The Sound and the Fury: How the New York Primary Served as a Microcosm for the 2016 Democratic Race
It's the little things that go a long way in politics.
Despite what the media may have told you, the New York primary was not a make-or-break moment for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Clinton still held a 200+ delegate lead over Bernie Sanders and even if Sanders had somehow managed to secure an upset victory, he still would have been a long shot at best to win the nomination. Despite that simple fact, the Clinton campaign wanted to make a statement. Not only had Bernie Sanders won 7 out of the last 8 primaries and caucuses but he also had insisted that he had an "excellent chance" of winning Clinton's home state of New York. Despite being a closed primary and polling that consistently put Sanders at least 10 points down, Clinton took nothing for granted. Both Democratic candidates knew how important New York was and each of them went about earning the vote in their own unique way, serving as an important distinction between the philosophies of both political campaigns.
For Bernie Sanders, the central argument of his campaign has been that if enough people become involved in the political process, then it will lead to a political revolution. Sanders has continually insisted that when voter turnout is high, it leads to primary success. Therefore, a major pitch of his New York campaign was to have the "highest voter turnout in primary history in New York" as he stated during an April 12th rally in Syracuse. Throughout his time in New York, Sanders held several large-scale rallies in an effort to maximize both his time and exposure. There were 15,000 people at a rally at a park in the South Bronx, a massive 27,000 person rally at Washington Square Park in Manhattan, and a rally at Prospect Park in Brooklyn where the number of those in attendance reached 28,300, a new campaign record according to Sanders officials.
On the flip side of that, Hillary Clinton was campaigning as if she was running for a third Senate term. Her rallies consisted of smaller, more intimate gatherings of between 500-1,000 people, but the bulk of her time was spent going around the state and interacting with the people. She ate cheesecake at an iconic Brooklyn restaurant with supporters and later received some helpful tips from Late Night host Stephen Colbert on the proper cheesecake eating etiquette. She grabbed ice cream in East Harlem and later played dominoes at a senior center. She danced the merengue in Washington Heights. She reiterated her well-known love for hot sauce on The Breakfast Club, a radio program on one of New York City's most popular hip-hop stations. She visited low-income housing in Harlem. And yes, she even struggled to swipe her MetroCard before getting on the New York City subway, the image that later jokingly became the error page for her own website.
The difference between the two campaigns came down to the idea of volume versus votes.
It is this simple philosophical difference that has separated the two Democratic campaigns up to this point. In New York, we again saw this being played out much as it had in previous primaries and caucuses. Sanders would preach in front of tens of thousands of people while Clinton would go around, listening and interacting with those in the community. This philosophy was played out time and time again over the past two weeks but perhaps there exists no better example than the events of Sunday, April 17th. On this date, a mere two days before the primary, Sanders gave his Prospect Park speech to his record crowd in Brooklyn, an event that took up the majority of his day. Compare that with Hillary Clinton's Sunday where she spoke at small rallies in Washington Heights in Manhattan, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and a Mount Vernon church in Westchester County. Clinton finally ended her day with a "large" rally of nearly 1,000 people at Snug Harbor on Staten Island. This visit to Staten Island came on the heel of a visit by Donald Trump with Snug Harbor actually a part of the only New York City congressional district held by a Republican. Despite having a reputation as being New York's "forgotten borough," Staten Island was seen as an important stop for the Clinton campaign and this fact was not lost on those in attendance. One attendee, Deborah Evans, was quoted as saying, "To have the front running candidates here shows it's not forgotten."
And it was the those little touches that led to Hillary Clinton's resounding Tuesday win. Without question, she was helped by Bernie Sanders' disastrous New York Daily News interview, his poor debate performance, and his horribly mismanaged Vatican trip. But even with all those things, Sanders still believed that the more people that turn out the more likely he would be to win. Despite his insistence, this is now a claim that has now been refuted by Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact.com. Yet in Sanders' mind a high turnout could still be made possible by having large public rallies that become visible to those in attendance and, more importantly, the media. For Sanders, those adoring crowds were seen as an indication that his message was getting out there to a diverse electorate. He was simply the messenger; all he had to go was spread the word and his energetic supporters would go out and vote in record numbers. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was working up and down the state making sure to make herself visible to traditionally reliable Democratic voting blocs like African-Americans, Latinos, seniors, and church-goers. Her rallies were small and intimate and therefore deemed unworthy of media coverage. Her meet-and-greets at local restaurants and community centers that actually got her media coverage were overshadowed by Bernie Sanders' record-breaking crowds.
But in the end, the intimacy of Hillary Clinton's campaign mattered. Exit poll data showed Clinton winning the African-American vote by 50 points, the Latino vote by 30 points, and the women's vote by 22 points, proving that she has locked up the Obama coalition. In addition, her nearly 30-point win in New York City cut to the heart of Bernie Sanders' campaign message. Despite his record crowds in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens, Sanders lost all three boroughs to Hillary Clinton as well as losing Staten Island, a place where Clinton campaigned and Sanders did not, by just over 1,000 votes. Clinton's methodical, exhaustive approach combined with her visibility out and among the people rather than from behind a podium, seemed to ultimately make the difference for her. Combine that intimacy with a state that remembers the hard work she put in for them on her eight years on the job as senator as well as her efforts to help New York City rebuild after 9/11 and you end up with an easy 16-point win.
Because in the end, Hillary Clinton won New York by nearly 300,000 votes. That's the equivalent of 30 Bernie Sanders rallies. Although rallies make for good media coverage, they don't translate into votes. For Bernie Sanders, his large rallies serve to stroke his own ego and to provide him with an overinflated sense of popularity. Hillary Clinton doesn't need large rallies. In fact, even her celebration at the Sheraton Hotel in Times Square was relatively subdued with "only" hundreds in attendance. In the end, Clinton knows that every vote matters and she has consistently said that she takes no vote for granted. For her, the best way to earn those votes is to go out into the community and interact with people to show them her human side. That might not generate huge crowds. That might not generate media coverage. That might not generate the sense that your campaign has any enthusiasm. But what it does generate is results as Clinton has shown time and time again that even though her supporters might not be the most vocal, they are the most committed to their candidate of choice. They see in her a candidate committed to them and one who's not afraid to go and mingle with the masses rather than simply address them from a podium at the front of a stage.
In New York and across the country, that means something.
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