Sanders Can’t Win, But Has Reason to Stay In

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Chris Bowers put together a useful document that helps guide us through the delegate process on the Democratic side. He looks only at the pledged (or earned) delegate count, excluding superdelegates. He then makes an estimate based on his best guess of who will win each primary or caucus and extrapolates from that how long it will take Clinton to win an outright majority of the pledged delegates. His guesses are based on polls where available, but also just on the exit polls of the states that have already held contests and how they map onto the demographics of future states. There’s also the caucus vs. primary, open vs. closed considerations.

His surprising finding is that Clinton won’t officially have the majority of pledged delegates until she wins California on June 7th. There are a bunch of other contests on June 7th (the Dakotas and Montana, New Jersey and New Mexico) that could also provide the majority-making delegate.

His final estimate is that Clinton will finish the process after the Washington DC primary on June 14th with 2283.9 pledged delegates to Sanders’s 1767.1. The threshold number to win the majority of earned delegates is 2,026 delegates. The threshold to win the nomination is 2,382 delegates of all types..

Now, we saw two important things demonstrated last night. The first was that the polls aren’t reliable and just because Sanders is currently not favored to win a state doesn’t mean that he won’t. The second was that narrow victories are not worth much in terms of netting delegates against your opponent, but blowout wins can be very valuable. According to Nate Silver, Bernie Sanders won the delegate fight in Michigan 69-61 but lost it in Mississippi 4-32.

Going back to Bowers’s estimates, Clinton is on track to win the pledged delegate fight with a 258 delegate cushion. To put things in perspective, it would take 32 Michigans or nine Mississippi-style blowouts for Sanders to net 258 delegates over Clinton.

Of course, we can’t ignore the superdelegates. As of this morning, the New York Times estimates that Hillary Clinton has a 461-25 advantage with the superdelegates (along with a 759-546 earned delegate lead).

I hope this information demonstrates a few things:

1. Clinton is not on track to win the nomination outright without the help of superdelegates. On current trends, she’s going to come up about 100 votes short (2,284 out of the 2,382 needed).
2. She’s unlikely to lose her pledged delegate advantage at any point, so a mass defection of superdelegates simply isn’t going to happen barring some scandal or health scare.
3. Sanders cannot put much of a dent in her lead by winning narrow victories even in big important states like Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin.
4. Yet, Sanders should remain mathematically alive all the way to the convention.
5. Based on Chris Bowers’s projections, Sanders is on track to win almost 1,800 of the 4,762 delegates to the convention. This would be 38% of the total delegates.

After his upset win in Michigan last night, it’s certainly realistic to believe that Sanders can do substantially better than 38%, but it’s simply not realistic to believe that he can win. Still, if roughly 40% of the delegates in Philadelphia are pledged to Sanders, that’s going to be impressive and they’ll have tremendous influence over the platform and the rule-writing committees. It may be four years before you see how these delegates have had influence over how the party conducts its presidential nominating process, but they will have their influence.

The platform of the party has a more nebulous influence, as it isn’t binding on the president or the lawmakers. But, if you’re trying to change the culture of a major political party, having a big say in what’s in their platform is not unimportant.

For these reasons, it’s worth the effort for the Sanders folks to keep up the fight for delegates. He can release them to vote for Clinton on the first ballot if he wants, but they’ll still be there to vote on everything else a convention considers.

You can argue that the party needs to unify, but I think Obama ultimately benefitted in two main ways from the fact that Clinton wouldn’t drop out in 2008. First, it forced him to hone all his campaigning and debating skills, and vetted him thoroughly so that a lot of his vulnerabilities were old news by the time the general election came around. Second, and probably more importantly, it forced Obama to organize in all fifty states, including Indiana and North Carolina which he went on to narrowly win in his contest against John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Sanders might want to lower the heat a bit to make it easier to unify the party later, but he’s still got plenty to fight for and so do his supporters.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.