state. Yet few observers believe this fate awaits her, as the FBI investigation seems to be moving into its final phase. Clinton probably needs to worry more about the political implications of the FBI investigation anyway, as opposed to the legal implications.
And assuming that an indictment of Clinton herself is off the table, an outcome that would almost certainly render her candidacy unviable, she probably needs to worry more about possible legal action being taken against one or more aides involved in the controversy, or what is most likely, the lingering doubts that will remain in the minds of much of the electorate. Even if no action is taken against anyone, the investigation reinforces the sense that Clinton is a fundamentally ethically challenged candidate who, if elected, will be constantly entangled in various controversies over the course of her presidency.
While she might bemoan her fate of having to ward off a pesky challenger to her left, like Sanders, Clinton should count herself extraordinarily fortunate that she did not have a more viable challenger like Elizabeth Warren. A challenge from Warren might well have been a reprise of 2008, with Warren playing the role of Barack Obama. Such a contest would likely have ended the same way as in 2008, with Warren winning a vast millennial following, but also able to gain support from establishment Democrats in a way that Sanders has been unable to achieve.
Still, she is definitely not where she would like to be at this point in the election cycle. Team Clinton got the scare of their lives last Tuesday during the Kentucky and Oregon primaries. They dodged a bullet, losing Oregon by 12 points (56-44) while eking out the most narrow of wins in Kentucky, thanks to the somewhat larger black population in Kentucky as compared to West Virginia, a state she lost by 15 points to Sanders earlier this month. If historians years from now end up writing about Clinton’s successful road to the White House, considerable attention will have to be paid to the role of the black vote. It has been the critical difference in giving her victories in several states and putting some distance between herself and Sanders.
Sanders must surely be musing over the what-ifs of the campaign. Had he been able to slice off just a portion of the black vote in some of the primaries, perhaps 30% to 40%, he would be presenting a far stronger, almost existential challenge to Clinton’s candidacy. On the other hand, a double win by Clinton last week in Kentucky and Oregon would have magnified the pressure on Sanders to close up shop and retire from the race.
But even within the last week or so, calls have grown louder for Sanders to withdraw, making it increasingly difficult for Clinton to transition to the general election campaign against Donald Trump. A recent article in The Hill tells the tale, as progressives such as CNN contributor Sally Kohn and writers for left-leaning magazines like Mother Jones join the cry for Sanders to step aside. Some suggest that Sanders continuing in the race is a sign of bitterness on his part, rather than a simple desire to take his cause to the convention. Besides, maybe he would actually like to be offered the vice presidency. Staying in the race may be the kind of leverage needed to get that kind of offer, although having a 69 year old (Clinton turns 69 in October) at the top of the ticket and a 75 year old in the second spot (Sanders will be 75 in September), and one tilted distinctly to the left, is not the way to win the all-important, independent-centrist vote (although it might well help Clinton with the millennials who have rallied to Sanders).
But it does not appear that Sanders has gotten the memo. Indeed, in a speech following primaries in Kentucky and Oregon, he proclaimed that he would stay in the race until the final ballot was cast at the Convention. That could not have made Team Clinton happy, but what transpired in Nevada last week at the state convention must have thrilled them even less, as Sanders supporters took to the floor to denounce what they saw as unfair tactics by Clinton’s team. The rhetoric became heated, and even resulted in Barbara Boxer being booed when she spoke at the convention. What was possibly more damaging were the comments—reported extensively at least in progressive outlets—from Boxer that she actually feared for her safety.
While Clinton is still campaigning for the nomination, her opponent in the general election is making pronouncements about possible Supreme Court picks, commenting on the recent EgyptAir tragedy, and beginning to act presidential. Even polls showing a general election matchup have begun to tighten, as one poll showed Trump with a five-point lead. While that seems a bit implausible, other polls have shown the race tightening, and it is worth remembering that at this point in in 1980, Ronald Reagan trailed Jimmy Carter by close to double digits.
The next month or so may go a long way toward clarifying the contours of the 2016 election campaign and its ultimate outcome. The next several weeks will be interesting, indeed.
Dr. Euel Elliott is a professor of public policy and political economy and the associate dean in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. He is the author of the soon-to-be published books,Paths not Taken: The What Ifs of American History from theWar for Independence to the Bush-Gore Election andAdventures of Maia Neeri of the 24th Century.