Politics

Why the Kentucky Primary Matters for Hillary Clinton

The price of party unity keeps going up.

Campaign supporters show their support for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as he speaks to them during a campaign rally at the Big Four Lawn park May 3, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, as he speaks during a campaign rally at the Big Four Lawn park on May 3, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.

John Sommers II/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is not worried about losing the Democratic presidential nomination. As she shouldn’t be, because—barring some decision by federal authorities to render her to Guantánamo Bay or some Eastern European black site for maintaining a private email address—she isn’t going to lose. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about.

For a primary race that’s already wrapped up, Clinton sure has been having trouble wrapping it up. She’s lost the past two nominating contests in Indiana and West Virginia. Even though she invested few resources into those states—in West Virginia, pretty much nothing—her losses there have caused some consternation among Democratic leaders, who see the Republicans transitioning to general-election mode before they are. And with each additional Sanders win comes renewed hope among Sanders supporters to match with inflamed frustration from Clinton supporters. As such, the atmosphere surrounding the late-stage Democratic contest has been getting frisky, with one state-party chairperson getting death threats apparently from Sanders die-hards and one celebrity Clinton supporter getting into a hotel fight with Sanders supporters.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Hillary Clinton doesn’t need this. The Democratic Party doesn’t need this. What does Hillary Clinton need?

A win in Kentucky wouldn’t hurt.

The Clinton campaign’s recent expenditure patterns suggest that they’ve arrived at the same conclusion. Though the campaign spent no ad money in West Virginia, it has outspent Sanders in Kentucky and put 11 campaign stops into the state. (Clinton has essentially ceded Oregon, Tuesday night’s other contest, to Sanders, even though the one recent poll of that state shows Clinton with a large lead. Because how does that poll even make sense? Oregon. Portland. Bernie Sanders. C’mon.) Although Kentucky bears some demographic similarities to neighboring West Virginia, its Democratic primary is closed to the independents who helped push Sanders over the top last week, and black voters, though still relatively sparse, make up a larger share of the electorate.

Advertisement

Clinton’s activity in Kentucky has created the sort of stakes that went missing from the Indiana and West Virginia contests. We’re not talking about delegates here. There are 55 pledged delegates at stake in Kentucky, but proportional allocation ensures that no outcome short of, say, a two-thirds blowout from Sanders will make much of a dent in Clinton’s overall lead of 273 pledged delegates. The stakes are Clinton’s control of the Democratic electorate. If Clinton gave Kentucky everything she had and still lost, it would stand as Sanders’ marquee win in the month of May and offer him more leverage in negotiating the terms of his exit from the race.

Advertisement

The more Clinton loses in back-end contests of the race, the more compelled she is to negotiate with Sanders for his support. Clinton allies will control majorities of the Rules and Platform Committees at the Democratic National Convention. If they wanted to, they could take a hard line and shoot down pretty much anything Sanders desired. The cost of such a hard line, however, is a lack of support from Sanders and his supporters heading into the general election. And Clinton is going to need Sanders’ supporters in November. For anyone who thought she could beat Donald Trump in a walk, new polling that shows the Republican Party (if not all of its leaders) consolidating around its presumptive nominee should put to bed any thoughts of an autumn coronation.

Advertisement

Unlike Clinton in 2008, Sanders is not a loyal party figure with aspirations for higher office in the future, so he’s unlikely to just close up shop after the cessation of primaries on June 7 and clasp hands with the figure who bested him. His legacy, as he sees it, will be determined by his ability to change Democratic Party policies and future nominating rules via the leverage he’s accumulated over the past year and change.

Advertisement

This infuriates the Clinton campaign and Democratic leaders itching to get on with the general election, and understandably so. But it’s just something they have to manage. The easiest way for them to manage it would be to defeat Sanders Tuesday night in Kentucky and in most of the June 7 contests to demonstrate that Democratic voters, too, are eager to get on with the general election. If the Clinton campaign stumbles into the nomination with a slew of losses, Sanders is going to hold a harder line, with a stronger hand. The price of unity, in effect, will go up.

Advertisement

Read more Slate coverage of the Democratic primary.

Advertisement