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Since her decisive win in New York last month, Hillary Clinton has had her eyes firmly on the general election, blasting Donald Trump in near daily emails and making the New York billionaire the target of most of her stump speeches.
Yet through it all, Bernie Sanders remains. With just nine primaries and caucuses remaining, Mrs Clinton’s primary opponent is fighting an increasingly bitter battle with the Democratic frontrunner, not just for the presidential nomination but for lasting influence over their party.
“He’s setting up a dynamic where some of his followers aren’t going to believe in the [democratic] process no matter what happens,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to senators Harry Reid and Edward Kennedy. “So it’s going to be up to him to downplay their concerns. Hopefully he’s going to do so but if and when he does I’m not sure it’s going to be enough.”
The bad blood between Mr Sanders and the Democratic establishment has worsened to the point where this week he announced he would back the opponent of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, in the Florida primary for her congressional seat.
Ms Wasserman Schultz had blamed Mr Sanders for violence that erupted at the Nevada Democratic Convention this month, when some Sanders supporters were blocked from entering the convention. While Mr Sanders said he did not condone the violence, he used the incident to back up claims that the DNC had tipped the primary in Mrs Clinton’s favour.
The DNC later made a concession to Mr Sanders by allowing him to pick five of the 15 DNC members who will draft the party’s platform for the Democratic National Convention in July. Six of the members will be selected by Mrs Clinton, while the remaining four will be chosen by Ms Wasserman Schultz.
Yet that has not stopped Mr Sanders from lashing Mrs Clinton and a Democratic party he claims is rigging the system in her favour.
While Mr Sanders has stressed he would never back Mr Trump or advocate for his supporters to do so, some worry that his broadsides against his primary opponent and the Democratic party could leave Mrs Clinton badly weakened ahead of the general election.
At a rally with over 6,000 people in Santa Monica on Monday night, Mr Sanders railed against Mrs Clinton for her decision not to hold a final debate with him before the state’s June 7 primary, a move he said was “insulting to the people of California”.
“They’ve been very nervous lately and I don’t want to get them more nervous,” he joked of the Clinton campaign. “But we’re going to win here in California.”
Most polls refute Mr Sanders’ claim. Only one survey by Fox News suggests there will be a tight race in California. An average of Real Clear Politics polls, meanwhile, forecasts Mrs Clinton winning the state by a 10 point margin.
Yet calls from Democratic leaders for Mr Sanders to either exit the race or to drop his attacks on Mrs Clinton have angered some of Mr Sanders’ supporters who see it as yet more evidence of the Democratic Party handing the election to Mrs Clinton.
“They’ve been saying it’s mathematically impossible [for Mr Sanders] to get the nomination pretty much since the start of the primary,” complained Julia Sharpe-Levine, a Sanders supporter in New York. “He never had a chance and he’s come so far. He’s won three of the past four primaries.”
“I feel like calling Bernie supporters divisive and delusional and bitter and sore losers is really kind of mind boggling considering the fact that he has won the majority of the past 15 races and he’s consistently polling better against Trump than Clinton.”
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll shows that Mr Sanders would beat Mr Trump by 15 points in a matchup, while Mrs Clinton polls just two points better than Mr Trump nationally.
Most close to the Clinton camp rationalise Mr Sanders’ eventual reconciliation with Mrs Clinton and the Democratic party by pointing to the analogy of Mrs Clinton’s bitter 2008 fight with Barack Obama.
While the two rivals traded insults up until the end of the primary, Mrs Clinton endorsed her opponent days after the final primary vote, and the vast majority of her supporters backed Mr Obama for the presidency.
“What's happening with Sanders is normal,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, the Democratic think-tank and an alumnus of Bill Clinton’s White House. “It's extraordinarily hard to believe you’re losing when everyone you see every day adores you, especially if you're still drawing huge crowds. Once the inevitable becomes clear, he will focus on the extraordinary risk to the republic posed by Trump and do the right thing.”
Mr Sanders’ supporters, Mr Bennett admitted, were more of a variable. Yet for many of them, the thought (or fear) of a Trump presidency could be enough to drive them to the polls and foster party unity.
“They don't have to love her,” said Mr Bennett. “They just have to vote for her.”
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