Bernie Sanders opened his campaign's office in Gowanus this past Saturday, just three weeks ahead of the New York primary—which, for the first time in a long time, actually matters. Hillary Clinton is currently leading Sanders 1,243 to 975 in pledged delegates, and 1,712 to 1,004 if you include superdelegates. But Sanders just won Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington State's caucuses, and is now looking ahead to primaries in Wisconsin and New York, where 96 and 291 delegates are at stake, respectively.
New York saw record voter registration in the past few weeks, and given how high voter turnout has been across the board this election cycle, April 19th is gearing up to be a Very Big Deal—particularly given that you've got a native Brooklynite competing against a former New York senator for, as seems increasingly likely, the honor of ultimately running against a native New Yorker of...a different sort.
It's in the face of this primary's heightened significance that Sanders has asked Clinton to debate him in New York before the primary rolls around. The final two Democratic debates of the primary are set to take place in April and May, but the Democratic National Committee has yet to announce a date or time for either—which means that New York, which has the most delegates at stake of any of the April primaries, would make a perfectly logical choice for a location.
"I would hope very much that as we go into New York state, Secretary Clinton's home state, that we will have a debate—New York City or Upstate, wherever—on the important issues facing New York and, in fact, the country," Sanders said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
As the New York Times notes, Clinton's advisers had been deferring to the DNC on this matter, saying that they'll wait to hear the committee's opinion on where the April and May debates have been held—but the DNC, in turn, has said that it's waiting on the campaigns to come to an agreement.
The DNC has been quite obliging to the Clinton campaign thus far—no surprise, given that its chair, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, co-chaired Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign—so it’s unlikely it’ll stand behind a New York debate if Clinton doesn’t agree to it.
Appearing on CNN's "At This Hour" yesterday, Clinton's chief strategist had to be pushed to even address the question of why the campaign wouldn't agree to a New York debate, and, when he did, he brought upon himself a storm of negative attention from Sanders supporters.
"I think the real question is, what kind of campaign is Senator Sanders gonna run going forward?" Joel Benenson asked, adding, "Let's see the tone. This is a man who said that he'd never run a negative ad, ever. He's now running them; they're now planning to run more. Let's see the tone of the campaign he wants to run...Senator Sanders doesn't get to decide when we debate, particularly when he's running a negative campaign against us. Let's see if he goes back to the kind of tone he said he was going to set early on. If he does that, then we'll talk about debates."
Benenson was referencing a Washington Post report from this weekend that revealed the Sanders campaign's plan to increase negative ads in the run-up to the New York primary. And it's true that in the early months of his campaign, Sanders suggested he'd shy away from attack ads, telling The Nation, "I've never run a negative ad in my life...I'm supposed to be telling the people that my opponents are the worst people in the world and I'm great. That’s crap; I don't believe that for a second…. I don’t need to spend my life attacking Hillary Clinton or anybody else."
Still, it's a bit of hypocritical criticism from the Clinton campaign, which has itself been running a negative campaign against Sanders, and now appears to be holding a New York debate hostage until his campaign agrees to back off on the negative ads. As the Washington Post notes, the Clinton campaign has itself stood down on attack ads in the most recent weeks, reportedly because it's wary of splitting the Democratic vote so much that voters won't ultimately support whoever gets the nomination. But others have interpreted this latest move, and hesitancy on a New York debate, as an attempt to shut down Sanders's recent winning streak: he's won the last five primaries, and if that continues, he'll be gaining considerably on Clinton.
In response to Benenson's comments, Sanders supporters have taken to Twitter with the hashtag #ToneDownForWhat, arguing that presenting the facts about Clinton's Wall Street backers does not constitute running attack ads.
— Nate Hood (@HoodHaikus) March 29, 2016
— Nynia Chance (@NyniaChance) March 29, 2016
Others pointed out that in 2008, after Clinton had already faced Barack Obama in 26 debates, she told a South Dakota paper that presidential candidates "should be willing to debate any time, anywhere."
— Goodbye Third Way (@PittsBern) March 28, 2016
In a letter to his counterpart on the Clinton campaign, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver reiterated the request for a New York debate and implied that the Clinton camp's hesitancy is based on a fear that Sanders might overtake her lead:
"It is difficult to understand your motivation. I have received calls from numerous news organizations seeking to sponsor a New York debate so I know the media interest would be high. Can you please explain why New York should not host the April debate? Is the Secretary concerned about debating before the people who twice elected her to the U.S. Senate?
Perhaps there is some tactical advantage you are seeking by avoiding a debate in New York but I would remind you that Senator Sanders agreed to debate the Secretary in New Hampshire when he was well ahead in the polls."
Benenson has also said that he expects that Sanders will "campaign like a Brooklynite, and [Clinton's] going to campaign like a senator who represented the state for eight years and lived here for 16"—a pointed statement that Mayor de Blasio, a Clinton supporter, said he takes as a compliment. Though de Blasio hasn't taken a stance on the question of a New York debate, saying it's "up to the candidates to decide," his supporters in the Working Families Party are demanding that Clinton agree to debate Sanders in this state before the primary.
Clinton will be in NYC on Wednesday to campaign.
Whether or not the Clinton campaign ultimately agrees to a New York debate, April 19th is sure to be a big one. Check your polling place here, and get ready to vote: unlike many primaries past, New York could make a real difference this year.