The Democratic presidential debate has begun in Miami, where former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders are facing each other one night after Sanders’s upset victory in Michigan – a win that reshaped the race, just as Clinton was hoping to end it.
The debate can be streamed live at washingtonpost.com, or viewed on television: CNN is broadcasting it in English, and Univision is broadcasting in Spanish. The Washington Post and Univision are sponsors of this debate, which will be the fourth time that Clinton and Sanders have debated one-on-one.
This debate comes at an unexpected moment of drama in the Democratic race. Before Tuesday, Clinton seemed on the verge of locking up the nomination. But then Sanders won Michigan — the biggest and most diverse state he has won so far.
Clinton is still the clear leader in terms of states won and delegates accumulated. She added to her delegate lead Tuesday by winning a lopsided victory in Mississippi and dividing Michigan’s delegates nearly evenly with Sanders.
But after the Michigan win, it is clear that Sanders — the self-described “democratic socialist” running an insurgent campaign on Clinton’s left — has not peaked.
The next big tests for both candidates will come Tuesday, when Democrats — and Republicans — vote in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio.
The biggest prize of them all is Florida, the site of Wednesday’s debate.
In the debate, moderators will probably ask about immigration policy, a vital subject in Florida — and a subject on which Clinton and Sanders differ significantly from the GOP candidates.
Both Democrats have said they support a legal pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are already in the United States. And both have said they would preserve President Obama’s executive actions, which are intended to stop the deportations of undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children and of undocumented parents whose children are U.S. citizens or legal residents.
Sanders — whose father was an immigrant from Poland — would go even further: He says he would issue an expanded order that would protect from deportation all undocumented residents who have lived in the country for at least five years.
The Republican front-runner, billionaire Donald Trump, has called for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and for deporting millions of illegal immigrants en masse. If Trump is the GOP nominee, Democrats are counting on a surge of Latino voters to help defeat him.
Sanders, though, needs help from Latino voters in Florida right away.
The most recent polls have shown Clinton with a sizeable lead over Sanders in the Sunshine State, beating him by more than 25 points. Wednesday’s debate will be one of Sanders’s last, best opportunities to turn that around.
A relaxed and confident-sounding Sanders told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday that he is optimistic about his prospects in upcoming states and argued that superdelegates — who have heavily favored Clinton to this point — could switch allegiances between now and the July convention.
“If you look at the map of primaries and caucuses, it turns out that the early states really do favor Secretary Clinton because a lot of those delegates came from the Deep South, where Secretary Clinton, as you know, was first lady in Arkansas for many years and had a lot of contacts in that region, where Bill Clinton in fact is very popular,” Sanders said. “He was governor of Arkansas. But as the map moves forward, and as we move for example into the West — California, Washington, Arizona, Oregon, Wisconsin — you’re going to see a lot of states where we believe we have an excellent chance to win.”
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters that the Michigan victory does not change the mathematical advantage that Clinton holds over Sanders, and the improbability of his eventual success.
“We are confident we are nearing the point where our delegate lead will essentially be insurmountable,” Mook said.
That tipping point could come with the March 15 sweepstakes that includes Florida, he suggested. Mook said he would not address whether Sanders should withdraw before the Democratic primary, but suggested that Sanders is chiefly interested in putting points on the board.
“Senator Sanders is pursuing a strategy to win selected states,” Mook said. “Our argument is, that is not a strategy to win the nomination. It’s a strategy to win individual states.”
He acknowledged that Clinton has to “work a little harder to amplify her economic message” in the industrial Midwest.
In pre-election polls in Michigan, Clinton had a lead of more than 20 points. But on primary night, Sanders won the state by 1.5 points. That startled both Democratic campaigns, although both said they had internally assessed that the race was much closer than the public polling indicated.
Sanders did it partly by attacking one obvious weak point for Clinton — her support of international trade deals that have been blamed for shifting blue-collar jobs overseas.
But Sanders also attacked one of Clinton’s strong points: her significant support among African Americans. Sanders lost black voters by lopsided margins in the South. In Michigan, he made a concerted push to reach them, talking about racial justice and excoriating the government mismanagement that had led to toxic lead leaching into drinking water in majority-black Flint, Mich.
Sanders lost black voters by a margin of 2 to 1 in Michigan, 65 percent to 31 percent, according to exit polls reported by CNN. But that was good news for him: It was far better than his results with black voters in past states. Because Sanders won white voters by a margin of 57 to 41 percent, he was able to take the state.
Even before Tuesday, Sanders’s advisers had argued that he stood a better chance with African Americans in Midwestern industrial states than in the South because of their involvement with labor unions and the negative impact of trade deals on communities in the region regardless of race.
Afterward, Sanders touted his Michigan win as a sign that he could — and would — win big, diverse states yet to come.
“What tonight means is that the Bernie Sanders campaign . . . is strong in every part of the country, and frankly, we believe that our strongest areas are yet to happen,” the senator from Vermont said during a hastily arranged address to reporters in Miami.
By many measures, Clinton still has a significant lead in this race. She has won 12 states so far, as compared with nine for Sanders. Those wins have given Clinton an edge in “pledged” Democratic delegates, who are parcelled out according to state votes. And Clinton’s lead is far more dramatic among “superdelegates,” the Democratic VIPs who can make up — and also change — their own minds.
When the two types of delegates are added together, Clinton is estimated to have 1,221 of the 2,383 delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination. Sanders is far behind at 571.
John Wagner and Anne Gearan contributed to this report from Miami.