All I want to do is write about the dramatic Republican race, and yet the topic I’m most asked about is Bernie Sanders’s chances to complete the comeback. On this issue, you can count me as one cog in the corrupt media machine that thinks Hillary Clinton has this all but wrapped up, as she has dating back to Nevada. I strong advise against buying Sanders nomination stock.
It’s tough talking with Sanders supporters on this issue. I grant that their candidate has done an incredible job against the establishment’s pick. I concede that their candidate has beaten every last expectation and shaped the debate along the way. I accept that he has tapped into a popular movement and mobilizes crowds by the thousands. I acknowledge that Hillary Clinton is a flawed, corrupt, and immoral candidate controlled by a major political party. I confess that the system is broken and needs a substantial overhaul. (I also point out how all these points can be made in favor of Donald Trump, but that observation isn’t nearly as welcome.)
Where the average Sanders supporter and I part ways is when evaluating his chances of winning the Democratic Primary. That’s not to say he hasn’t thoroughly overachieved already. I expected him to be eliminated by the end of this month. Indeed, I used to tell fellow Connecticutians friends that the April 26 Connecticut Primary wouldn’t mean anything on the Democratic side. On this prediction, as in so many others, I was wrong. His campaign is on life support, but it’s not dead yet.
Here’s where those who are #FeelingTheBern laugh at me. “‘Life support’ is a pretty strange way to describe a campaign that has won seven states in a row!” they’ll guffaw. “Go back into retirement, PPFA.”
If Sanders does in fact come back to win this thing, I’ll readily hang up the keyboard (again). In the meantime, I continue to think stubborn arithmetic works against the democratic-socialist from Vermont. Below are the delegate standings of the Democratic Primary:
1. Clinton: 1787
2. Sanders: 1132 (-655)
The equivalent of the more publicized “1,237” figure from the Republican side is 2,383 for the Democrats. That’s how many delegates a candidate needs to earn a majority of the 4,765 delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton therefore needs 596 more delegates, or 32.3 percent of those remaining, while Sanders needs 1251, or 67.8 percent. Considering he has only won 8 of the 37 contests with percentages that high (most of them caucuses — more on that below), it’s pretty much impossible that he wins that percentage of remaining delegates in all remaining states. Even his recent string of success came in states with either super liberal or super white (or super both) Democratic parties; few remaining contests mirror those advantages. He cannot win two-thirds of remaining delegates.
Then again, he doesn’t have to. Those delegate standings include superdelegates. I’m familiar with them, including their history, purpose, undemocratic nature, ability to switch sides, and misleading presence when lumped together with state delegate totals. That being said, they can’t be totally ignored. They’re part of the rule book, and Bernie Sanders won’t be able to get to 2,383 without them.
The plan for the Sanders Campaign is that he can earn their support by catching Hillary Clinton in pledged delegates. The reasoning says that superdelegates would switch to support the will of the people. With that in mind, let’s look at the pledged delegate standings:
1. Clinton: 1310
2. Sanders: 1094 (-216)
Not as intimidating. In total, there are 4,051 total pledged delegates to be won; a majority would be 2,026. Clinton, therefore, needs 716, or 43.5 percent, of remaining delegates, while Sanders needs 932, or 56.6 percent. Considering his recent success — his worst win in this seven-state streak was with 55.6 percent of the vote — that doesn’t seem like an impossible figure to hit.
So is Bernie Sanders in this thing after all?
Yes, but barely. Everything would have to break perfectly for him, starting immediately. There are several factors pushing back against his momentum:
1) Remaining contests: The biggest roadblocks for a complete Sanders comeback are the remaining primaries themselves.
Wikipedia’s results page allows us to sort the completed contests in a few different ways, including by percentage for each candidate. If we sort by Clinton results, Mississippi tops the list at 82.6 percent. Here’s how it looks by the Sanders sorting (I’ve removed two columns to simplify the chart):
Below that we’d get into Clinton victories, starting with Iowa as her narrowest and ending with Mississippi.
There are some important characteristics to notice about these states. First, they’re predominantly caucuses. Sanders’s record in caucuses is 11 wins and 4 losses. Moreover, those rare losses were Iowa (which Clinton won with only 49.9 percent), Nevada (only 52.6 percent), and two territories — Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa. Clearly he’s a dominant caucus candidate.
His record in primaries, however, is 6 wins and and 16 losses. The problem is that of the 20 remaining contests, only four caucuses remain, none of much consequence: Guam, Virginia Islands, Puerto Rico, and North Dakota. And three of the four might follow the other U.S. territories that went with Clinton anyway. The other 16 remaining contests are all primaries. Moreover, nine of the remaining 20 contests are “closed” primaries. Clinton is 3-1 in that subset, winning Florida, Louisiana, and Arizona by over 15 points, with Sanders’s sole win in the category coming from the unique “Democrats Abroad.”
In sum, we’ve just finished a tailor-made stretch for Sanders, yet he’s still a couple hundred delegates behind as we head into less favorable contests. Remember, there was also a stretch tailor-made for Clinton — Super Tuesday through March 15 — and it went exactly as expected: mostly Clinton victories. More Clinton victories of any kind would now put away Sanders, but for Sanders, he doesn’t just need to eke out wins, he needs to win states made for Clinton by 15 to 20 points each.
The diversity of remaining states makes that unlikely. Of the 1,647 remaining pledged delegates, 1,037, or 63 percent, come from four states: California, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. These are big, diverse states, all are primaries, and Clinton leads each by an average of double-digits. That’s not to say Sanders can’t come back — we all remember Michigan — but if he just breaks even in those states, there won’t be enough delegates left in the other contests to make up his deficit. He has to win these states and win them big. It’s one thing to erase double-digit deficits in four different states; it’s quite another to turn them into double-digit victories the other way.
2) The Superdelegate plan: We can’t be certain that superdelegates will switch sides. It’s not as easy as taking a national pledged delegate lead.
It’s a bit hypocritical that Sanders supporters generally decry the rules of the party getting in the way of the people’s will, but the caucuses he does so well in and the pledged delegate totals themselves are also versions of the rules that limit democracy.
Sanders supporters have become fond of counting number of states won by each candidate, as if that’s more representatives of the people’s will than delegates, but that’s clearly an agenda-driven tabulation that either side would ignore if it didn’t work in their favor. (I’m also guessing progressives would not want to simply count states when it comes time for general elections.) Instead of states and delegates, we actually have a pretty good measure of the people’s will: the popular vote itself.
Unbeknownst to many is that even though Sanders has won 46 percent of pledged delegates, he’s only won 42 percent of the actual vote. (Clinton has won 56 percent.) Thus, that’s a category that’s even more improbable for him to erase. If the campaign is really hoping that superdelegates should reflect the will of the people, it’s hard to make the argument that they should reflect the will of “pledged delegates” and not the popular vote. The only way to do that would be to reference the rule book about pledged delegates, but the rule book also says superdelegates are free to vote for whomever they’d like.
You can already see the Clintonian spin job if Sanders does in fact take the pledged delegate lead and not the popular vote lead. The superdelegates could easily justify standing pat and giving her an overall majority.
Why will they so stubbornly stand pat? When considering superdelegate motivations, we should remember that many of them are reluctant to support Sanders for a variety of reasons, including the fact that Bernie Sanders was not a Democrat for his entire political career and has in fact spoken badly about their party. Now he wants its nomination? You can understand why they’d be hesitant. If there’s any plausible justification for sticking with Clinton — and the popular vote would be a damn good one — they will.
And remember, if they don’t switch sides, Clinton only needs 33 percent of remaining delegates, a virtual certainty.
Fear of Trump: We’re about to hit a stretch that will be very kind to Donald Trump. It’ll appear he’s regaining his strength, and at some point we might reach the tipping point toward his nomination. This terrifies Democrats (and many Republicans!). Despite general election polling almost always showing Sanders as matching up better nationally, Clinton feels like the safer pick to most Democrats. I don’t disagree; I’m of the sort that thinks the Republican Party has spent years getting used to hating Hillary Clinton, gearing up for this election, and tearing down her reputation (some of it deserved) to get the leg up on November. It’s been enough to drive up her negative numbers to near record numbers, but she’s still doing incredibly well in general election polling against Trump and Cruz. Sanders is doing better, but the GOP has largely ignored the democratic-socialist; you know the game plan will come rather easily to them if he were the nominee. Thus, even if Bernie Sanders better espouses a Democrat’s ideology, a potential Trump Administration might scare that Democrat into voting for Hillary Clinton.
There’s compelling writing to resist looking at the two Democratic options as this kind of dilemma, but fear often outweighs logic. He’s a gamble for Democrats, and if it looks like Trump is going to be the nominee in May and June, it will seem to many Democrats that it’d be foolish to roll the dice with a Sanders nomination when Clinton might be money in the bank.
Yeah, But Still
But remember, I didn’t say he was dead. I said he’s on life support. How can be pull off this comeback?
It starts with New York. However, I’ve already taken up too much of your time, and after 1700 words you probably have less of it than the Sanders Campaign. I’ll tackle his path to the nomination, however narrow, when I preview the New York Primary.