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Why Bernie Sanders's Rhode Island win is more than a tiny victory

Of the five Northeastern states up for grabs Tuesday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders walked away with one win: Rhode Island. Why did the nation's smallest state vote big for Sanders?

John Minchillo/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during an election night campaign event at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena, Tuesday, April 26, 2016, in Huntington, W.Va.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton almost had a winning night across the board Tuesday night. Almost. 

Mrs. Clinton won Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, and Delaware. But her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders managed to eke out a win of his own in Rhode Island. As the primary season winds down, Clinton has all-but clinched the nomination with 813 more pledged delegates than Senator Sanders. Clinton has 2,151 to Sanders with 1,338, the Associated Press reports. To clinch the nomination, a candidate needs 2,383.

But the Vermonter isn't giving up just yet.

“The people in every state in this country should have the right to determine who they want as president and what the agenda of the Democratic Party should be,” Sanders said in a press release Tuesday. “That’s why we are in this race until the last vote is cast.”

Sanders recently portrayed his opponent’s success as a regional phenomenon, likely to fade when the primary elections move away from the South. 

“Tuesday’s results proved him wrong,” reports The New York Times’ Michael Barbaro. “But her defeat in Rhode Island will sting somewhat because it feeds Mr. Sanders’s argument that so long as he is winning (even small states), he should remain in the Democratic race.”

And just like the New York primary last week, the results of Tuesday’s Democratic primaries were not gamechanging. 

As The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Grier concluded after New York’s primary, “the results don’t add or subtract momentum from anyone as much as show long-existing strengths and weaknesses and focus our attention on ... important, obvious conclusions about the nomination end games.” Primarily, Sanders can’t win the nomination through pledged delegates alone: he will need to take the fight all the way to the Democratic convention in July. 

And while Sanders’ win in Rhode Island backs up his argument that he still has a place in the Democratic race, it also spoke loudly of his enduring weaknesses: minority voters, party elites, and city wins. 

When comparing unlabelled, statewide maps of Clinton and Sanders victories, it would seem as if the two candidates had equal support. (Or in the case of New York, where the Vermont Senator won 49 of the state’s 62 counties, would look like Sanders had a resounding win.) But after comparing maps where major cities are identified, it is clear how Clinton won. On Tuesday, Clinton won the populated, state epicenters of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Hartford, Conn., and New Haven, Conn. Big cities – with their large minority populations – have long been a weakness of Sanders.

But the reasons why Sanders lost Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland are the same factors that worked in Sanders’ favor in Rhode Island. Of the five contests Tuesday, Rhode Island was the only state with an open primary, allowing votes from Sanders’s Independent, non-Democrat-registered supporters. And Rhode Island is predominately white, with an African American population under eight percent – the smallest of all five states. Comparatively, 22.2 percent of Delaware and 30.3 percent of Maryland is African American.

“For all of that, the race isn’t over.... It’s likely, in fact, that he’ll continue to have some state wins. What’s changed is that Sanders appears to accept that the once-narrow path to winning the nomination through delegate math has now become impassable,” writes the Washington Post’s Philip Bump. “This isn’t how Bernie Sanders wanted the day to end. But a year ago, he and his activists – and his critics – would never have believed that an ending like this would be possible.”

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