The media loves a horse race, and the primary season is perfect horse race material. Almost every week since late February, there has been a primary or a series of primaries that provide fuel for the narrative machine. The fact that each one has mattered far less than our national sensationalists would have you believe is irrelevant—all that counts is whether they can sell it as something meaningful. If tomorrow proves them wrong, that’s tomorrow’s problem, and it won’t even be a problem because tomorrow’s problem is yesterday’s news.
All of which is a complicated way to say that you have inevitably heard what I’m about to say before. When Bernie Sanders lost Iowa by a razor-thin margin, it was either a fatal blow to his campaign or a stunning sign of life from the darkest of socialist dark horses. When he routed Clinton in Michigan, the frontrunner was in serious trouble and her campaign was dangling by a thread. Until she struck back in Nevada and South Carolina, and won the Super Tuesday southern states, which buried Bernie for good. Except that he took some surprising victories in Oklahoma and Colorado and Minnesota. Except that she proved she wasn’t just a regional candidate, and would roll to the nomination, by winning Massachusetts. Then it was a massive reversal in Michigan, where he changed the whole tenor of the race, until she quieted him with five wins on Mar. 15, which ended the campaign for good until he won to win six of seven primaries out west.
You get the point—if you believe the corporate media, the candidates have lived and died with each caucus, each primary, and by now they have died a thousand deaths.
But there is a moment, when you get beyond the narrative, when things truly are, politically speaking, life-and-death. There is no doubting that Hillary Clinton has a nice lead in pledged delegates, and there is no doubting that Bernie Sanders gains on her, nationally and locally, with each day—and that he currently owns the momentum. (Although that word, “momentum,” is deceiving, since what it really means is that he’s enjoying a favorable run of states at the moment, while she enjoyed one earlier.)
But we are 32 states and several territories deep into this race, and time is running out. As any sports fan can tell you, dwindling time favors the team in the lead, and while momentum and confidence are nice, there’s a point at which a rising trajectory simply runs out of room to rise.
Bernie Sanders is nearing that point. As a supporter of the Vermont Senator’s presidential bid, I was disappointed on Super Tuesday and even more disappointed on Mar. 15. But neither of these “bad” nights made me think the race was over (sure, maybe there were a few dark moments when he lost narrowly in Illinois and Missouri, but I’m giving myself an emotional pass there). I knew that the calendar was about to turn in his favor for the first time in the primary cycle, and he’s capitalized, and the possibility of a Sanders win in pledged delegates still exists.
But we’re now into the late stages of a potential comeback, and there is no longer any time for exchanging momentum. The next misstep will be his last, and even reasonable people who have avoided the ultimatum prognostications of a hyperbolic media should now recognize one truth:
If Bernie Sanders doesn’t win Wisconsin, it’s over.
Sure, the hard math gets even harder with a loss, but that’s not the main point. What actually matters is that Clinton will rightfully claim a surprise victory in a state that should have gone to Sanders—it’s liberal, union-oriented, and white, and they have a nightmare of a governor in Scott Walker who should drive enough left-leaning citizens away from the political center occupied by Clinton. Polls are close, but the most recent ones show Sanders ahead. This is a state he should win, and we’re at the point where he can no longer afford to cough up the favorable states. Lose tonight, and a northeastern rescue will be effectively impossible. Worse, his momentum will come to a screeching halt when he not only needs it to continue, but to increase.
The good news is, FiveThirtyEight gives him a 72 percent chance of winning when the Wisconsin polls close tonight. He’ll probably take the state.
The bad news is, Wisconsin is just the tip of the iceberg. Bernie Sanders can absolutely lose the race against Clinton tonight, but he can’t win it. Two weeks later, New York takes center stage, and while he may survive there with a narrow loss—that’s a Clinton stronghold—he cannot afford a big loss. And it may be that he can’t afford a loss at all, because the rest of the northeast follows hot on New York’s heels, and without a momentum burst, he might be a sitting duck.
But that’s a problem for a different day. At the moment, for the first time in his campaign, Sanders faces a do-or-die night. This time, the hype is real.