ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. — Hillary Clinton took a decisive step toward locking down the Democratic presidential nomination on Super Tuesday, winning seven of the 11 states up for grabs, including the biggest prize — Texas — and likely racking up enough delegates to greatly foreclose Bernie Sanders' path to the presidential nomination.
While it was not quite a blowout for Clinton, the front-runner won by decisive margins in the three biggest states state by delegate count — Texas, Georgia and Virginia — and cleaned up in the remaining Southern states.
Sanders had low expectations for the evening, and his top advisers insisted they were happy with the outcome. But what matters is the all-important delegate count, and Clinton simply won much larger states by much larger margins and more of them.
The true ramifications of the night, however, will not be known for some time as delegates are apportioned.
"What a Super Tuesday!" Clinton declared to supporters in Miami, signaling her focus on Florida's primary on March 15. She thanked Sanders for running a strong campaign before quickly pivoting to Republican front-runner Donald Trump, making it clear she is already gearing up for the general election. "We know we've got work to do. It's not to make America great again — America never stopped being great."
If Clinton dealt a body blow to Sanders Tuesday, she'll hope for a knockout in two weeks, when the next grouping of large states vote on March 15. Delegate-rich Ohio, Florida, Missouri, Illinois and North Carolina will all hold contests for a total of 693 pledged delegates at stake. In the meantime, her campaign will work to mitigate losses in upcoming caucus states and compete hard in next week's Michigan primary.
But rallying with more than 4,000 supporters here in his home state of Vermont, Sanders made it clear he's going nowhere. "At the end of tonight, 15 states will have voted, 35 states remain. And let me assure you, we are going to take our fight for economic justice, for social justice, for environmental sanity, for a world of peace to every one of those states," the senator declared to thunderous applause.
Sanders has his own good story to tell tonight, even if doesn't amount to a delegate win. He won Oklahoma, which was one of Clinton's strongest states in 2008 — a moral victory for the campaign that is also likely to yield fundraising dividends. He also took Colorado and Minnesota, as well as Vermont. Massachusetts, which Sanders hoped to win, was projected to go to Clinton 50-49 percent, with 1 percent of the vote undecided.
Still, at his colorful rally outside Burlington, where Sanders served as mayor, he twice repeated a line that could be read as an attempt to soften the blow for supporters if he doesn't make it all the way. "This campaign is not just about electing a president, it is about making a political revolution," Sanders said.
The larger the delegate lead Clinton builds up, the more pressure Sanders will face to step aside and let Clinton focus on the general election, especially with Donald Trump closing in on his party's nomination. Clinton's team and her allies are aware this has to be done delicately.
"With what's already happened, I think it's pretty clear that Democrats are on their way to nominating Hillary Clinton," former Rep. Barney Frank, who has endorsed Clinton, told MSNBC. Of Sanders, Frank said, "I don't think it's fair to ask him to drop out or diminish him, but I think that will be the effect on the other [Democratic] voters."
Sanders and his top lieutenants have made it abundantly clear in public and private that they have no plans to quit. As long as Sanders continues to draw large crowds and rake in massive fundraising hauls, their view is that the Democratic Party is not ready to move on to the general election yet. He raised an eye-popping $42 million in February, including $6 million Monday night alone.
Already rocked back on their heels from losses in Nevada and South Carolina, Sanders' team was bracing for a rough night, hoping to limit damage and maintain supporters' morale as they head into a set of contests they hope will be more favorable.
Super Tuesday featured the most states with large concentrations of African-Americans, whom Sanders has lost to Clinton 3-to-1.
Sanders will have a chance to grab headlines again at two Democratic debates coming up in quick succession over the next week, including one Sunday in Flint, Michigan. The state, which holds a sizable 130 delegates, holds its primary on Tuesday, and Sanders has been advertising and opening field offices there.
And his team expects a good coming weekend, when three states will hold caucuses, all of which they're hoping to win: Kansas, Nebraska and Maine. Clinton's campaign on Tuesday bought advertising in Nebraska and Kansas, hoping to mitigate likely losses, as well as Michigan, which they hope to win outright on March 8. Sanders has already been on air in all three states.
Still, even if he sweeps the caucus states, they probably don't hold enough delegates to catch up to Clinton.
The bottom line is that than an improbable number of things probably have to go right for Sanders and wrong for Clinton for the Vermonter to win the nomination at this point.
The best chance for Sanders to make up pledged delegates in the short term is on March 15, a day his campaign has long considered more important than March 1. But with little polling so far, it's hard to know much about the contest other than the fact that it will be decisive.
Sanders allies increasingly look at California, the largest state by delegates but also one of the last to vote, as a sort of promised land — if they can only make it to the Golden State's June 7 primary, they might be able to make up their delegate hole, assuming he wins big there. But Clinton won the state in 2008.
And all of this is before superdelegates are added to the mix. Clinton is dominating the 712 party leaders who can vote any way they like by a margin along the lines of 20 to 1. The advantage means Sanders will have to win an improbably large number of pledged delegates from states to catch up.
But Sanders supporters dismiss this notion. "Superdelegates don't matter, because superdelegates can't overturn the vote of rank and file Democrats nationwide. If they do that, they'll destroy the party, so that's not going to happen," said Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of the Vermont-based Democracy for America, which has endorsed Sanders. "We've got time to catch up."