Hillary Clinton is beating Bernie Sanders by just about every metric — votes, states won, pledged delegates, superdelegates, and party endorsements. So perhaps unsurprisingly, Sanders started off Thursday night's hard-hitting debate in Brooklyn by talking about the one area he's ahead: momentum.
"When we began this campaign almost a year ago, we started off at 3 percent in the polls," Sanders said in his opening statement. "We were about 70 points behind Secretary Clinton. In the last couple of weeks, there were two polls out there that had us ahead. Of the last nine caucuses and primaries, we have won eight of them, many of them by landslide victories."
The problem for Sanders is that momentum doesn't count unless you can translate it into the currency of presidential nominating races: delegates. As such, Thursday's debate was aimed almost entirely at next Tuesday's primary in New York, the second-biggest pot of delegates, after California. Both campaigns have put all their chips on New York, Clinton to arrest Sanders' momentum and Sanders, down by at least 10 points in most polls, to try to score a Michigan-like upset that would finally cut into Clinton's delegate lead and raise real doubts about her electoral prospects with Democratic Party power players.
Clinton and Sanders had debated eight times before Thursday's face-off in Brooklyn. This one was different. With so much at stake, maybe it was inevitable that Thursday's debate would have a lot more sharp elbows. But for anyone pleased that the Democratic primary hasn't descended into the gutter fight between the "professional wrestlers emerging from the RNC's clown car," as New York's Rebecca Traister put it, well, the change wasn't a good one. ("Oh my god make it stop," Traister pleaded.)
Probably the most replayed moment of the night, because it summed up the tone so well, was Wolf Blitzer's plea to the two candidates in the middle of a heated discussion over the minimum wage: "If you're both screaming at each other, the viewers won't be able to hear either of you." You can watch that interjection, and get the flavor of the debate, in the middle of this short debate recap from The Associated Press:
There was a lot of yelling from both candidates. But while Clinton got visibly exasperated ("If Sen. Sanders doesn't agree with how you are approaching something, then you are a member of the establishment," she said at one point), Sanders was the only one who appeared to actually be angry. President Obama's former speechwriter Jon Favreau didn't find it attractive:
I see we've arrived at the GET OFF MY LAWN portion of the debate.
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) April 15, 2016
Whoever told Bernie to go relentlessly angry and negative gave him very, very bad advice. He's come this far because of his inspiration.
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) April 15, 2016
Favreau wasn't alone. Since he announced his candidacy, Sanders has been a happy warrior against income inequality, the Citizens United campaign finance ruling, Wall Street banks, private health insurers, and oil and gas companies. He has said he didn't actually think he would win the nomination until sometime over the winter, and now he has not only his own future and self-styled political revolution on the line, but also the aspirations of the people who flock to his rallies and have sent him almost seven million checks averaging $27 apiece. He has people counting on him, and on Thursday he dropped the happy part of his crusade.
A lot of his supporters are angry, too. The world is unfair — more than it has to be — and Sanders points out some glaring iniquities. But Democrats, generally, aren't all that angry, especially when it comes to the presidency. In a January Washington Post/ABC News poll, for example, only 12 percent of Democrats said they are angry about how the federal government is working, and President Obama is very popular among Democrats. Unfortunately for Sanders, only registered Democrats can vote in New York's primary.
Sanders is claiming momentum, but this Democratic race, more than anything, seems guided by demography. Clinton keeps losing young voters, and Sanders consistently loses blacks and Latinos. In Thursday's debate, Sanders acknowledged that "Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South," an area he described as "the most conservative part of this great country," and expressed optimism that now that the campaign is "moving up here" to New York, he will start gaining ground. But Clinton won Massachusetts, a liberal state that borders Sanders' home state of Vermont, and demographically, New York seems a better fit for Clinton.
That doesn't mean Clinton will win the state — Sanders has pulled off upsets before, most famously in Michigan. But FiveThirtyEight's Carl Bialik suggests that Sanders had to roll the dice Thursday if he wants to pull off another coup. "Sanders' sarcastic tone — for instance, saying he'll release the transcripts of all of his nonexistent paid speeches to Wall Street — might put off some people, but at this stage of the race, he has to take some risks if he wants to catch up," Bialik said. "It's like a football team down late in a game trying onside kicks. It might lead to a blowout loss, but you have to risk that if you're trying to maximize your chance of winning."
The odd thing about Thursday's debate is that, as in the previous eight debates, Clinton and Sanders still agree much more than they disagree. Clinton tried to point that out. "You know, we are in vigorous agreement here, senator," she said at one point. "We're having a discussion about the best way to raise money from wealthy people to extend the Social Security Trust Fund. Think about what the other side wants to do. They're calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme. They still want to privatize it."
Sanders took the olive branch and ran it through a wood chipper. That makes for compelling TV — and the crowd in Brooklyn sounded like they were watching a cage match. On Tuesday, we'll get a better sense of whether Angry Bernie is an effective political persona or a calculated flop.