The Portland Bird That Heralded Sanders’ Spring Revival

After his trifecta in the West, Sanders heads to New York, whose Jews have been overwhelmingly loyal to Hillary Clinton.

A bird lands on Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders's podium as he speaks on March 25, 2016 in Portland, Oregon.
AFP

There was some ornithological back and forth about the little bird that landed on Bernie Sanders podium during a campaign rally in Portland Oregon on Friday, but everyone seemed to agree it belonged to the finch family. Christianity associates the finch with Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, which was being marked on Sunday. For New Age and mystic types, the finch is a sign of energy, enthusiasm and optimism.  So not only was Sanders prescient when told his Portland fans that the friendly bird was symbolic, within 24 hours its symbolism materialized in full: Sanders hit a perfect trifecta in Saturday’s Western caucuses, resuscitating his campaign and injecting new doses of energy and motivation for his followers. The finch, it turned out, was a harbinger of a Sanders’ Spring.

The Vermont Senator’s coup wasn’t remarkable so much because he beat Hillary Clinton in Washington, Alaska and Hawaii caucuses, but because he crushed her. In Alaska, his margin of victory was 63%, in Hawaii 45% and in Washington, the day’s biggest catch, 40%. While Clinton had already pivoted to being the presumptive Democratic nominee focusing on the general campaign against Donald Trump and the GOP, Sanders directed his energies to the three Western outliers. His efforts were rewarded by a stampede of supporters to the polling booths and caucus halls, while complacent Clinton backers preferred to spend their Easter weekend at home.

Sanders’ hat-trick reinvigorated his ardent fans, who were dispirited by his harsh defeat in Arizona last week. His three victories will stifle calls for Sanders to quit the race in order to unite the party behind Clinton and against Trump, including the ostensibly oblique suggestions made in recent weeks by President Obama. Sanders, who had rejected such calls even before Saturday’s ballots, will now enjoy a new wave of support and donations that will enable him to continue his race till the very end, which in practical terms means the June 7 primaries in California.

Bird lands on Sanders' podium during Portland rally. CNN

Nonetheless, pundits and analysts seemed to agree that Sanders’ impressive victories on Saturday don’t change the fundamental direction of the Democratic race. Clinton still leads him by close to 300 delegates, her path to the Democratic candidacy is still far wider and she remains the overwhelming favorite to capture the nomination. And without detracting from Sanders’ wins, his victories in Washington and Alaska did not deviate from his already proven strengths: liberal states with a strong white majority in which caucuses, rather than primaries are held. Hawaii is of course an exception, but it doesn’t prove any rule: only a quarter of its population is white, but the rest are of Asian or native Hawaiian origin. It does not resemble any other state in the continental U.S.

With the notable exception of Michigan, Sanders has yet to win in any state with diverse demographics. Perhaps he might pull off an important come-from-behind victory in the April 5 primaries in Wisconsin, but America’s Dairyland is not only heavily white but also predisposed by nature to Sanders’ progressive agenda. A win in Wisconsin will further whet Sanders’ appetite but won’t provide a formula for him to triumph in much more diverse and delegate heavy states such as New York, Pennsylvania, California or New Jersey.

The first showdown, and perhaps the most decisive one, will take place in New York on April 19. In the surprisingly few polls that have been carried out, Clinton leads Sanders by anywhere between 20 to 40 per cent. Sanders, who opened his campaign headquarters with a block party in Brooklyn on Saturday, intends to wage what his advisers call “an aggressive campaign” to convince wavering liberals to move to his side. He will use his three victories on Saturday to persuade Democrats that he is no Don Quixote but a viable candidate with better chances to beat Donald Trump or any other Republican in November.

New York, however, is Clinton’s home turf. She beat Barack Obama here by a 57-40 per cent margin in 2008. Since then, the African American and Hispanic share of the population, which Sanders has yet to win over, has only grown. And then there are the Jews, who will naturally join center stage in New York: in 2008, Jews comprised over 15% of the Democratic electorate. They preferred Clinton to Obama by a whopping 65-35 margin. Sanders, despite his Jewish background, may not find it any easier than the outgoing president to convince New York Jews to ditch their former Senator.

Until now, Clinton has resisted calling on Sanders to suspend his campaign, and her ability to do so is now further constrained in any case by his decisive Western wins. But even if Sanders was inclined to quit, which he definitely isn’t, it’s not quite clear whether this would be good or bad for Clinton: the ongoing contest between the two Democrats highlights the difference between their Queensbury Rules clash and the down and dirty mud wrestling that has characterized the GOP battles in recent weeks. If Sanders’ exits, there will be far less of the already undersized media coverage of the Democratic race and Trump will rule the airwaves unopposed once again.

Finally, one cannot ignore the new tensions between Clinton and Sanders following his refusal to promise his automatic endorsement should she win the race. In a recent interview, Sanders’ said he would first impose a series of conditions before endorsing, sending alarm bells ringing in Clinton’s headquarters as well as Democratic officials. If Sanders doesn’t endorse Clinton, his millions of fans might decide to sit out the November elections, which could prove fatal to Clinton’s chances of winning.

Sanders’ demands also reminded many Democrats of one vital element of his political biography that has been repressed in recent months: Sanders was never a Democrat, and even now is not a registered member of the party. He was an independent and might very well go back to being one if and when he loses the Democratic race. Clinton’s worst nightmare, of course, is that he goes off in a huff and decides to run independently. Here’s a scenario that is highly unlikely but in this crazy political year might also merit a mention: Democrats split between Sanders and Clinton and Republicans between Trump and somebody else. Then we’ll have a four man presidential race and, as you can well imagine, all bets are off.