May 18, 2016
Hillary Clinton narrowly escaped doom yesterday, winning Kentucky by the narrowest of margins. No, a loss would not have changed the nomination outcome. Yes, Bernie’s Oregon victory gives him good reason to push forward to California anyway. We are where we’ve remained.
Hillary will win, Bernie will not surrender. Clinton surrogates are getting increasingly impatient to get rid of him. Berners are feeling increasingly persecuted and wronged. It’s natural for Hillary fans to want her to turn to dealing with Trump. Bernie cannot mathematically catch up.
But Berners have at least as much ground to stand on. They have two main points. First, Hillary has benefitted from a home field advantage. Whether it’s DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz strategically weighing in, anger over the Nevada state convention process, or concerns over voting irregularities, Berners feel the deck was stacked.
Second, he’s done far better in contests which allow Independents to vote. With Bernie increasing his consistent lead over Hillary in polling against Trump, this is no idle point. His advantage with nonaffiliated voters is why she leads The Donald by 2 in New Hampshire, while Bernie is up 16.
Clinton trails Trump by 4 in the latest Georgia poll, Sanders leads him by 5. If you think the process wasn’t fair to begin with, and can see closed primaries are helping the less competitive candidate win the nomination, you’re justifiably angry. Sure, it’s just polling. But we’ve seen how predictive Trump’s poll numbers are for months now.
Until proven otherwise, we need to assume they’re roughly accurate. Sanders NEVER does worse and almost always does better. But what about Hillary’s gigantic (by proportional allocation standards) earned delegate lead? What about her huge margin among super delegates? Isn’t it unrealistic to see a scenario where Bernie could have won?
If you define a close contest as something in mid-single digits or less, Democrats have had 9 nail biters so far. Hillary won 7. Michigan was the lone Sanders victory by less than 5 points, Indiana the only other one by less than 10. At several key points along the road, narrow victories have helped Clinton keep from losing complete control over the narrative.
Iowa (Feb 1) 0.3% margin
Nevada (Feb 20) 5.3% margin
Massachusetts (Mar 1) 1.4% margin
Illinois (March 15) 2.0% margin
Missouri (March 15) 0.2% margin
Connecticut (April 26) 5.4% margin
Kentucky (May 17) 0.5% margin
Iowa was incredibly close. Remember, unlike the Republicans, Iowa Democrats do not release the actual vote total. Instead they release state delegate equivalents. Clinton won this measure by 0.3%. It’s quite possible (I’d argue likely) that Sanders actually had more supporters on caucus night.
The reason is his over-represenation in college area caucuses, where he could only earn a given amount of SDEs, regardless of how many students showed up. Think of these as the equivalent of electoral votes. Each precinct is the equivalent of a state in November. You can win the popular vote and still lose. In this case, the popular vote remains a mystery.
The lack of transparency, along with Clinton winning several coin flips for SDEs, apparently without losing a single one, began the process of making Berners feel both unlucky and persecuted. Winning Iowa and New Hampshire back-to-back wouldn’t have made Sanders a front-runner, but it would have altered the narrative and put extra pressure on Hillary.
The most important close result was Nevada. In our alternative universe, a victory there would have allowed him to sweep the first three contests. The South Carolina firewall was still there. Take a look at the map though. Start taking the close states and coloring them for Sanders instead of Clinton.
Isn’t 5% still a decent margin? It’s definitely not recount material. But in a closed caucus, it also isn’t very many votes. Various Sanders voters had registration issues. Harry Reid weighed in at the end and arranged for extra precincts on the Strip, making it easier for workers belonging to Clinton-supporting unions to participate.
Did that make the crucial difference? Probably not, though it helped the margin. Again it doesn’t look good, isn’t transparent. Being a closed caucus did. At a minimum, Bernie picks up 10 points in an open/semi-open contest (outside of the South.) He may well have added 15 points. Slightly different procedures, plus open to nonaffiliated voters and all of a sudden Bernie wins by plenty.
Massachusetts was incredibly close. Nonaffiliated voters were able to participate, so we can’t blame the rules. Momentum hasn’t played a big role in the real contest, most outcomes matched demographics far better than the most recent previous results. But we’re talking about a few thousand votes here.
Bernie went into Super Tuesday having lost 3 of the first 4 contests. If he’d won 3 of 4, with South Carolina being an ex-Confederate outlier, is it absurd to imagine a few voters who were feeling the Bern in their hearts but thinking Hillary in their heads might have chosen differently?
Instead of Michigan being a miracle upset, it’s an important narrow win. In our alternative universe, Bernie goes to bed after the March 8 contests having won 11 states to Hillary’s 9. Her huge advantage in Southern states would have given her a pledged delegate advantage, but a less insurmountable one. Observers would have noted she was lucky Democrats don’t use winner-take-all rules.
