So it’s a nice night for Bernie. A little nicer than expected, in fact. What does it mean, to win Wisconsin, and where does it leave things?
Here’s what it means. Wisconsin is a significant state, no doubt of that. Winning there is a sign of potential regional, and therefore national, strength. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that it is not a swing state. If Hillary Clinton is the nominee, she’ll likely beat Ted Cruz there by seven or so points, and Donald Trump by more, maybe a good bit more. Barack Obama won there in 2008 and 2012 by 14 and seven points, respectively. It’s gone Democratic every time since 1988. It is to be sure one of those handful of blue states that Sanders could arguably win by more than Clinton could, but a win is a win, and it’s the 10 electoral votes that matter. In other words, what I’m saying is, to give the Sanders campaign credit, winning Wisconsin counts for more than winning the Alaska caucuses. But it doesn’t count in the same way that Ohio and Florida count.
I go into this because there’s been this quasi-taxonomic parsing lately of the value of each win, spurred, it must be said, mostly by Sanders—who used his victory speech Tuesday to claim “momentum”—and his supporters. He tried to dismiss Clinton’s Super Tuesday wins as happening in irrelevant “conservative” Southern states. It is true that most of them happened in states that are going Republican in November, with the glaring and important exception of Florida. On the other hand, those states are not “conservative” when it comes to Democratic voters, and Sanders knows it. It was a cheap shot, made the worse by Tim Robbins’s execrable dismissal of South Carolina as Guam, a dismissal he and other Sanders supporters would surely call racist if the situation were reversed.
Sure, Clinton’s wins in Alabama, Tennessee, and some other states are what you might call valueless. [UPDATE: the preceding sentence originally included Oklahoma, which was wrong—Sanders won Oklahoma.] But Sanders has valueless wins, too—the aforementioned Alaska, and Nebraska, and Idaho, and Wyoming, and so on. I propose we just call that fight a draw. Meanwhile, of the six genuinely purple states that have voted so far, Clinton has won five of them (Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, and Nevada), while Sanders has won one (Colorado). And when it comes to Super Tuesday, in point of fact, not all of Clinton’s non-Florida wins were without value. Georgia at least is gettable, in a Clinton-Trump scenario; Nate Silver tells us so. And in fact, if Trump really collapses, South Carolina will be close. Obama lost it by 11 last time, which isn’t that much for an ex-Confederate state. And one poll says even Utah could fall.
And yes, there’s the question of the delegate math. Sanders didn’t win Wisconsin by quite enough to catch up very much on that score, or on the overall vote total, the famous “will of the voters.” Clinton was 2.5 million votes ahead coming into Wisconsin, and Sanders made only a small dent in that Tuesday night.
So now, we look to New York. This race is somewhat eerily following the rhythm of the 1992 contest between Hillary’s husband and Jerry Brown, the left-insurgent candidate of that year. Then, Bill Clinton basically locked the delegate math down on March 17. Here, Hillary did the same on March 15.
Then, Brown won the contest before New York—that year it was Connecticut—and set up a major New York showdown. And now Sanders has done the same (no, Wyoming's caucus Saturday doesn’t really impact the narrative here).
In 1992, just as today, there were two weeks between that vote and the New York vote. Bill Clinton was on the ropes for the first week. Then, in the second week, the state’s Democratic power structure collected itself, and Bill slaughtered Jerry by 15 points. Hillary is not going to beat Bernie by that. She might not beat him at all. And if she doesn’t, then this is going to get brutal.
Here’s what to watch for. Sanders knows that New York is his last shot. If he doesn’t win it, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and Maryland and California will probably fall like dominoes for Clinton. So the question is, how negative will he go? That oil-and-gas lobbyists attack on Clinton was pretty sleazy, and false.
But it wasn’t a GOP talking point. Will he start going there in a big way—the emails, her trustworthiness, all that?
For Clinton, the danger is if she tries to turn the New York primary into a referendum on Israel. There is a long tradition of this. Clinton’s people should read up on how Al Gore tried to do this to Mike Dukakis in 1988—and how he came to grief. And the sentiment of Democratic voters on Israel, even and maybe especially Jewish voters, has moved well to the left since 1988. If Clinton tries to make New York an “Israel vote”—which is to say, basically a Likud vote—she will show a tone-deafness to her party’s current state of play, and it’ll hurt her.
So it’s like 1992—but it’s also totally not like 1992. The times—the Great Recession, and the anger that arose in reaction to it—have changed the playbook. Clinton remains the presumptive nominee by every mathematical measure, but she should want to be the nominee by more than math. The next two weeks will tell us whether she’s up to it.