Earlier this week, well before any votes had actually been cast in New York's Democratic primary, the Bernie Sanders campaign was already spinning what looked like a sure loss. Campaign manager Jeff Weaver reassured supporters in a Sunday night email that "we don't have to win New York on Tuesday, but we have to pick up a lot of delegates," and as voters across the state cast ballots, Sanders himself slammed New York's restrictive closed primary system, which prohibits non-Democrats from voting and requires people to declare their party months in advance. The candidate later called out New York's dysfunctional electoral machinery, which resulted in purged voter rolls, closed polling stations, and long lines.
But it's impossible to excuse away Hillary Clinton's 58–42 dominating victory over Sanders. The Vermont senator will have to win around 59 percent of the remaining delegates if he wants to overtake Clinton, according to FiveThirtyEight, and it's hard to imagine that happening.
It's true that the Democratic Establishment was backing Clinton from day one, and that she had enormous structural advantages over the relatively unknown Sanders, and that the Vermont senator has done an amazing job challenging Clinton in spite of all this. It's also true that Clinton has won more delegates than Sanders because she's earned more votes, and she has a significant lead in the polls in large, important states like Pennsylvania and California.
So Sanders's chances have narrowed to a barely there sliver. That doesn't mean he should quit, however.
If he drops out, that's it for the Democratic primary—Clinton will spend the next couple months using GIFs to insult the Republicans and stockpiling super PAC money for the inevitable wave of hate and negativity of the general election. If he stays in, Clinton will almost certainly get the nomination anyway, but at least Democrats in the remaining states will have a chance to voice their displeasure with Clinton's hawkishness, the donations she has received in the past from Wall Street, or simply the whole political system that she represents. This will make it more difficult for Clinton to pivot toward the general (that's why prominent Democrats have urged Sanders to drop out), but it's not Sanders's job to make it easier for her—it's his job to get her to listen to him.
By some accounts, Sanders's original goal was to get his message of economic populism out there, and his delegate deficit doesn't stop him from continuing that mission. At last week's debate, Clinton was asked whether she would sign a bill for a $15 minimum wage as president—a question that wouldn't have been asked without Sanders's pressure from the left. Sanders has also forced her to back away from her support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and likely contributed to her adopting anti-bank rhetoric. When Clinton trots out her "no bank is too big to fail, no executive too powerful to jail" line, we likely have Sanders to thank. If anyone thinks that Sanders's candidacy will be a failure if he loses, remember that among his other accomplishments, he became the first major presidential contender in recent memory to denounce Israel's treatment of Palestinians on a debate stage.
He also has an opportunity to mold his base of mostly young, passionate voters who may not have been interested in politics before. He's not the first candidate to stand on a soapbox shouting about getting the money out of politics, but something about his candidacy has caught on in a way that, say, Howard Dean's never did. No one could have predicted that an angry old Jewish socialist would be the spark that gets millennials interested in politics, but here we are.
This puts him in a position to have an outsized say in the future of the Democratic Party, and as another great New York native (Spider-Man's Uncle Ben) said, "With great power comes great responsibility." As the prospect of a defeat to Clinton becomes more of a reality, Sanders will have to figure out how he wants to end his campaign—and in the last month, unfortunately, he's been something of a sore loser.
He's suing the Democratic National Committee over an incident in which a Sanders staffer accessed the Clinton campaign's voter data due to a software glitch, and the DNC barred Sanders's campaign from accessing any voter data for a day. In a separate lawsuit against the DNC, Sanders accused Clinton of committing campaign finance violations when she held a joint fundraiser for other Democrats. This kind of petty legal action (the first suit is seeking only $75,000 in damages) doesn't match Sanders's soaring rhetoric. Neither does his dismissal of Clinton's wins in the Deep South, where largely black Democratic electorates picked her over him, or his comment that Clinton was "unqualified" to be president, a statement he later kinda-sorta retreated from.
No candidate should be blamed for all that's said in his name, but this sort of finger-pointing likely encourages things like this ridiculous change.org petition accusing Clinton of widespread electoral fraud, speakers at Sanders rallies comparing South Carolina to Guam, or Sanders supporters who think that there's little difference between Clinton and a Republican.
Sanders can and should refute this BS. He should tell his supporters that of course Clinton is a million times better than Donald Trump. He should inform people like Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig that if they think the New York primary rules amount to "voter suppression," they should join the New York Democratic Party and work to change those rules. He should explain that a lot of times, revolutions take a lot longer than one presidential campaign—that if you're serious about the stuff he is serious about, run for office yourself, take over local Democratic parties, change the system by becoming the system, because that's the only way to do it. He should tell people that after his loss, he'll work to back good, left-wing candidates running in local Democratic primaries, raising money for them and drawing attention to them, as people like Sarah Palin have done for the Tea Party.
Most politicians wouldn't do that. They'd try to scrape out a near impossible win by any means necessary, up to and including outrageous negative attacks that turn the campaign into a sideshow (for examples of this see the entire Republican primary process). But Sanders wasn't supposed to be like other politicians; he was supposed to be better. The way he carries himself as the campaign enters its final stage will give him a chance to prove that.