By John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief
(Editor’s Note: This is the second of two stories looking at the 2016 presidential primary race ahead of Montana’s June 7 primary election. On April 11 we looked at the Republican presidential race).
As the race for the Democratic presidential nomination heads deeper into spring, some Montana Democrats are wondering if lightning will strike twice.
That’s because for the second time in eight years their party may not have a clear-cut presidential nominee by the time Montana’s June 7 primary rolls around.
The last time that happened was in 2008, when former New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and first-term Sen. Barack Obama brought their campaigns to the Treasure State in the run-up to a historic primary showdown.
While the delegate math this time around heavily favors front-runner and former First Lady Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the scrappy self-described Democratic Socialist, isn’t throwing in the towel. Sanders has racked up victories in seven of the last primary contests, including recent wins in neighboring Idaho and Wyoming.
Sanders is also raising lots of money along the way. His campaign topped $44 million in receipts in March compared to $29.5 million Clinton’s campaign raised during that same period.
Sanders is showing no signs of slowing down, which could be a signal the Democratic nominating contest will return to big sky country between now and June 7.
“I think [Sanders] is going to take the race all the way to the convention,” said Geoffrey Skelley, an associate editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Skelley said it will be difficult for Sanders to significantly cut into Clinton’s delegate lead, but that won’t stop him from campaigning in places like Montana as he takes his “political revolution” to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.
Obama easily won Montana in 2008, topping Clinton with 57 percent of the Democratic vote here. Those 2008 numbers favor Sanders in states that divvy up their delegates on a proportional basis, Skelley said.
“Sanders has to win 58 percent of the delegates from here on out to keep up with [Clinton] in the pledged delegate count,” Skelley said. “Given his success in nearby states, there’s no reason to think Bernie wouldn’t win Montana.”
Skelley said he expect Sanders to campaign on the ground in Montana in an effort to “run up the score as much as possible.”
Clinton, meanwhile, will likely focus most of her time and energy on California, which also holds its primary election on June 7. That state will send 546 delegates to the national convention.
“I’m not poo-pooing Montana, but given the fact that Sanders is going to have substantial advantage in Montana, Clinton is probably making sure she locks down California,” Skelley said.
North Dakota, South Dakota, and New Mexico and New Jersey also hold primaries on June 7.
Emails to the presidential campaigns inquiring about Montana campaign stops were not immediately returned.
As of Tuesday Clinton has 1,287 pledged delegates to Sanders’ 1,037, but the margin widens when the so-called “super delegates” are factored in.
Those are delegates — usually elected Democratic party officials and other party elders or dignitaries — who can pledge their support at the Democratic National Convention to whichever candidate they choose, regardless of the outcome of their state’s primary.
Counting super delegates, Clinton leads with 1,756 total delegates to Sanders’ 1,068.
Montana Democrats will send 21 pledged delegates and six super delegates to Philadelphia.
Montana’s super delegates are Gov. Steve Bullock, Sen. Jon Tester, party Chairman Jim Larson, party Vice-Chair Jacquie Helt, National Committeewoman Jean Lemire Dahlman, and National Committeeman Jorge Quintana.
Montana Democratic Party rules require that the 21 pledged delegates be distributed to the candidates based on the proportion of the vote the candidates receive.
Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said Montana’s super delegates usually don’t pledge their allegiance to a candidate until after the state’s June primary.
“I think the tradition has been to let Montana Democratic voters speak and then decide,” Keenan said.
Keenan said even though the race for the Democratic nomination isn’t as tight as it was in 2008 she still expects high turnout among Democrats for the June 7 primary.
“I think that people still want their voices heard,” Keenan said.