Will Clinton-Sanders clashes do lasting damage to Democratic ticket?

After Thursday's raucous Democratic debate, questions arise over how long the Democratic nomination fight will last – and whether the losers' supporters will back the winner. 

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders speak during a Democratic debate hosted by CNN and New York One at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York Thursday.

By acclamation, Thursday night’s Democratic debate was the most raucous yet. From the start, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders hurled accusations at one another, questioned each other’s suitability for the presidency, and interrupted regularly. The Brooklyn audience made a lot of noise, more for Senator Sanders than former Secretary of State Clinton.

During one particularly chaotic moment, CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer jumped in with a warning: “If you’re both screaming at each other, the viewers won’t be able to hear either of you.”

The stakes in Thursday’s debate were higher for Sanders than for Clinton. Sanders trails Clinton in the delegate count for the nomination – badly, if superdelegates are included – and in polls of New York Democrats, who hold their primary on Tuesday. If Sanders loses badly in New York, his chances at securing the nomination nearly vanish.

But the Vermont democratic socialist insists he won’t give up. He’s promised to take his fight all the way through the last primary in June and onto the floor of the Democratic National Convention in July. His fundraising – he’s outraised Clinton the last three months – will allow him to do that.

To Democratic analysts, Thursday’s debate was lively – but nothing out of bounds, especially when compared with some of the wild and vulgar moments in the Donald Trump-infused Republican debates. Still, the Brooklyn debate served as a reminder that uniting Democratic voters behind their eventual nominee may not be easy.

“I think the question on that score is what happens between June 7 and the convention,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn.

Sanders's decision

After June 7, when California holds its primary, the nomination should be clear – most likely Clinton. Then what does Sanders do?

“You can take it to the convention, get a speaking slot, have your name placed in nomination, and go through the roll call on the first ballot,” says Mr. Fenn. “But don’t go around saying superdelegates are a sham.”

Democratic superdelegates are the elected officials and party leaders empowered to vote for whomever they want at the convention. They account for 15 percent of the total delegates, and most support Clinton, so far.

Sanders’s team argues that the superdelegates should vote how their state votes – and that Sanders can win them over. They will be swayed by the energy and enthusiasm behind Sanders’s campaign, his campaign manager says.

“All these young people who are coming out for Bernie Sanders, are they going to come out for Hillary Clinton?” Jeff Weaver said on MSNBC last week. “I’m not so confident about that.”  

Sanders has said repeatedly he would vote for Clinton if she’s the nominee. The question is whether he will rally his followers to support her. Polls suggest that Democrats will have less difficulty getting their party to unite in November than will the Republicans, who appear to be headed for a contested convention.

And when the Republicans settle on their nominee, analysts say, that will energize Democrats – particularly if it’s the populist, nativist Mr. Trump or Ted Cruz, the hard-line conservative senator from Texas.

But for now, the Democrats are having their own drama, as Sanders – the populist outsider who isn’t even fully a Democrat – pushes the ultimate Democratic insider.

In Thursday’s debate, some of the conflict over issues boiled over. Sanders and Clinton were yelling simultaneously about the minimum wage – Sanders wants $15, Clinton wants $12 – when Mr. Blitzer had to intervene. The two also clashed over Israel and the Palestinians, guns, and how to break up the big banks.

Sanders deployed his oft-repeated argument that Clinton should release the transcripts of her lucrative speeches to Goldman Sachs, and Clinton defended herself by saying that she had “stood up against the behaviors of the banks” when she was a senator.

Sanders responded with sarcasm. “Secretary Clinton called them out. Oh my goodness, they must have been really crushed by this,” he said.

There were no knockout punches in the debate, just the raising of familiar issues and displays of frayed nerves – hardly surprising, after months of nonstop campaigning.

Benefits of a marathon

The Democrats’ extended season of contested primaries isn’t necessarily all bad for the eventual nominee. Just as Barack Obama’s spirited competition with Clinton eight years ago was seen as helpful in prepping him for the general election, and in getting organized in every state, so too can the eventual Democratic nominee of 2016 gain from the current marathon.

Still, Clinton would just as soon get on with focusing on the general election, given her lead in delegates (both pledged and “super”) and the likelihood that she’ll win the nomination.

Clinton managed to work Trump into the debate anyway. She tied the billionaire to Sanders over the point that neither has released their tax returns, despite promises to do so (and despite their vastly differing net worths). And she highlighted her appeal to women, by slamming Trump for his recent comment that women should potentially be punished for having an abortion, a position he quickly reversed.

But the reality is that Sanders has mounted a more vigorous challenge to Clinton than anyone expected – perhaps even Sanders himself. His wife, Jane, has said as much.

In addition, Sanders’s challenge has brought certain issues to the fore, including the trans-Pacific trade deal, the cost of college, and the minimum wage. Whether Clinton would have taken different positions absent Sanders can’t be known, but if she’s the nominee and wants his supporters to back her, the Sanders effect will remain long after the nomination race is over.

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