The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Bernie Sanders Refuses to Quit, for Now

The Vermont Senator has forced Hillary Clinton into the awkward role of a presumptive nominee who just can't seem to win.
12 May 2016, 12:00am
Bernie Sanders addresses a crowd in Salem, Oregon, after winning the West Virginia primary. Photo by Rob Kerr/AFP/Getty Images

At this point in the interminable 2016 election cycle, the race for the Democratic Party's presidential primary race seems to have hit a brick wall—and then backed up and slammed into that wall again and again.

For weeks now, Hillary Clinton has held a virtually insurmountable lead, outpacing Bernie Sanders, her lone rival, by hundreds of pledged delegates. Short of a mass defection of superdelegates, it is now mathematically impossible for Sanders to win the party's nomination. And yet, the Vermont senator continues to campaign, and it's safe to say his victory in Tuesday's West Virginia primary won't convince Sanders to suddenly back off.

The self-described Democratic socialist won the state by a solid margin, pulling in 51 percent of the vote to Clinton's 35 percent, with 12 percent of West Virginia's Democratic voters casting ballots for fringe candidates, demonstrating how unhappy the coal-reliant state is with the status quo of national politics.

Tuesday's results weren't really a surprise, though: West Virginia, like most states Sanders has won so far, is overwhelmingly white and working-class, and its beaten-down economic narrative dovetails neatly with the Senator's campaign message about corporate greed and the evils of free trade. Though Clinton won West Virginia in 2008, and made a few stops there before Tuesday's vote primary, she had basically spent that time playing defense, attempting to reassure angry Appalachian voters that she hadn't really meant it when she promised earlier this year to "put coal companies out of business." (Clinton and her campaign have insisted the candidate misspoke.)

Sensing defeat, Clinton refocused her attention on Kentucky, which holds its own primary next week. On Tuesday, her campaign announced that, for the first time this month, it will purchase television advertising—a move that some claim is a preemptive strike in a region where she has struggled to vanquish Sanders and where she could face similar weaknesses in a general election race against Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, any #NeverTrump Republicans holding out hope that Texas Senator Ted Cruz would somehow revive his now-suspended presidential campaign—a possibility Cruz briefly hinted at on Tuesday—were once again disappointed. Trump won both of the night's Republican contests, in West Virginia and Nebraska. Eschewing his usual primary night press conference, the sole remaining Republican candidate instead issued a statement congratulating himself on winning the two states "by such massive margins."

"My time spent in both states was a wonderful and enlightening experience for me," he added. "I look forward to returning to West Virginia and Nebraska soon, and hope to win both states in the general election."

Other Republicans mostly ignored Trump's unsurprising victories, instead taking the opportunity to taunt Clinton's latest defeat.

It is nothing short of embarrassing that Hillary Clinton has now been defeated twenty times by a 74-year old socialist from Vermont

— Reince Priebus (@Reince)May 11, 2016

Tuesday night, at a victory rally in Salem, Oregon, that 74-year-old once again told a packed room of supporters that, contrary to the opinions of most Democratic primary voters thus far, he, and not Clinton, is the Democrats' best option to take on the GOP in a general election. "It is not only in national polls where we defeat Donald Trump by bigger numbers than Secretary Clinton, it is state poll after state poll after state poll," Sanders said.

He said he still has a "road to victory," in which he'll have to win 65 percent of the remaining unbound delegates to beat Clinton—this, of course, not counting the superdelegates who have already taken her side. He promised a fight in Oregon, New Jersey, and California—three states with large delegate counts that have still yet to hold primaries—that will take his campaign all the way to the Democratic Party's national convention in Philadelphia this summer.

"Let me be as clear as I can be," he said. "We are in this campaign to win the Democratic nomination." The room went wild.

Beyond Sanders's supporters, however, few think he has a shot to overcome Clinton. Her campaign has pivoted recently to focus more on attacking Trump, and the media has, for the most part, looked at the numbers and concluded Sanders doesn't have a shot. It's going to take more than a West Virginia win for Sanders to get back in this thing for real.

Follow John Surico on Twitter.