KIMBALL, W.Va. — Bernie Sanders’ motorcade these days zigzags across rural states at a frenetic pace. And when the Vermont senator arrives at events, his rhetoric is all over the map as well.
Sometimes he’s attacking Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for her big-money donors and the highly paid speeches she delivered at Wall Street banks. Then he goes three events in a row without mentioning her once.
Sometimes he’s reflecting on what his campaign has accomplished. At other moments he sounds like the leader of a movement — telling his thousands of cheering fans that only they have the power to change the country.
And other times what he says is just confusing.
“Today is not a political event,” Sanders declared improbably to a group of supporters at the beginning of one town hall meeting held at a food bank here in McDowell County, W.Va. He went on to deliver his familiar populist stump speech.
To travel with Sanders now — as his chances of capturing the Democratic nomination recede — is to see a politician in transition. He talks more about winning upcoming contests than winning the nomination that once seemed so plausible to his supporters.
Thousands still come to see him — waiting hours — even though the most fervent supporters acknowledge he’s not likely to win.
And the question surrounding him at every turn is: What’s next?
Driving through Kentucky and West Virginia this week there were no Sanders signs in lawns. The field staff in Kentucky was running low on gas money at one point.
The campaign staff has gotten dramatically smaller, with about 200 people laid off last month. Many news organizations have stopped following him.
The fund-raising shrank, too, dipping in April to $26 million from March’s jaw-dropping $44 million.
Sanders’ campaign TV advertising in West Virginia is about as faint as his chances of clinching the nomination: Federal records show that in the state’s largest town he bought a total of three dozen television spots.
The campaign took this weekend off, with Sanders returning to Vermont. He fired off a letter to Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, accusing her of “installing Clinton loyalists” in leading roles on the committees that will oversee the July convention and ignoring most of his suggestions.
“If we are to have a unified party in the fall, no matter who wins the nomination, we cannot have a Democratic National Convention in which the views of millions of people who participated in the Democratic nominating process are unrepresented in the committee membership,” Sanders wrote.
There’s every reason to believe Sanders still has some fight left in him, if only to increase his leverage at that convention: Even in these rural states he talks excitedly about the upcoming primary in California, where he’s already planning big rallies.
And though Sanders has a good chance of winning seven of the next 13 primaries or caucuses, capturing the nomination is nearly impossible.
Here’s the cruel reality, which was made abundantly clear this week: Even though Sanders bested Clinton in Indiana, the nomination prize actually slid further away. Before votes were tallied, Sanders needed 65 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to overtake Clinton’s edge. Afterward he needed 66 percent.
Does that math seem head-scratching? Yes. But with Indiana done, the pool of remaining pledged delegates grew smaller. That means in order to overcome Clinton’s commanding lead, he needs to win even more of the reduced pot.
The place with enough delegates left for him to overtake her is California, and by then he would probably have to win with an improbable margin of nearly 70 percent of the vote.
“I do not deny it for one second that we have an uphill battle in front of us,” Sanders said, standing on the steps outside the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library in Indiana after winning the state. “Although it is a narrow path,” he acknowledged.
Then he provided the road map: He would still win the majority of pledged delegates awarded in state-by-state contests, he would persuade the super delegates from states that he won with a margin of greater than 65 percent to flip their votes from Clinton to him, and he would also cite polling that shows he would beat Trump by larger margins than Clinton to draw any remaining super delegates his way.
For now, there’s a bipartisan interest in letting him continue barnstorming the country.
Clinton’s campaign has issued clear orders not to alienate Sanders and his legions of fans: None of her supporters should try to push him out of the race. She knows that she needs Sanders and his followers to be out stumping for her in the fall when she goes up against another unconventional candidate drawing huge crowds on a populist message: Donald Trump.
The presumptive Republican nominee, too, senses Sanders is useful staying in the race as a wedge to split the Democratic party.
“Bernie Sanders has been treated terribly by the Democrats — both with delegates & otherwise,” Trump posted on his Twitter account Thursday night. “He should show them, & run as an Independent.”
One aspect of the campaign that hasn’t changed: People are still flocking to hear Sanders speak. Seven thousand came to a waterfront rally in Louisville, Ky.; 5,000 appeared at a Lexington, Ky. rally. Two hundred squeezed into the food bank in West Virginia, and the campaign set out loudspeakers so people in a parking lot could hear.
His supporters want him to keep going even though they rate his chances of success as slim. “I’m sure it isn’t going to be easy,” said Jonathan Keeler, who went to see Sanders in Lexington. He’s optimistic about what the campaign has achieved. “It’s started waking up a political revolution. It’s too late to stop now.”
And there’s still some sense of fun with Sanders. “We’ve got roads,” Sanders said in McDowell County, talking about the need for more investment infrastructure. “In Vermont people go down potholes and you don’t seem them again for a week.”
After delivering a 60-minute stemwinder in Lexington, Ky., he diverted his eight-car motorcade for an unscheduled stop at Graeter’s, an ice cream parlor where he ordered two scoops of chocolate ice cream in a cup.
He joked that nobody should tell Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield — two of his highest profile supporters who also founded Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
And in Bowling Green, where he officially opened a field office, he admired a campaign sticker worn by a volunteer showing “Birdie Sanders” — a meme that took off after a female house finch landed on his podium during a rally in Portland.
But he couldn’t linger and answer questions from his supporters — there was an important stop coming up in Elizabethtown, which was 77 miles away.
And his wife, Jane, needed to tape an interview with Neil Cavuto, of Fox News.
She used the opportunity to blast the Democratic Party. “Bernie is bringing millions of people across the country into the Democratic Party, and yet the Democratic Party shuts the door on them and says: ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ ”
The candidate himself is also willing to go through hoops to be in front of a TV camera, and those hoops can be tricky.
Hours after Sanders delivered a blow to Clinton’s juggernaut by winning Indiana by five points, Sanders was doing an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper.
What was unusual was it was conducted via cellphone as Sanders paced outside a brewery.
The cable network had refused to send a nearby correspondent to interview him in person. Then a standalone CNN camera malfunctioned, so Sanders’ only option was the cellphone.
Rather than basking in his win, Sanders could be overheard defending his candidacy.
“It’s generating enthusiasm,” Sanders explained.
As he talked, he jammed his free hand into a pocket. It was cold out there.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly gave the location of the city where Bernie Sanders was when a house finch landed on his podium.