June 5, 2016
Not very long ago, it looked like Hillary Clinton had the California primary well in hand. She’d led every survey, most of them by double digits. While Bernie Sanders had time to make up some ground, Hillary was a clear favorite. Not anymore.
Three polls were taken entirely within the past two weeks. One from the Field Poll, a California institution that began surveying statewide elections when Richard Nixon was a promising young pol. Another is from CBS/YouGov, which has weighed in to the majority of important contests this cycle. Our final entry, from NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist, represents another frequent contributor. They have a strong record and an A rating from FiveThirtyEight (Field gets an A+).
Field surveyed for a week beginning right before Memorial Day weekend, ending just after. Marist polled right around the holiday. YouGov the few days right after Memorial Day. Each are showing exactly the same two point advantage for Clinton. It’s the first California poll for Marist, but Sanders has picked up ground in the other two from earlier readings.
We now have several months of evidence to show how various polling results indicate what will happen in a primary election. Pollsters have had an easier time finding consensus on the GOP side (even when it was still competitive.) In several key instances, surveys for a given Democratic primary were all over the place. When they were in the same range, they were generally accurate.
In this case, we have consensus, and a positive trend for Sanders. We also know he tends to outperform his polls in primaries that are open to non-affiliated voters. A two point lead for Clinton is likely equivalent to a small lead for Sanders if past history repeats. Field doesn’t survey outside of California, but Marist does not usually inflate Bernie’s support. YouGov is a little optimistic in closed primaries, but has underestimated him in more open contests.
If we just look at it this way, Sanders is the favorite. You could expect him to win by 2 to 5 points. But there are a couple of other factors, both of which help Clinton. California has a large number of early voters. Many voters participate early by mail. These are predominantly older voters, those who registered some time ago. Democratic registration has surged in the past several months, as a combination of Sanders efforts and anti-Trump feeling have driven many young voters and Latinos (not mutually exclusive) to sign up.
These new voters may well turn out, but the early voters already have. Those voters are more likely to support Clinton, as the polls are already indicating. Overall, Clinton has done well in states with a sizable percentage of early votes. The format tends to drive up the percentage of older voters, the single most important demographic factor in the Clinton-Sanders fight.
A Sanders win will require him to perform better than his average with non-white voters. While the African American voting population is lower than many other Democratic primaries, there is a relatively high number of Asian Americans, and of course, many Latinos. Bernie is polling better than usual with African Americans, only trailing by 20 points or so. He’s roughly even with Latinos, and ahead among Asians.
This isn’t implausible. The demographic breakdown was very similar in Illinois, and Sanders did decently with Latino voters in neighboring Nevada. However, similarly close poll numbers in Illinois did not lead to a Sanders win, despite being an open primary. It was one of the few times he did not beat the survey average. He also fell a little short of his polls in Nevada.
It’s small sample size, but in the states where Sanders runs well with non-white voters, his poll numbers prove more accurate than in states where his voters are more heavily caucasian or he can rely on a larger percentage of college students, who are more easily organized while in the middle of the school year.
If you look at it this way, and figure the poll numbers will hold, then Clinton is the favorite. FiveThirtyEight is still showing Hillary with an 86% chance of victory based on the survey data, 92% if you take ancillary factors into account.
So it’s likely a coin flip. Clinton could win by a few points, Sanders could win by a few points, or we may well wind up with an extended wait to find out. Not all of the early vote mail ballots will get counted by Tuesday evening. If the contest is separated by a point or two, it will take until Wednesday or Thursday to get a final ruling. Since those votes will favor Hillary, Bernie needs a lead from the Tuesday votes to have a chance of being the winner when all is said and done.
The Field poll indicates a majority of Sanders voters are supporting him in the hopes of giving him leverage at the convention, forwarding the movement, etc., not in the expectation he will win the nomination. That’s either good for him because his voters won’t be dissuaded by a Clinton victory in New Jersey leading networks to call her the presumptive nominee before the polls close in California, or a problem because voters are more likely to turn out if they think their candidate can get nominated.
In less than two days, the suspense will end, and we can enjoy the final high-stakes primary of the 2016 season. Though Clinton will clinch the presumptive nominee title on Tuesday, a loss would sting. Enjoy the process. It will have to hold you over until November or Iowa in 2020.