Polls have closed in New Jersey, one of six states holding presidential primaries on Tuesday — the last night of a tumultuous, drawn-out Democratic presidential primary race.
The winner of that race already seems clear: former secretary of state Hillary Clinton already holds enough Democratic delegates to wrap up the nomination, becoming the first woman to lead a major party in the race for the White House.
But Tuesday night still holds drama, as the party waits to see how Sen. Bernie Sanders will choose to lose.
Sanders, a self-described “Democratic socialist” from Vermont, rocketed out of obscurity with an urgent call to fight income inequality and big money in politics. He gave Clinton an unexpectedly close race, but now trails her in votes, “pledged” delegates and un-pledged superdelegates. And, after Tuesday night, there will be no more states to fight over. Only the D.C. primary remains.
Sanders’s showing in Tuesday’s races — especially in California, whose results will arrive late Tuesday — may determine whether he tries to fight on to the party convention, seeking to “flip” super-delegates committed to Clinton.
New Jersey’s polls closed at 8 p.m. Clinton was favored to win that state and was leading in early results. After that, polls will close in Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and finally California — where surveys indicate a close race.
Also on Tuesday night, Clinton is likely to give a speech that will officially acknowledge her historic nomination. The news was first broken Monday night by the Associated Press, based on its surveys of superdelegates.
With that milestone, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state has ended more than two centuries of national history in which only men have been the standard-bearers for the major political parties.
She also overcame her crushing loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries, as well as a political environment this year that favored outsiders at the expense of her establishment credentials. And she became the first spouse of a former president to win the presidential nomination.
“My supporters are passionate. They are committed. They have voted for me in great numbers across the country for many reasons,” Clinton said Monday on the campaign trail in California. “But among the reasons is their belief that having a woman president would make a great statement — a historic statement — about what kind of country we are, what we stand for. It’s really emotional.”
In her speech, Clinton is likely to signal how she intends to reach out to Sanders’s supporters, and win their support in the general election against presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump.
Trump is also scheduled to speak on Tuesday evening, and — presumably — give a sense of how he will run against Clinton.
As a sign of the Democratic Party’s effort to close ranks around Clinton, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced her support Tuesday just before polls opened in her home state, California.
Speaking in an interview with George Stephanopolous on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Pelosi emphasized the need for her party to coalesce soon for the general election.
“Bernie knows better than anyone what’s on the line in the election and that we at some point have to unify as we go forward,” he said. “He wants to influence the platform. I think that’s fine.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the one sitting senator who has endorsed Sanders, said in an interview Tuesday that it is important to allow the remaining six states and the District of Columbia to vote before declaring a presumptive Democratic nominee. But he added that just as Obama and Clinton saw “the lay of the land” in 2008 after all the primary voters cast their ballots, “we’ll soon be able to see the parts of the party work together to unite.”
“I think we’ll be absolutely united in making sure the self-promoting huckster named Donald Trump never becomes president of the United States,” he said, adding that Clinton should learn from Sanders’s connection with voters. “If Secretary Clinton is the nominee, she will not win in November without a deep and profound and passionate understanding of the issues that have so moved the grass roots in America.”
Clinton’s pivot to the race against Trump unofficially began last week with a withering speech on foreign policy in which she shredded the real estate mogul’s qualifications and temperament. Those attacks have continued this past weekend at appearances up and down California and have been received with unprecedented enthusiasm by her supporters.
“Donald Trump is not qualified to be president of the United States of America, but we can’t just say that assume everybody understands it,” she said at a star-studded “She’s With Us” concert at the Los Angeles Greek Theatre on Monday night. “We have to make the case and organize and mobilize.”
Clinton has faced an unexpectedly strong and increasingly contentious challenge from Sanders, and there is the possibility that the senator will keep battling her even now that she has effectively sewn up the nomination. Sanders has said it made no sense to declare the race over until the votes of the superdelegates are counted next month at the convention.
After finishing breakfast with his family in San Francisco, the senator sounded upbeat about the remaining primaries.
“I think we’ve got a shot,” he said outside The Butler & The Chef bistro as he greeted a throng of cheering supporters. “I’m feeling great.”
Before the polls opened Tuesday, Sanders’s campaign manager sent an email to supporters acknowledging that the reported delegate count for Clinton could suppress voter turnout. But the message asked for help in phoning California voters so that Sanders could “defy the pundits once more” and “shock the establishment.”
“We know that this race is going to carry on until the delegates cast ballots at the convention in Philadelphia,” said campaign manager Jeff Weaver. “We should let the voters decide who they want the Democratic nominee to be rather than having the media decide for them. I am asking you to continue to stand with Bernie in pushing for the political revolution.”
Sanders met with some voters in the Bay Area later Tuesday morning and then flew to the Los Angeles area, where he was to tape an interview with Lester Holt of “NBC Nightly News” in Burbank and then hold an election night rally in Santa Monica.
Outside the coffee shop where Sanders ate, voters appeared split about what path Sanders should pursue. Kyle Sorrels, a 25-year-old engineer and self-described progressive, described Clinton “as unacceptable as Donald Trump to be the president” and said that he had informed his employer he would move to Berlin if either candidate won in November.
“My hope is that Hillary gets indicted in the next few weeks and Bernie gets it,” he said. As he walked away he said to no one in particular, “Feel the Bern! Hillary for prison!”
Bobby Schultz, 38, an independent voter and a software developer from San Bruno, Calif., who was sipping coffee with friends nearby, said he was “surprised” Sanders was still running.
“I really like Bernie, but as this point the race is pretty much over,” he said.
Tuesday marks the exact anniversary of the day eight years ago when Clinton conceded the Democratic nomination to then-Sen. Obama. The president could endorse Clinton as soon as this week, not waiting for the Democratic convention in July, according to White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Earnest said that out of respect for the ongoing voting, “I’m not going to declare a winner from here.” But he emphasized that Obama intends “to make his voice heard in coming together” behind the presumptive nominee and planned to play a role in brokering a rapprochment between the two candidates.
He added that Obama’s endorsement could influence Republicans, not just Democrats, given his seven and-a-half years in the job. “The president is an important validator.”
An Obama endorsement would be a significant boost to Clinton as she seeks to unify Democrats after the difficult primaries. It would send a strong message to Sanders and his supporters that they should coalesce around Clinton, something Sanders has indicated he is far from ready to do.
“Obviously, I’m excited about having the president’s support, because I have said throughout this campaign I was honored to serve in the president’s Cabinet,” Clinton said.
Phillip reported from Los Angeles. Juliet Eilperin and John Wagner in Washington and Robert Costa in San Francisco contributed to this report.