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The Bernie Sanders Campaign Is at a Crossroads After a Decisive Defeat in New York

After being forced to hit the reset button following a 16-point loss in the Empire State, Sanders' top two advisers seemed to diverge on strategy moving forward.

by Liz Fields
Apr 20 2016, 3:50pm

Photo by Mary Altaffer/AP

Just days ago, the Bernie Sanders campaign was buoyed by the image of tens of thousands of screaming supporters crammed into parks and iconic New York landmarks and iPhone-wielding mobs swarming the senator as he strolled down the sidewalks of Manhattan. Those visuals contrasted starkly with a scene from Burlington, Vermont's airport last night, where a visibly weary senator was hounded by reporters after decamping to his hometown following a devastating 16-point loss in New York on Tuesday night.

Sanders left the campaign trail in Pennsylvania — and an apparently miffed traveling press corps — behind to "recharge" back on his home turf.

His defeat in New York was bleak. Despite record-setting rally turnouts of 28,000 and a grassroots effort manned by some of his most vocal and vehement supporters both on and offline in the Empire State, Sanders' momentum after eight straight primary victories failed to translate to the polls in New York on Tuesday.

Sanders held a conference call with reporters late Tuesday night night to soothe any disquiet about his sudden departure from the trail. And on the tarmac of Burlington airport, Sanders blamed voting laws and "irregularities" in New York for his loss, and criticized the state's closed primary system that locked out nearly 3 million independent and unaffiliated voters from casting ballots in the primary.

"While I congratulate Secretary Clinton, I must say that I am really concerned about the conduct of the voting process in New York State, and I hope that that process will change in the future," Sanders told reporters.

The source of Sanders's frustration likely stemmed from a flood of complaints over registration problems in recent days. Just a day before the primary, a watchdog group, Election Justice USA, filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of more than 200 New York voters seeking immediate injunctive relief to allow them to vote. Many charged that the elections board had purged them from voter rolls by losing voter registration forms, never updating their registration, or improperly changing their voter affiliation. New York City comptroller Scott Stringer said Tuesday his office would conduct an audit investigating those issues in the city.

Related: New Yorkers File Emergency Lawsuit Over Voter Registration Problems on Primary Day

And now it appears as though the Sanders campaign could be gearing up to file a lawsuit of its own in New York. Early on Wednesday, notices circulated on social media from Sanders supporters urging voters who were for any reason barred from voting because of registration issues and forced to fill out an affidavit ballot instead, to contact Sanders's legal team. VICE News called the phone number listed in one post several times, which diverted to a voice message bank purportedly run by the Bernie Sanders voter hotline.

The campaign did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

Clinton's win puts Sanders on the back foot again after a string of wins for the senator across mostly Western states. Although Sanders's immediate departure from New York the morning of the primaries to attend events in New Jersey and Pennsylvania signaled that the campaign saw the loss coming, the senator's double-digit defeat appeared to deliver a deeper blow than anticipated. On Tuesday night, the campaign scrambled to get its message straight, with its two top dogs, senior advisor Tad Devine and campaign manager Jeff Weaver seemingly diverging on the strategy moving forward.

During an appearance on MSNBC Tuesday night after results were announced, Weaver said that the campaign still planned to go all the way to the convention and try to convince delegates to join their side — even if they fail to overcome Clinton's lead in pledged delegates and the popular vote.

Weaver was confronted by host Steve Kornacki commanding a giant interactive map and spouting some tough delegate math. The map showed upcoming primary states and the number of pledged delegates the Sanders campaign would need to close the now 246-delegate gap between their campaign and Hillary Clinton's.

Kornacki proceeded to grill Weaver on which states he saw as must-wins going forward, but Weaver was careful not to call any states "must-wins" for the campaign, instead saying that Pennsylvania will be "a very, very important state" where they expect to do well. Sanders trails Clinton by between 6 and 22 points in the state, according to recent polling, but Weaver said that the campaign's own polls show them performing much better than any public polling.

Weaver also pointed to other states that the campaign believes they had a fair shot at taking in the coming weeks including California, Oregon, Montana, North Dakota, south Dakota, New Mexico, Indiana.

Talk then turned to superdelegates.

"When we get past the 26th you go into May, you've got one state a week. I think we've got the possibility of winning every single state — week in that month," Weaver said, correcting himself.

Related: Hillary Clinton Clinches Big New York Victory Against Bernie Sanders

Weaver reiterated the campaign's previously-stated tactic to coax Clinton's superdelegates (she currently has 502) to their own camp at the national convention, saying that even if Clinton wins the pledged delegate count and popular vote come June 7, the campaign will still work in June and July to convince party elders to buck her campaign and back Sanders.

What's the rationale? Kornacki probed. Why would superdelegates countervail the popular vote and a majority of pledged delegates?

"Because they're going to want to win in November," Weaver said, adding that, "polls continue to show that Bernie Sanders is a much stronger delegate in the general election."

Yet on the same night, the campaign's key strategist was peddling a very different message. In an interview with the Associated Press, Devine said that the campaign planned to "sit back and assess where we are" after the next five states hold their primaries on April 26. Sanders will return to the campaign trail in one of those states, Pennsylvania, on Thursday.

New York handed Clinton a much-needed win after eight successive losses to Sanders. It meant that Clinton took home at least 139 delegates on Tuesday night, while Sanders received 106.

"The race for the nomination is in the home stretch, and victory is in sight," Clinton told hundreds of cheering supporters at a ballroom in the Sheraton Hotel Tuesday night. The former New York senator also made an appeal to Sanders supporters, while barely mentioning the senator himself in her speech.

"To all the people who supported Senator Sanders, I believe there is much more that unites us than divides."

The candidates will face off next in five primaries on the east coast on April 26 in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields