Kentucky won’t be the end of the road for either Hillary Clinton's or Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
But, depending on how Democrats vote today, it will certainly be a big bump in the road for one of them.
Clinton needs to win Kentucky today to stop Sanders’ surge in recent weeks – Sanders has won 10 out of the last 16 primaries since March 22 – and stifle concerns that he’s a more formidable candidate against Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Sanders hopes to continue his winning streak by pulling off another big upset today in the Bluegrass State.
“Hillary Clinton is the presumed nominee even if she loses Kentucky,” said Ryan Salzman, an assistant professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University.
Because the state awards delegates proportionally, even if she loses the state, she can still walk away with 40 percent of the delegates.
Kentucky voters won’t decide the Democratic Party’s nominee Tuesday. Yet, their votes are important: Clinton wants to kill the narrative that Sanders’ continued wins symbolize something bigger.
"Kentucky is Clinton territory," Salzman said. "She’s popular there. So a loss there means something."
Both Clinton and Sanders spent money running television ads and campaigning around the state in an effort to woo last-minute voters ahead of today’s primary. It’s an unusual sight, given that Kentucky’s election is one of the last races in the primary season. It’s also proof of the primary’s importance to the two Democratic candidates, said Dewey Clayton a political science professor at the University of Louisville.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Clayton said. “(Clinton) sees that now is the time to blunt some of the momentum that Sanders has built up.”
Kentucky is traditionally favorable terrain for anyone running for president with the last name of Clinton. Voters there twice elected Bill Clinton – in 1992 and 1996 – to the presidency and Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won Kentucky during the Democratic Primary in 2008.
“She’s a strong candidate here,” Clayton said. “She’s still a favorite to win the state."
But she’s had missteps in recent weeks that could leave her vulnerable with certain voters in Kentucky today.
In March, Clinton promised to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” a sound bite that has angered many in coal-dependent Eastern Kentucky and drawn protestors to her campaign events in recent days.
That’s a part of the state Sanders is expected to perform well in Tuesday. Clinton will likely do better in the central part of the state, home to Kentucky’s two biggest metropolitans, Louisville and Lexington, Kenton County Democratic Party Chairman Col Owens said.
“I think she’ll do well here; she’s been here a number of times,” Owens said of Northern Kentucky. “Eastern Kentucky will be tough because of the flap over the coal.”
And, Sanders was the only candidate campaigning in the state for a brief period. Last week, though, the Clinton campaign changed course, increasing the number of stops in the state and buying up more television ads. Clinton has spent $300,000 on ads in the state.
Her campaign strategy changed after bruising losses in West Virginia and Indiana earlier this month, said Melissa Kary Miller, an associate professor of political science at Bowling Green State University.
“She’s really not taking Kentucky for granted. She’s made 11 visits there. She’s outspending Sanders, 3 to 1, on television advertising,” Miller said. "She knows it would be embarrassing to lose Kentucky. I think her campaign realizes that.”
Not only would it be embarrassing for Clinton, it could lend more credence to Sanders’ argument that he should be the party nominee. His recent wins, combined with polls that show him beating out Trump by a wider margin in the November general election, could damage Clinton.
“He would make this argument saying, 'Why is the Democratic Party choosing someone who is, in essence, not winning primaries?’” Clayton said. “This would just give that much more of a shot in the arm to Bernie Sanders.”