February 28, 2016
You may recall your intrepid correspondent questioning Hillary Clinton’s decision to go all in on South Carolina at the risk of losing Nevada. A day or two before the Silver State caucused, it seemed like she took a questionable risk.
Bernie Sanders had pulled approximately (as best as we could tell with sketchy data) even with her, and a win would completely change the trajectory of the contest. As it turns out, Hillary was in the middle of a 48 hour sprint to the finish line.
Along with calling in a few favors and the long arm of Harry Reid, she prevailed by a few thousand votes. The immediate danger was gone, and she was in a position to leverage the extra attention paid to the Palmetto State.
The Sanders strategy for making South Carolina uncomfortably close involved getting a boost from a Nevada win. When the defeat slowed his narrative roll, and showed the current limitations of his coalition (entrance polls showed he won less than a quarter of Nevada’s black voters), they decided to pull back.
Except for a few perfunctory appearances, including a CNN town hall, Bernie spent most of the week between Nevada and South Carolina in Super Tuesday states. He even managed to visit Michigan (3/8), Illinois (3/15) and Ohio (3/15).
It became very apparent he was throwing in the towel. Polls taken between New Hampshire and Nevada had Bernie trailing between 18 and 29 points in South Carolina. This is fairly similar to where Hillary found herself in New Hampshire once the candidates arrived post-Iowa.
In that instance, the margin was between 7 and 33 depending on which pollster you asked. Hillary made a different decision and plugged away for the full week. The final result was 22, almost 10 points worse than the final poll average. It looked like Hillary wasted her time.
Maybe not. Bernie’s South Carolina numbers began worsening after Nevada. A poll from Clemson, released on the eve of the primary, had Hillary up 50. That looked like an outlier, but it did give me enough pause to expect a wider margin than the poll average (though still well short of reality.)
As it turns out, they were right. Bernie wouldn’t have won New Hampshire by 50 if Hillary had determined she had better things to do, but he might have won by 30. She really didn’t have anywhere else to go. Super Tuesday was still a long ways away and South Carolina was almost 3 weeks ahead.
Bernie didn’t have the luxury of camping out in South Carolina to try to keep the margin to 27. As bad as such an extreme loss appears, it was a reasonable risk to take. If there was a mistake, it was spending part of the week in places like Georgia and Texas.
He’s going to lose there too. Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, and Texas are completely out of the question. They were a lost cause when it looked like he might lose South Carolina by 20 or 30, never mind 50.
I would imagine his plan was to try to keep those states to as close a margin as possible to take advantage of proportional delegate allocation and attempt to avoid creating an impossible gap.
If Bernie won Nevada, this would have made sense. With some extra momentum, he could have kept the southern states closer, while figuring he would win the others. Without it, any time spent anywhere other than Oklahoma, Colorado, Minnesota or Massachusetts was a missed opportunity.
In order to keep this interesting, he needs a few victories on Tuesday. Vermont is both in the bag and not enough for credibility. It’s not about delegates. He’s way behind on super delegates and will trail noticeably in earned delegates.
The way he keeps this going is by winning. Any outside chance of getting the nomination (other than an indictment for Hillary) is based on going on a big winning streak later, keeping Hillary from clinching the nomination on earned delegates only.
Then they make their case to the public and super delegates that he has momentum and that Hillary is the regional candidate, with most of her victories in southern red states that won’t vote for the Democrat anyway.
It’s a long shot for sure, but the only way forward after Nevada. FiveThirtyEight is now estimating she is the favorite in Oklahoma and Massachusetts, though both are still in play. Colorado and Minnesota lack recent polling. Demographics favor him.
Beyond any time spent elsewhere, the other question/concern is how badly the South Carolina margin will impact him with those voters on Tuesday. More specifically, will younger Berners lose heart/hope and stay home?
Aside from any particular to Bernie volatility, probably not. Hillary got obliterated in South Carolina herself back in 2008. Super Tuesday loomed soon after. She still won more than her share of states. Barack Obama was not able to parlay that result into taking California (which voted earlier in ’08) or any of Hillary’s other must-wins.
Back in 1976, when Ronald Reagan faced Gerald Ford in a race that actually looked something like this one, incumbent President Ford won Iowa, and then won New Hampshire narrowly.
Next up was Massachusetts (61/33) and Vermont (84/15). Even after those two rebukes, Reagan kept it close a week later in Florida (53/47). The following week, the contest reached Illinois, Reagan’s birthplace. He lost his ancestral home by almost 20 points.
At this point, he’d lost the first 6 contests, 3 of them badly. He wasn’t the guy who would win the Cold War. He was an ex-actor, ex-governor, who was out of money and lost repeatedly to an incumbent president. Ford wasn’t as protected by the establishment as Hillary, but it’s damn close.
Ford’s team and the media told Reagan to drop out. He continued to North Carolina and won by 12,500 votes. That turning point is worth an article of it’s own, without it there’s no President Reagan.
He rode that momentum into an 11 point loss in Wisconsin. A few weeks later, Ford won 93% in Pennsylvania, a state Reagan decided not to contest and failed to file a full delegate slate for. If you didn’t know things worked out ok later, you would think North Carolina was a fluke.
The calendar moved a bit more slowly in those days, and not all states had full primaries yet. Reagan had picked up some wins at state delegate conventions in non-primary states, but had won only once in an open vote and lost badly several times.
In quick succession, the Gipper won Texas (66/33), Georgia (68/31), Indiana (51/49), and Nebraska (54/45). Momentum is overrated. It matters, but not as much as demographics. Reagan ran well in the South and West, Ford in the Midwest and Northeast.
Where Bernie faces the problem of having too many southern contests too soon, Reagan didn’t have enough of them soon enough. Ultimately he fell short, as Bernie is likely to as well.
On Tuesday we’ll find out if he wins enough to really push this, or if Hillary can safely turn her focus to the general election. If he only wins Vermont and maybe one other state, it’s probably because he didn’t spend enough time in winnable states or organize early enough there.
Everyone will blame momentum, but that’s probably not really the case.