Bernie Sanders says Hillary Clinton will not have sewn up the nomination on June 7. | Getty
LOS ANGELES — Barring a set of unprecedented upsets on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton is expected to be declared the presumptive Democratic nominee. And when the television networks make that call as soon as New Jersey polls close on June 7, it will leave Bernie Sanders with a hard choice: whether to directly acknowledge it or intensify his fight to the July convention in Philadelphia.
The Vermont senator has shown few signs of being ready to concede. And if he wins California, he won’t.
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The outcome there will determine the course he takes in the 7-week run-up to the convention, top Sanders aides and high-profile supporters say, either driving his decision to battle on for the nomination or to begin focusing on the party policy and platform changes he wants to make.
A win in California, his top advisors believe, will enable Sanders to make a much more aggressive pitch to superdelegates and Democrats around the country in the coming weeks. He will be able to point to victories over Clinton in more than 20 states — capped by the biggest, bluest and most diverse in the nation. The symbolic value of winning California, they think, would underscore his point that the future of the party is on his side and rattle superdelegate confidence in her candidacy.
A loss, however, would dismantle that argument. The Sanders camp believes a defeat there would take the wind out of his sails, in no small part because of the negative media narrative that would result after having spent so much time in the state.
Sanders hasn’t directly addressed the issue of how he’ll respond Tuesday evening, though it’s clearly something that’s on his mind. He has shown no outward sign of bowing to the increasingly loud grumblings from Clinton-allied officials — most recently Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid — urging him to drop out after California, brushing aside the suggestion that his prolonged primary challenge could hurt Clinton against Donald Trump.
“On Tuesday night, on the 7th, you’re going to hear from the media saying that Hillary Clinton has received whatever it is — 80 or 90 delegates — which she certainly will from New Jersey and other states, and they’ll say the primary process is over, Secretary Clinton has won,” Sanders told a crowd in Santa Cruz last week. “The Democratic National Committee will tell you it’s not factually correct. The truth is no candidate — not Hillary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders — will receive the number of pledged delegates, that is, the real delegates that people vote for. Neither candidate will have received the number of pledged delegates that he or she needs to become the Democratic nominee. What that means is that the superdelegates will be the people who determine who the nominee is.”
“The media is in error when they lumped superdelegates with pledged delegates. Pledged delegates are real,” he reiterated in a combative news conference in Los Angeles on Saturday. “The Democratic National Convention will be a contested convention.”
Sanders has promised to give every voter a chance to weigh in, meaning he will compete in Washington, D.C.’s June 14 primary — for which his campaign has recently sought volunteer housing.
But even within Sanders circles, there is considerable head-scratching and puzzling through back-of-the-envelope delegate math in an attempt to figure out what the senator will do next.
Some aides near the top rungs of his political operation report being told to focus exclusively on Tuesday’s primaries, and not to worry about what comes next.
“Basically he decides daily. What decides what happens after Tuesday is going to depend on what the results are,” said Dottie Deans, the chairwoman of the Vermont Democratic Party and a superdelegate who supports Sanders. “They’ll sit down Wednesday and they’ll discuss what happened on Tuesday and decide how to go forward.”
“I will accept any decision he makes, and I will respect any decision he makes,” she added. “But I’m not in any position to tell him what to do. Nor would he listen to me.”
One consensus expectation is that the Sanders campaign team will seek to leverage the senator’s all-but-ensured status as the most successful runner-up in modern Democratic politics.
The possibilities include pledging to fight on with meetings and rallies, all the while making the case to superdelegates that polls show he is the stronger nominee against Donald Trump in November. Or he could effectively concede the nomination and prepare his troops for platform fights and a contentious convention in Philadelphia.
Sanders has a wide array of options as he pursues his stated goal of convincing super delegates — whose very existence he decries — to switch their support from Clinton to him. He could, for example, hold swing state rallies to make the case against nominating Clinton, an approach that might let him maintain the earned media that sustains his public image.
