March 11, 2016
Hillary Clinton has the nomination somewhat clinched. Mathematically that is. Normally, this is a good thing for the front runner. If you get half plus one of the delegates, you’re the nominee.
Once upon a time, Democrats required two-thirds support to win, but the principle was the same. Reach the number, win the nomination. For more than a century, this happened at the convention.
Starting in 1972, this became an effort settled largely through public primary and caucus elections, but again, get the number, win the nomination.
In 2008, Barack Obama taught Hillary a harsh lesson on this concept. She won a number of large, important states. He won the nomination.
If someone told you a candidate won California, New York, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida, you would probably assume they finished safely ahead.
If that same candidate won a very narrow popular vote margin, you might wonder how it possibly wound up so close, but would continue to figure they won. As you have probably figured, Hillary was the candidate with the large state victories and popular vote win, Obama the nominee.
There was a bit of controversy, but not an overpowering amount. Michigan and Florida were not contested by Obama. Each state moved its primary up ahead of when they were “allowed” to and faced sanctions from both major parties.
As such, the states did not receive the degree of focus they normally would have. It’s possible Obama would have won Michigan if it was held at it’s normal time, and failing at that, the total popular vote margin between the two was narrow enough for this to have altered the result.
Also, Obama won 33 of the 56 states and territories participating in the nomination process. It’s not the normal way to count things up, but if you’ve won the majority of states, it helps a legitimacy argument for a candidate who also won the required delegate amount.
He won under the official rules by getting enough delegates. He survived the legitimacy argument by winning enough states. Obama won more earned delegates and more super delegates.
At one point, Hillary led with the party insiders and elected officials, but over time Obama won over undecided delegates and got some Hillary-committed people to change course. Anyone arguing the wrong person won had a very narrow ledge to stand on.
Going a step beyond, the party was rightfully excited about nominating Obama. Beyond being the first black major party nominee, he was a damn good candidate. Going on to win two presidential elections proved it.
He more than held his own in polling matchups with GOP candidate John McCain. While some worried an African American candidate would lose votes due to racial bias, others thought a female candidate might wind up at a disadvantage.
Either way, Democrats were going to nominate a first. Either way, they were looking pretty good in the polls. The Obama team mastered the rules, put together a strong campaign, won fair and square, and was ready to fight for the presidency.
Hillary learned her lesson. No matter what happened in 2016, whether Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, or any other potentially dangerous candidate entered the race, she would not ignore the delegate count.
As the race began to take shape, this meant two things. She would not find herself getting eviscerated in smaller caucus states as she was in 2008. Barack Obama racked up huge percentage victories in places like Idaho. She might lose them again, but wouldn’t let an opponent gain 15 of 18 delegates.
She would turn her disadvantage in heavily African American Southern states to her advantage. Instead of losing badly in places like South Carolina, they would become her firewall. Sure, Bernie could win Iowa and/or New Hampshire, but she would clean up here.
So far, both of these alterations are working perfectly, and are responsible for her current mostly insurmountable lead. Hillary is losing in places like Colorado and Kansas, just like she did in 2008. But she isn’t winding up quite as far behind in delegates this time.
More importantly, Bernie lost in Alabama, Mississippi, and elsewhere throughout the region by larger margins than Hillary did in 2008. They’ve worked for her the way the caucuses did for Obama, just with much larger delegate totals.
Her campaign knows that even if Sanders repeats what Hillary did, winning states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, the proportional delegate allocation will not allow him to catch up based on states that will break for him 55/45 at absolute best.
This is not even taking Clinton’s huge super delegate advantage into account. When you do, her 200+ delegate advantage gets close to 700. It’s possible to make the argument that super delegates would have a difficult time supporting a candidate who is trailing in earned delegates.
But if their candidate is ahead there too, it’s significantly harder to get those de-commits. Even if Sanders were to win every single uncommitted super delegate, he would trail overall with them.
This is why people like David Axelrod, who benefitted from this very type of delegate math when working on the Obama campaign, always mention delegate numbers during primary night analysis.
The past two primary groupings have made this even worse. Bernie won 3 of 4 states last weekend. Hillary won more earned delegates. They split on Tuesday, with Bernie grabbing the bigger state. Hillary won significantly more earned delegates.
We’ve calculated that Bernie is going to have a problem catching up anyway. Losing the delegate battle each voting day makes it worse. March 15 may well prove another example.
Michigan has taught us to view polls with great care. As such, I can make a strong case that Bernie could well win Ohio. There’s no data in Missouri, but at this point I’d favor him there. If you want to put highly rose-tinted glasses on, perhaps Illinois is in play.
He could conceivably win 3 of 5 states, though one or two is far more likely. Even if he gets three, Hillary is very likely to have a larger delegate edge from Florida and North Carolina, than any he can gain from the others.
She’s going to end March 15 with a bigger delegate lead than she has today, even if Bernie is an upset hero again. If Hillary has a 250+ lead in earned delegates, 700+ overall, how exactly does he catch up?
