Vermont Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' visit to Vatican City this week is an efficient use of the candidate's time, contrary to the assertions of some journalists who think the visit will take away valuable time needed to mount primary fights in New York and Pennsylvania.
The facts are that Sanders is significantly down in both the Pennsylvania and New York polls, and has little chance of winning either of those states' primaries. In New York, Clinton leads Sanders 53 percent to 37 percent, while in Pennsylvania she leads Sanders 49 percent to 38 percent in recent polls, according to CNN.
New York is a must-win state for Sanders, and Pennsylvania also puts a number of delegates on the table. So why is Sanders visiting the Vatican when he absolutely needs both states to win as part of any viable path he has to the White House?
My take is that Sanders knows he has already lost the race. Despite winning the popular vote in many primary contests, especially recently, Sanders trails Clinton in pledged delegates, superdelegates, and the overall popular vote of Democratic primary voters who have already cast their ballots. Sanders has a deficit of nearly 2.5 million votes compared to Clinton, and he is practical enough to recognize that New York and Pennsylvania are probably going to go for her.
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Sanders is using what political capital he has left before the July convention to spread his message and try to force the Democratic Party to hold true to committing to more left-wing policies, particularly in the economic sphere, going forward. And given Pope Francis' frequent criticisms of inequality and a corrupted economy which works for the few rather than the many, Sanders is cleverly leveraging his message as having powerful moral and philosophical undertones.
And naturally, he has come under criticism for being opportunistic. After announcing his visit to the Vatican, the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Margaret Archer, said that Sanders invited himself.
"Sanders made the first move, for the obvious reasons," she said, according to The Daily Beast. "He may be going for the Catholic vote but this is not the Catholic vote and he should remember that and act accordingly—not that he will."
Sanders was vindicated somewhat after Monsignor Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Academy, said it was he who had invited Sanders. The goal of the conference which Sanders will be attending reportedly has to do with establishing a dialogue between North and South America, and Sanders may not meet with the pope himself.
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Could Sanders accomplish more by being in New York this week instead of Rome? Undoubtedly, he might be able to energize more voters. But it's highly unlikely he will make up the current vote spread between himself and Clinton.
And with a campaign which is probably nearing its end fairly soon, a visit to the Vatican and visibly aligning his economic views with a figure who represents 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, Sanders is trying to leverage the power and momentum which turned his originally obscure campaign bid into a progressive powerhouse within the Democratic Party on an even larger scale. He may not have a chance of winning, but his ideas do.