It doesn’t take a suspension of disbelief to get us this far. In the real world, Michigan was enough to make March 15 more interesting, but Bernie was still seen as a real long shot. He lost Missouri by two tenths of a percent. After trailing by 20 to 30 points, he finished only 2 short in Illinois.
Both were open primaries, so, like Massachusetts, we’ll have to rely on momentum to overturn the actual result. Would you agree it’s not much of a stretch? Early voting in Illinois began on February 25. Give Bernie those Iowa, Nevada, and Massachusetts wins and this looks different.
In the contest we actually witnessed, Hillary swept the five March 15 states, meaning Bernie had to pretty much win out to catch up. In our scenario, he’s doing much, much better. Instead of a map where Hillary dominates the South, and Bernie has victories along the Canadian border and on the Great Plains, Sanders is undefeated in New England and has won every Midwestern state except Ohio.
We’re going to ignore outcomes like Arizona, where Hillary won by 15 on March 22. Berners raised a big ruckus on Primary Day over voters being disenfranchised. Not enough to close the gap. They looked irrational for suggesting trickery cost them the state. They aren’t wrong to think he could have won.
Arizona was a closed primary. They began voting very early. Combine allowing nonaffiliated voters with more early Sanders victories and the math absolutely works. Again, not counting this one, but it gives a good look at how a Berner could very, very reasonably imagine their guy ahead.
Even in the real world, Bernie went on a tear for a few weeks. He won 7 consecutive contests ahead of New York. All by double digits, many by 30 or 40 points. We saw him treat New York as a virtual must win. The media correctly did as well. Though Hillary needed a win, she was still well ahead.
In our scenario, she enters her home state with 13 victories (I’m not counting stuff like American Samoa and Northern Marianas for her, Democrats Abroad for him), Bernie has 20. I realize you can’t just count states, but consider the implications. Instead of him trying to pull an upset on her turf, it’s a matter of New Yorkers deciding to let Hillary fight to see another day.
Like Arizona, I’m not figuring he would have won here. Though you can make an argument that a combination of momentum and an open primary would have made it very interesting. Let’s assume she still wins convincingly. We also won’t change Pennsylvania from closed to open. The final margin was less than 15, so it’s possible Sanders would have won under different rules, but again, we’ll pass on judgment.
Instead of adding on to a massive lead, the Keystone State would have paired with Delaware and Maryland to give Hillary a solid April 26 haul. She ends the day trailing 22 states to 17, though ahead in earned delegates (by a smaller margin than we’ve seen.) We are going to give Bernie Connecticut to go with the Rhode Island win he actually got.
This just requires a switch to a partially open primary. Even if you completely ignore momentum, early voting, any other variable, it’s enough to take him from a 5 point loss to a minimum of a 5 point win.
Bernie then goes on to win Indiana and West Virginia exactly the way he really did. He managed to win Oregon even as a closed primary. For Kentucky, switching from closed to at least allowing nonaffiliated voters turns a frustratingly narrow defeat to a solid victory. Mind you, Hillary’s wins in the South were so large she would still lead the pledged delegate tally this morning.
But Bernie would have 26 states, Hillary 17. This is assuming we leave Arizona, New York, and Pennsylvania the way they are. If you want to calculate in some sort of cascading effect, she’d be done right now. If he had 9 more victories, was close in pledged delegates, and retained his current advantage against Trump, how do things look today?
Of the remaining contests, only New Jersey is a solid Clinton state. That’s how close Bernie got. He didn’t miss by much. Much of the gap in popular votes is due to Sanders doing particularly well in caucus states. Though the format helped his percentage margin (on the order of 10 to 15 points) it limited his raw vote edge.
Make the big Clinton states caucuses and the best Sanders states primaries and she’d have a couple extra delegates, but the popular vote edge would evaporate. If you were one of the millions of Berners who grabbed pennies out of the vacuum cleaner bag to help your candidate raise $200 million in micro donations, would you think this was all fair? Would you roll over now?
Donald Trump very effectively ran against the GOP process. It helped him grab a big delegate lead. Through March 15, his delegate percentage far exceeded his popular vote percentage. Then raging against the system helped him to key primary victories and helped extinguish his remaining opposition.
While the system didn’t actually hurt Trump and then became a prop, the Democrats’ approach did harm Sanders. For pundits who never thought he could win anyway, it wasn’t worth considering. The rules simply gave us the outcome we were expecting. If anything, it appeared proportional delegate allocation and giving super delegates a large share was preventing Hillary from reaching the finish line sooner.
However, a couple of minor tweaks, and we’d be well on our way to an exciting contested convention, assuming Hillary still had enough political strength to fight. All of those scenarios we kicked around for the GOP would be in play. Pundits would wonder if Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren might be the choice to break a deadlock.
At a minimum, Bernie would have a fighting chance. If it’s that easy to create a scenario where he could legitimately win the nomination, why would Berners shut up and act like nice little Democrats right now? Especially when many aren’t registered Democrats. Republicans aren’t the only ones with a legitimacy/unification issue.