Bernie Sanders had a terrific night in Iowa. While Hillary Clinton edged him out by a paper-thin margin, voter-wise Sanders can claim to have just about managed a statistical tie. When you consider where he was just six months or so ago, to have risen to a position of being equals with one of the most powerful, heavily endorsed and well-financed candidates in American politics is a laudable feat. There's an argument to be made that even a virtual tie with Clinton is a win for Sanders because he defied expectations and showed that he has some real political authority moving forward. But if you take a step back and look at the numbers coming out of the places both campaigns eventually end up, last night's impressive showing -- and the win Sanders should likely chalk up in New Hampshire next week -- will lead to a pretty short-lived victory party. To make any difference in his future, Bernie needed to win last night -- and win big. It was always a tall order, but it was essential.
90% of Iowa's population is white and Sanders is a New Englander, making a strong showing in the first two contests for him not all that surprising. But once that hurdle is cleared, barring some miraculous and monumental shift in national opinion, Bernie heads into an electoral gauntlet he won't emerge from. It's all about the numbers: According to Nate Silver's 538, which crunches a massive amount of polling data, district information and voter behavior and arrives at some scarily accurate predictions, when the primaries move to South Carolina, that's when the plummet to the ground begins. 538 declares that Clinton has a 96% chance of taking the state. Then there's Super Tuesday, which is a built-in firewall for Clinton as it's a day in which she's almost certain to sweep through the South, where Democrats tend to be more centrist and where a strong minority vote -- which Sanders simply does not have -- gives her a huge leg-up. Clinton can nearly bring it all home delegate-wise in one day. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia are hers for the taking and if he's honest with himself Bernie has to know this.
If Sanders somehow does survive Super Tuesday, then he has March 15th, two weeks later, to contend with. In Florida, which holds its primary on that date, combined polling puts Clinton at 61% while Sanders has only 26%; North Carolina has 58% for Clinton and 28% for Sanders; Ohio is 53% for Clinton, 39% for Sanders. Regardless, by now it's all over. Keeping in mind that Clinton already has a 45 to 1 advantage over Sanders in terms of pledged superdelegates, this thing will almost certainly be sewn up before the end of spring. That's not an opinion. It's math. The thing about reality is that it's always there and you're subject to the constraints of it whether you choose to believe in it or not. Barring a political deus ex machina of statistically inexpressible proportions, Bernie Sanders just isn't going to be president.
So why throw cold water on the dreams of the Sanders faithful? It isn't to sway them away from Sanders in favor of Clinton's inevitability for the Democrats (not during the early primaries anyway). That wouldn't be necessary anyway given that Clinton already has more than enough support to secure her victory and this spot in the process is a good place to vote with your heart if you so choose. But that's the problem and it's why it's important to at least try to telegraph what's coming. While every candidate has his or her share of overzealous supporters, Sanders's promise of a political revolution that will bust conventional wisdom, drastically transform the country and upend decades of electoral and governmental precedent has earned him something closer to unwavering adoration and blind faith than simple backing. As John Avignone said recently over at Salon, Bernie doesn't have supporters as much as he has believers -- and true believers at that. (Don't think so? Do what I did and write 2,000 words arguing that Hillary Clinton has gotten a bad rap and watch the Twitter heavens open up and the deluge begin.) That kind of devotion and enthusiasm is tough to come by for a candidate, but it can be an even harder thing to shake for the supporters themselves. And that's a very big problem given the political reality Bernie Sanders's fans are ultimately going to have to wake up to.
Here's the thing: The largely millennial die-hard "Sanderistas" have elevated their icon to almost mythic status and his lifelong obsession is now their crusade. They love him and they love what he claims he can do for the country. Nothing particularly wrong with that, since that's what politics are about, but their visceral hatred of Hillary Clinton for no greater crime than being a canny politician -- and for not being Bernie Sanders -- hurts the Democrats' chances of taking the White House in November. And the Democrats' losing the White House in November is something that cannot be allowed to happen. Clinton is almost certainly going to be the nominee which means that at some point Sanders's supporters, if they aren't petulant, irresponsible children, are going to have to fall in line behind Hillary -- someone they've spent months not simply campaigning against but irrationally demonizing in favor of their idol. Maybe Clinton can eke by without Sanders's people, but a united Democratic party is what's needed to confront a Republican party that's gone completely insane. The Democrats are the adults in the room, literally the only thing standing between the White House and a nightmarish clown like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, and as such they're going to need to stand together and vote with their heads come November.
What Democrats and liberals in general can't do is stay home out of spite. And it's easy to look at the behavior of far too many Sanders supporters and discern that if Bernie's presidential hopefuls die, a whole slew of Democratic votes die with him. They actually do conduct themselves like petulant children, and their unwillingness to acknowledge how both the electoral process and the American government works -- which manifests clearly in the fact that they ignore campaign math and governmental reality in favor of emotional broad-strokes on how Bernie's the singular figure who'll make it all irrelevant -- is a huge detriment to the Democratic party. There's so much naïveté there that it's tough to tell where to begin, but maybe it comes down to this demand of the Sanders loyalists: provide one clear statistical path to a Sanders victory, just one, and don't use the phrase "political revolution" or "#FeeltheBern," because hashtags aren't votes. Show one clear series of likely or even realistically possible events that can happen to gain Bernie the nomination and put him in the White House, and I'll stop arguing. After you've done that, though, ask yourself what the path is to the Democratic victories in the House and Senate that would be 100% necessary to push through even an thimbleful of Sanders's ridiculously ambitious insurgent agenda. What is it? As somebody who respects and admires Bernie a great deal I'd love to hear it.
If you can't do this in detail, then you have to at least allow for the idea that Sanders won't win -- and you have to decide what you'll do once that's made clear by the voters and the delegates. The Democrats need Sanders's faithful, because this election is bigger than Bernie. It's bigger than any one person and certainly bigger than any one grudge should that person not come out on top. Maybe you're not a fan of Hillary Clinton. There are always reasons not to be. But when the time comes, no matter who you are in the center or on the left, you need to be willing to set that aside and give her your vote. No matter who the Democratic nominee is, that person has to have your vote. Because the alternative for this country is absolutely fucking unacceptable.