He probably doesn’t. And that is part of Hillary’s problem.
March 15 is the approximate halfway point in the primary contest (the voting part at least.) The first half favored Hillary. The second half favors Bernie.
So far, the candidates have gone back and forth. On nights with multiple contests, they’ve each earned at least one victory. Hillary has more wins, they’re by a larger margin on average, but Bernie has his good results too.
We’re headed into a phase where Sanders could win 8 primaries or caucuses in a row. A similar thing happened in 2008, when Obama went on a long post-Super Tuesday run. The difference is that string of victories put the eventual nominee ahead for good.
In this case, it would potentially leave Sanders a little ahead in states won, surging forward with momentum, but still trailing by huge margins in the delegate count. Not only is Hillary likely to do decently enough to keep the gap reasonable, but there aren’t a huge amount of delegates to go around.
That brings us to April 19th and New York. What if Bernie wins? It’s not an unreasonable thought. Hillary recently did a decent sized rally there. The state is ground zero for the $15 per hour minimum wage movement. It’s highly possible Sanders takes this one.
If a candidate loses their pseudo-home state, the one that elected them to the Senate, after losing eight consecutive contests, how legitimate a presumptive nominee are they?
We’ve heard for weeks that a candidate who can’t win their home state is a failure. First this came up when Ted Cruz was trying to hold on in Texas. Then it became the viability test for John Kasich and Marco Rubio. By April 19, Kasich and Rubio will have either survived or vanished based on their home state.
With the concept this baked in, how exactly does she explain a defeat?
Connecticut and Delaware vote on April 19 also. Clinton could well win either or both. Her victory in Massachusetts indicates both are good prospects.
Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island are up on April 26. Hillary is decently positioned to take at least one of these.
If she somehow lost all of the states mentioned above, Bernie would find himself on a streak of 14 or 15 states and could actually catch up in earned delegates. That seems a bit fanciful, assuming she continues to avoid indictment or major trouble on the email thing.
Hillary is a tough campaigner. She fights back when cornered. Loyal Democrats will turn out for her in many of these contests.
Even under the scenario we’ve developed here, where Bernie has a strong March 15, wins all of the contests between then and April 19, and takes New York, it’s still safer to assume she would win a couple primaries between the 19th and 26th.
That would help Hillary remain ahead in delegates, but wouldn’t do enough to salvage her legitimacy. There are several contests left for May and June.
Bernie could easily win Indiana. West Virginia is a sure thing. Kentucky quite possible. Oregon is a definite win. He’d find himself heavily favored in Montana and the Dakotas.
Puerto Rico likely favors Clinton. She’s got an edge in New Jersey, and probably New Mexico. Washington D.C. votes last and is likely in the bag for her.
His list is longer than hers. It’s not hard to construct a scenario where Bernie wins three quarters of the final 25 contests. While Hillary did win the majority of the final contests against Obama, doing very well over the final six weeks, her stretch of success only covered 10 states or so.
This is different. It would represent the entire last half of the contest. It would also leave Sanders well ahead on states won. That is most certainly not an official measurement for nomination.
The Electoral College isn’t set up that way either. Mitt Romney won plenty of states in 2012, but they didn’t add up as well as the blue ones did. We don’t pick nominees or presidents by adding up states.
But having the losing candidate win 60-65% of the states is highly unusual. Having many of those victories come in the final two to three months, when the voters have additional information is even more difficult to get around.
I’ve also left something else out. California. Bernie has a legit chance to win there too. It’s the largest state, the biggest delegate haul. It’s also incredibly diverse. If Bernie runs the gauntlet described above, culminating with a Golden State win on June 7, Hillary would appear very, very, very, very flawed.
He’s currently doing better against GOP contenders than she is. If this persists into June and July, and he’s won over 30 states, and he won California, and it appears Democratic voters are rejecting her, math alone is perhaps not enough to save Clinton.
Super delegates would begin feeling incredible pressure to support the candidate who won their state, the one doing better in the polls, the one who won most of the final contests.
Mind you, this scenario may not occur. If Clinton wins at least 4 of the 5 states on March 15, she will have dominated the South, held her own in the Midwest, and have good prospects in the Northeast.
We’d go back to something that looks a bit more like what most are expecting. A continuation of the contest, but one that will inevitably crown Hillary. She’d need super delegates to put her over the top, it would wind up more taxing than planned, but it would have legitimacy.
However, if things go as described here, it’s a problem. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey had delegate math on his side, but lacked legitimacy, having skipped the primary process his competitors participated in.
He won the nomination, but the party splintered. Richard Nixon was the result. As much as many assume Berners will join Hillary’s side in November to stop Donald Trump, it’s not like he’s a bigger villain to young progressives than Nixon was.
You can win the numerical battle and still lose the war. If Hillary wants true legitimacy as the Democratic candidate for president, she needs to do more than run out the delegate accumulation clock on Sanders.