But that tack is unlikely. He hasn’t unleashed a new argument against Clinton in weeks, indicating a diminished appetite for that kind of combat, and a purple state assault could weaken her against Trump. In addition, people close to the campaign expect the operation to severely cut back on travel after he’s spent over two weeks straight in California, largely because of the expense. The campaign has already been drastically slashing costs, and the staff is now nearly down to the senior group and an advance staff that’s necessary for large events.
A lower-profile, but cheaper avenue to pursue might be to meet individually with as many super delegates as possible in an effort to swing them. But more and more of these party leaders and officials have spoken up about how difficult that would be after he’s decried the superdelegate system in the first place, and prominent Sanders backers say they don’t view this alone as a practical option. It would likely take something more drastic to win the superdelegates over — so far none of those who support Clinton have been persuaded to swing to Sanders’ side in the year-plus of campaigning so far.
One option floated by some Democrats — but not a popular one among Sanders’ most ardent backers — is that he could concede that Clinton is the nominee but encourage his army of delegates to fight for specific platform points and rules changes at the July convention. This might be the most realistic conciliatory route, said some party officials thinking through the options, noting that it’s similar to the approach taken by Ted Cruz, who maintained until the final days of his campaign that he’d fight on to the GOP convention. But the Vermont senator has repeatedly insisted that he will take his leverage to Philadelphia, and his senior advisors have not seriously thought through how that would look without him as an active candidate.
Not expecting a concession of any sort, Sanders’ allies universally expect a major part of his role in the coming weeks will be to outline his convention hopes to his delegates.
“I think what he’s going to do is provide a lot of direction about what happens at the [convention], assuming the [Democratic National Committee] is not going to embrace our agenda. But we are going to be in a position to at least have a minority report and vote to put our issues on the agenda,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of the Sanders-backing National Nurses United union, who referred to Tuesday’s expected declaration of Clinton as the nominee as a “big lie.”
“The pivot, I don’t know. It depends on how corrupt the DNC actually is once we get to Philadelphia,” she said. “That could determine the direction that takes.”
In addition to the policy points that Sanders is expected to push before the convention — a $15 federal minimum wage and a nationwide ban on fracking, for example — he is also eyeing fundamental reforms to the Democratic nominating process, which would have to be made separate from the convention.
The Clinton camp has been extremely careful to not be seen as urging Sanders to get out of the race, keeping in mind her own 2008 campaign against then-Senator Barack Obama, which went until the very end.
Asked if Sanders should drop out next week while campaigning in New Jersey last Wednesday, former President Bill Clinton declined to weigh in. “We should finish the course. Finish the election,” he said.
Nonetheless, some of Sanders’ high-profile backers have been quietly nudging him toward the exits in the name of party unity, starting with Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, his only Senate endorser, who said in April that he should drop out if he’s still trailing Clinton after the primaries end.
And as party leaders start openly fretting about uniting the party against Trump, the drumbeat has picked up: “Sometimes you just have to give up,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told the Associated Press last Wednesday. “I’ve never been too good at math but I can figure that one out, I think he better do a little mathing.”
Even Sanders’ backers are hesitant to publicly offer advice at this point. Not one of the eight House members endorsing Sanders agreed to speak with POLITICO on record about what he should do before then.
Yet some vague outlines of Sanders’ coming month-and-a-half are already coming into view, with or without his say. Some of his highest-profile backers, including the nurses union, 350.org, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Working Families Party, are convening a June 17-19 meeting in Chicago “to, in part, continue the momentum and movement building associated with the ongoing Bernie Sanders campaign.”
The event, which is set to include workshops on civil disobedience and building movements, is slated to focus on a slate of issues his campaign team wants to pursue for the convention platform, like the minimum wage hike and a Wall Street speculation tax.
Sanders himself has been invited to join the roster of speakers that includes a who’s who of his most prominent surrogates including Cornel West, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, and DeMoro.
The goal: to map out what’s still to come.
“His candidacy and his potential presidency is about a movement,” said DeMoro of Sanders. “We had a similar movement, though not of the same magnitude, behind Obama. But as soon as he entered office the movement went away.”
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