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The Democratic primary: Five takeaways

NEW YORK – They wanted to be a part of it: New York, New York.

And they were. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders hopscotched across the state for two weeks and got down and dirty just like New York candidates often do, all in pursuit of the delegates at stake in Tuesday's Democratic primary.

And when it was all over, Clinton – a New Yorker by way of Pennsylvania and Illinois and Arkansas and Washington, D.C. – trounced the Brooklyn-born Vermonter with the Brooklyn accent.

Here are five takeaways from the contest:

1. It's (almost) over

Sanders supporters, like Buffalo Bills fans, never give up hope despite the evidence all around them. But the evidence piled ever higher Tuesday night that Clinton will almost certainly become the Democratic nominee.

The bottom line: Clinton will come out of the New York primary with, give or take, 33 more delegates than Sanders. That may not sound like a lot, given that a candidate needs 2,383 delegates to win the nomination. But at this late stage in the race, adding another 33 delegates to Clinton's already substantial lead matters a great deal.

As of Wednesday, Sanders had amassed 1,200 elected delegates, to 1,446 for Clinton. The math whizzes at FiveThirtyEight.com say that means Sanders has to win about 59 percent of the remaining primary vote to catch up.

But that is highly unlikely, given the primaries still to come. The RealClearPolitics polling average finds Clinton up by 13 points in Pennsylvania, by 7 in Connecticut, by 20 in Maryland and by 10 in California.

And none of this even takes into account the superdelegates – the party leaders – who break for Clinton by a margin of 502 to 38, according to the New York Times.

All that math may well have weighed heavily on Sanders Tuesday night as he retreated to Vermont, reportedly for rest, but possibly also for reflection.

2. Momentum can be a mirage

Until Tuesday, Sanders seemed like the momentum candidate. He had won seven of the eight previous contests. His rallies made him look as popular as Bruce Springsteen (although the tens of thousands who flock to Bernie rallies are, for the most part, significantly younger than the Boss' crowds). And so many people were willing to invest in Sanders' proposed socialist democratic makeover of America that he was flush with cash – and able, according to the Center for Public Integrity, to outspend Clinton in New York, $6.8 million to $3 million.

None of it mattered in the end. Clinton won the state by about 15 points, proving, among other things, that you can't tell what will happen in any primary based on what happened on the Tuesdays before. What's more, the results proved that while big rallies look great on television, they're not nearly as important as a number of other factors that drive the vote.

3. Demographics are destiny

The pattern that had been set in earlier Democratic primaries held in New York. Clinton wins states with large minority populations – like New York – and she also relies on older voters to propel her to victory.

Exit polls published by NBC showed that Clinton and Sanders tied among the state's white voters – but that Clinton won blacks by a three-to-one margin and Hispanics by 28 points. What's more, real-life evidence of the racial divide in the primary vote can be found in actual returns in Buffalo, which show that Clinton won overwhelmingly in the Ellicott, Fillmore, Lovejoy, Masten and University districts while Sanders won big in the rest of the city.

Sanders tried as hard as he could to make Clinton look bad for minorities, harping on the 22-year-old crime bill that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, pushed through Congress and (incorrectly) portraying it as the reason for the mass incarceration of black Americans. But the ties the Clintons have built in minority communities over 25 years proved stronger than any two-week campaign blitz.

Similarly, Sanders couldn't win the most reliable voters: older voters. Exit polls show that he won voters age 29 and under by 30 points – while losing among the over-65 crowd by 46 points. In other words, all those young people at Bernie's rally at the University at Buffalo didn't influence the race as much as people like the little old ladies who, desperate for a seat, made themselves squatters in the press section of Clinton's Buffalo rally a few days earlier.

4. The rules rule

It would be fascinating to know how many of the 11,500 or so who turned out to see Sanders at UB actually ended up voting for him. There's no doubt the crowd loved him. But thanks to New York's extremely restrictive voting registration laws, it's likely that many people who were there that day couldn't vote for him.

A hint of that can be found in the primary results from Amherst, home to UB and presumably the place where many students would have registered to vote. The number of Amherst residents who voted in the Democratic primary was 12,950 – only 1,450 more than the number who attended the UB rally. And Clinton won the Town of Amherst by six points.

Let's say some of the people at the UB rally were registered independents – a group that Sanders has scored with in primary after primary. They couldn't vote for Sanders in New York because the state's primary is “closed” – that is, open only to registered Democrats and Republicans. What's more, independents who wanted to vote for Sanders in New York would have had to change their registration to Democratic by last October, long before anyone with any sense or a well rounded life would be paying much attention to presidential politics.

Similarly, if those kids started feeling the Bern in recent weeks and wanted to register to vote for the first time in the primary, they would have been out of luck. Some states have same-day voter registration, but in New York, registration for the primary ended on March 26.

Add it all up, and it's clear that the voting rules established by each state play a huge role in how primaries turn out. And in New York, the rules ruled against Sanders.

5. If you can't stand the heat, get out of Hell's Kitchen

Confession: That's a line from an old episode of “The Odd Couple.” But it came to mind repeatedly in the last couple of weeks as it became clear that Sanders couldn't take the heat that comes with campaigning in New York.

Clinton had no problem doing so. In her own plodding way, she barnstormed the state, promising a progressive evolution on income equity and health care and just about every issue you can think of. And when asked for details about her plans, she provided them. None of it was inspiring, really, but at least she showed that she knew what she was doing. In two weeks in the cauldron of New York politics, Clinton never got burned.

In contrast, once Sanders arrived in New York, he seemed out of his depth as a national candidate. When the New York Daily News asked him how he would break up the big banks – one of his central campaign promises – Sanders couldn't offer a detailed answer. When The Buffalo News asked him what changes he'd like to see in the North American Free Trade Agreement, he responded with an answer built around the 65-cent minimum wage in Vietnam. And when The News asked him if he had thought about what his proposed tariffs on Chinese goods would look like, Sanders said, simply, “No.”

In other words, while Sanders said he wanted a revolution, he had trouble explaining it. And it could just be that New Yorkers noticed.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com