Sanders Needs to Focus on the Calendar

The following graph represents the states that Obama won (purple) and the states that Hillary Clinton won (gold) in the 2008 primaries and caucuses. This is actually just the popular vote, but with the exception of Texas (I think), the popular vote reflected who got the most delegates.

Now, whipping out my handy-dandy 2016 primary calendar, I see that the first big date after the introductory phase (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada) is Tuesday, March 1st, or Super Tuesday. Let’s take a look at who won each contest in 2008.

Alabama- Obama
Arkansas- Clinton
Colorado caucuses- Obama
Georgia- Obama
Massachusetts- Clinton
Minnesota caucuses- Obama
North Carolina- Obama
Oklahoma- Clinton
Tennessee- Clinton
Texas- Split (Obama got more delegates)
Vermont- Obama
Virginia- Obama

As we should have learned the last time around, what matters isn’t so much how many delegates a state has as how many delegates you can net out of a state. The best example of this came on Super Tuesday in 2008 when Obama was shellacked in New Jersey (107 delegates) and won in Idaho (18 delegates). The result? Obama netted 12 votes out of Idaho (15-3) and Clinton netted eleven votes out of New Jersey (59-48). New Jersey was supposed to be one of the big prizes that day, but Obama more than wiped out Clinton’s advantage by completely dominating in Boise.

If the primary season ever goes beyond a beauty contest and a battle for favorable media coverage and gets down to the nuts and bolts of actually winning delegates, these kinds of things will matter a lot. And we know that the Clinton campaign will be prepared this time around.

Now, Bernie Sanders is impressing me with the size of his rallies. Last night, he drew almost 28,000 people to a rally in Los Angeles. But he’s got to translate the support he’s able to get in places like L.A., Portland, Seattle, and Madison into places that are actually on the early primary calendar.

If he wants to flex his muscles and organize in liberal strongholds, I’d advise him to start doing so in states that are going to matter. Go to Minneapolis, Austin, Boulder, Asheville, Athens, Cambridge, and the NoVa suburbs. Get people organized there, now, so that you can spread out to less liberal areas of these states later.

You can also see from looking at that map why Sanders is getting badgered about his need to win over the black vote. Obama did well out West in states like Wyoming and Idaho, but his strength in southern states with large black populations was critical.

On the other hand, Sanders wants to push an economic message that should appeal to the white working class. And the white working class vote is strongest in the Appalachian belt stretching from the ‘T’ of Pennsylvania down to where the Appalachians give way to the Ozarks and the traditional home base of the Clintons. Sanders may not be able to hold places like Alabama and Georgia for the anti-Clinton camp, and he may not be able to win in places like Tennessee or Kentucky. But he doesn’t have to win all these states necessarily if he can hold down how many delegates Clinton nets out of them.

In 2008, Clinton netted twelves votes each out of Tennessee, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and 23 votes out of Kentucky. Outside of Massachusetts, New York and California, these were her strongholds. Sanders doesn’t have to take them away completely, but the stronger he runs there, the better.

Obama wasn’t able to win in Ohio, but he limited Clinton’s take to seven delegates. He didn’t win in Indiana but he held her gain to four delegates and organized the state well enough to pull off a surprise win against McCain in the fall.

There’s no way that Bernie Sanders will ever run away with the nomination and he will not catch Team Clinton flat-footed on caucus and primary strategy the way that Team Obama did. To win, he’ll need to grind it out, delegate by delegate. And, short of a big scandal or health problem in the Clinton Camp, Sanders will never get the superdelegate advantage that Obama enjoyed.

For these reasons, the Sanders campaign would be a longshot even if he were not such an out-of-the-mainstream character. But, he and his supporters want to give this an honest shot. And they should be at least as focused on the mechanics of this as the Obama campaign was or they’ll have absolutely no hope.

So, let’s see Sanders pack some stadiums at the universities of Tennessee and Georgia and Texas and Alabama. And it’s nice to rock Portland and Los Angeles, but he needs to turn his attention soon to the states whose votes are going to matter early on.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

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