Bernie Sanders isn't quitting -- but Clinton acts like he left the race
Democratic U.S. presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton shake hands before the start of the Univision News and Washington Post Democratic U.S. presidential candidates debate in Kendall, Florida March 9, 2016. (REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

After winning four of five states in the ‘Acela primary’ on Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton’s speech focused on collecting Sanders followers for November

In every other primary, Hillary Clinton has downplayed expectations. But Tuesday night, after winning four of five primary races, she was shimmying before she even started her victory speech.

This is the Clinton we got a glimpse of after New York dealt her a double-digit win last week: happy, confident – and campaigning in the general election. And this time her shift toward November isn’t just a blip in campaign rhetoric or a passing swipe at Donald Trump; it’s a call for Democrats to come together.

“We will unify our party to win this election,” an exuberant Clinton told the audience in Philadelphia. “We win by holding each other up rather than tearing each other down.”

This is the de facto end of the primary battle, and as she beamed out at the crowd, she seemed to have nothing but kind words for opponent Bernie Sanders. “Whether you support Senator Sanders or you support me, there’s much more that unites us than divides us,” Clinton offered, running down a laundry list of Democratic priorities she feels she has in common with her opponent, even as he’s worked tirelessly to highlight the daylight between them, forcing her to tack left.

This was the stage of the election she’s been waiting for, and she was all sunshine on stage, referencing Trump only obliquely when she gushed her enthusiasm about how great America is. She had goodwill to spare.

It was by any measure a good showing for the Clinton campaign, but it was an especially good night by the math. Clinton racked up wins in Pennsylvania and Maryland, the biggest pots of delegates of any of the night’s five contested states, helping her cement her already immense lead over Sanders. She also netted the smaller prizes of Delaware and Connecticut.

Sanders’ deficit is already much worse than even her lowest moments in 2008, and after tonight it’s unlikely the Vermont senator can recover. According to an AP analysis , Clinton could lose every race going forward and still win – and that was true after New York.

But the night was not without silver linings for Sanders. He managed to wrest a win from Clinton in Rhode Island, and to present a strong showing in Connecticut as well, though Clinton ultimately pulled out a slim margin of victory.

In many ways, Sanders’ Rhode Island win is intuitive. The population is 85% white, and it was the one state in play with an open primary, an important advantage since Sanders does well with independents (advocates blamed his New York loss on the state’s closed primary and restrictive registration calendar). A difficult economy means more of the disaffected voters comprise Sanders’ base (Trump also won there), and the proximity to water means a resonance for Sanders’ lefty positions on climate, which he drove home in a speech in Providence on Sunday.

But Rhode Island and Connecticut are some of the smallest states in the union. Rhode Island in its entirety, for instance, offers only 24 delegates. And the base Sanders reached there, while an enduring and significant one, doesn’t represent any the sort of inroads to new demographics.

Sanders spent big ahead of the night’s primaries – $4.6m to Clinton’s $2.4 – and he lost big, just as he did in New York. It’s more than a troubling trend: it’s a new, unwelcome reality check for Sanders. Really the only question on the table for the Democratic primary right now is how and when it will end.

Team Sanders has publicly promised to stick it out until the convention, vowing to try to flip delegates and do whatever it takes to win. But privately the senator is thought to be weighing his options. He took a full day away from the campaign trail to go home to Burlington, Vermont, after his disappointing loss in New York, for instance, a move interpreted by some as a chance to recalibrate his strategy after a failed Hail Mary pass.

So far though, there’s no sign that Sanders is backing off as Clinton continues to rack up wins. She’s pulling further – probably unreachably far – away from him, whether or not he keeps up the chase all the way to the Democratic National Convention. © Guardian News and Media 2016