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Sanders tests Clinton’s aura of inevitability

US Senator Bernie Sanders addressed supporters Tuesday night at a campaign rally in Laramie, Wyo.
US Senator Bernie Sanders addressed supporters Tuesday night at a campaign rally in Laramie, Wyo.Brennan Linsley/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Senator Bernie Sanders scored a convincing victory in Wisconsin Tuesday night over Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, increasing his momentum heading into New York, Clinton’s home state and scene of the next big Democratic showdown.

His Wisconsin win — his sixth out of the last seven states — essentially denies Clinton the ability to quickly pivot to the general election and exclusively focus her attention on the GOP, forcing her instead to continue slogging it out with Sanders through the next batch of East Coast primaries this month.

“She’s getting a little nervous and I don’t want her to get more nervous, but I believe we have an excellent chance to win New York and a lot of delegates in that state,” Sanders said from a campaign rally in Laramie, Wyo.

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As Sanders has showed surprising strength, Clinton continues to be plagued by tepid support in the party’s liberal base. She watched the Wisconsin results from New York, where she held a fund-raiser, and did not address the public.

Still, most analysts agree it’s too late in the game to change the narrative of Clinton as the likely Democratic nominee, as the candidates head toward the July convention in Philadelphia. But for Sanders, momentum, enthusiasm, and tens of millions of dollars in contributions were at stake in the Wisconsin outcome.

The Democratic delegate rules are stacked in Clinton’s favor, allowing her to continue moving ahead, building her delegate lead with either close losses or victories.

But Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist whose populist campaign has drawn thousands of independent voters to his rallies, has maintained a steady drumbeat of criticism over Clinton’s corporate contributions and her close ties to the business establishment.

“We have decided that we do not represent the billionaire class. We do not represent Wall Street or the drug companies or the fossil fuel industry. And we do not want their money,” Sanders said after his Wisconsin win.

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Unlike the Republicans, Democrats don’t have any winner-take-all states in their primary. All delegates are apportioned based on the percentage of the popular vote candidates win, meaning Clinton and Sanders will share Wisconsin’s 96 delegates.

What’s more, so-called superdelegates — party leaders who vote independently from state primary results — account for 15 to 17 percent of the delegates selected; that is where Clinton has an advantage.

“Hillary Clinton has a prohibitive and perhaps insurmountable delegate lead,” said Steve McMahon, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist. “Bernie Sanders has vastly exceeded expectations and become an extraordinary candidate, but the math is still the math and it overwhelmingly favors Secretary Clinton.”

A candidate needs to amass 2,383 delegates to win the Democratic nomination. Following Tuesday’s primary, Clinton had 1,740, including 469 superdelegates. Sanders, despite winning a string of recent primaries, lags far behind with 1,055 delegates, including just 31 pledged superdelegates.

For Sanders to have a shot at the nomination, strategists say, his supporters in states that he’s won need to pressure superdelegates to flip their allegiance. Sanders said Tuesday that he believes many of the superdelegates will reconsider his candidacy after his recent wins.

Still, it’s an uphill climb.

“Winning primaries is great — it generates momentum and huge campaign contributions,” McMahon said. “But it’s only going to make an incremental difference in the delegate lead. He really needed to start winning a lot sooner than he did in a lot bigger states in order to have a reasonable chance here in the home stretch.”

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Sanders has consistently outperformed Clinton in fund-raising, generating an average contribution of $27 from his enthusiastic base, according to his campaign. Sanders raised a total of $44 million in March, compared with Clinton’s $29.5 million.

Sanders’ success at generating donations will allow him to take the fight all the way to the Democratic convention, making it difficult for Clinton to pivot to the general election like she’s been trying to do.

Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook sent a fund-raising appeal Tuesday morning that served to dampen expectations for her in Wisconsin, where polls had showed Sanders holding a slight lead.

“The truth is, we were outraised and outspent last month, and we could very well lose the Wisconsin primary tonight,” Mook wrote. “If we can stay focused and stick to our plan, the nomination is in our grasp.”

Wisconsin is a swing state that Democrats need in order to win in the November general election. Early CNN exit polls of Democratic primary voters on Tuesday revealed demographics that favored a Sanders’ win.

Sanders was beating Clinton among men, voters ages 18 to 44, and college-educated voters. Liberal voters, who made up 66 percent of those voting in the Democratic primary, also favored Sanders, as did white voters, who made up 84 percent of the pool, and independent voters, who made up more than a quarter of voters in the open primary.

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Clinton spent Tuesday campaigning in New York, holding a town hall in Brooklyn focused on women, and was not scheduled to hold any campaign events in the evening after Wisconsin polls closed. Sanders campaigned in Wyoming on Tuesday evening.

Clinton and Sanders, after squabbling over when to schedule the next debate, have agreed to next meet in Brooklyn on April 14, five days ahead of the crucial New York primary . Clinton is leading in polls there, where both candidates have ties. Sanders was born and raised in Brooklyn. Clinton represented the state for eight years as senator.

“Now that we got over the debate over the debate, it looks like it’s going to be a real barn burner in New York,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Senator Harry Reid. Manley cautioned both sides against escalating their rhetoric and “running into the gutter.”

Clinton’s first New York ad targets the general election and appeals to the city’s diverse population by hitting against Trump’s proposals to build a wall along the Mexico border and ban Muslims from entering the country.

She also slammed Trump while campaigning in New York on Tuesday, calling his rhetoric “offensive” and “dangerous.”

Sanders released a 30-second version of an earlier ad featuring Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, a black Staten Island man whose 2014 death from a police chokehold helped spawned a national protest movement.

Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, has endorsed Clinton, illustrating the generational divide in the Democratic nominating contest.

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The next Democratic caucus is in Wyoming on Saturday, followed by New York on April 19, and then a batch of East Coast states on April 26 — Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

Sanders and Clinton plan to spend Wednesday campaigning in Pennsylvania and speak at the state AFL-CIO convention.


Tracy Jan can be reached at tracy.jan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.