Speaking in front of the tenement home in which he grew up in Brooklyn, Sen. Bernie Sanders waxed uncharacteristically nostalgic last week.
“Right on this street, I spent thousands of hours playing punchball — do they still play punchball?” he said. “We played football, we played boxball, although the footpaths look a little better than they did. We used to have sewers around here where we played marbles.”
“This was a great community to grow up in,” he added.
It was a bit of reflection in a state that has become one of outsize importance for the insurgent senator.
Despite the large crowds and the charming personal anecdotes, Sanders’ future in the Democratic race looks grim. The Empire State provides him with perhaps his last, best chance to seize momentum from Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and senator from New York.
Most election analysts say it’s nearly impossible for Sanders to even tie Clinton in pledged delegates. Sanders also faces an unfavorable primary map moving forward. He trails Clinton in polls in Pennsylvania and California, where the bulk of the remaining delegates could give Clinton an even bigger lead.
Now, much of Sanders’ prospects ride on how well he can do in New York, a state that embraced Clinton in multiple Senate bids and in the 2008 presidential primary.
Sanders is campaigning hard in New York, attempting to rally support among more rural voters upstate and progressive voters in New York City. Long averse to the ostentatious political stunts that typified other politicians, Sanders is pulling out all of the stops in the state to woo voters and media attention.
Over the last two weeks, Sanders met adoring New York University college students in Washington Square Park, ate Nathan’s Famous hot dog in Coney Island, and hobnobbed with a litany of high-profile, Pitchfork-endorsed indie pop musicians in hip Brooklyn locales.
But his campaign faces a variety of obstacles in the Empire State.
Most recent polls show Clinton leading among likely Democratic primary voters in the state by a wide margin. Clinton leads by 14 points in the RealClearPolitics average of recent surveys. The state’s demographic diversity isn’t doing any favours for Sanders, who has performed well in contests where the electorate has trended more homogeneous.
The Democratic presidential candidate’s campaign has also grumbled about New York’s voter registration rules. New York holds a closed primary, which means only voters registered with either party can cast votes. And the state’s rules required independents to switch party registration months before the actual primary date.
Speaking to reporters after the Thursday Democratic debate in Brooklyn, Sanders campaign senior strategist Tad Devine acknowledged the difficulties the deadline posed for the campaign, which has disproportionately attracted Democratic-leaning independent voters.
“We do better when independents can vote. We saw that from New Hampshire to Wisconsin. It’s just a much better system,” Devine said.
“That being said, the system is the system. We understand what it is here. We’re going to compete for Democratic votes in a Democratic primary. And we’re going to try to do the best we can,” he added.
Sanders said during Thursday’s debate that he believes he will win the Democratic nomination. But his actual path there is becoming less clear.
The New York Times reported earlier this month that Sanders expressed deep frustration at the campaign’s inability to sweep the early primary states, hindering his attempt to win delegates and momentum heading into less-favourable contests in the South. During the debate, he diminished the “deep South” — where he said his campaign had gotten “murdered” — as “the most conservative part of this great country.”
Publicly, however, the campaign remains optimistic.
Devine said that Sanders could still win the nomination, and come away with the majority of delegates, without winning the Empire State, though he did not elaborate on the specifics.
“I think we have to do well here in New York, but there are plenty of events between here and California and Washington, DC, at the end for us to make up the difference,” Devine said. “We were 326 pledged delegates behind on the 15th of March. We are 214 now behind. We’ve shaved a third off of her advantage by winning eight of the last nine contests.”
He added: “I’m not going to say that we are going to win every contests between now and the middle of June, but we are going to win most of them, we are going to win by far most of the delegates, we can make up the pledged delegate differential. And I believe when the voting is over, we will be ahead in pledged delegates.”