Bernie Sanders Still Has a Path to Victory. Here It Is.

The media says Clinton is inevitable (again), but the battle for delegates could be closer than anyone expects

Christopher Hass

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a rally in Denver, Colorado, one of the states he has the best potential shot at winning. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)

Note: This arti­cle has been updat­ed to reflect the out­come of the South Car­oli­na pri­ma­ry. You can read the sec­ond install­ment in this series here.

The early states account for only a fraction of the total delegates needed. And though every delegate is a zero sum game (either Clinton wins it or Sanders does), every state is not. The margins matter.

The main media nar­ra­tive com­ing out of Saturday’s Neva­da cau­cus was clear: Hillary Clinton’s got her inevitabil­i­ty back, and Bernie Sanders’ cam­paign is toast. You can see it across a broad swath of the polit­i­cal spec­trum, from Salon (“Hillary Clinton’s Path Is Clear: Bar­ring a cat­a­stro­phe, her nom­i­na­tion is inevitable”) to the Drudge Report (“Bern Out: Hillary could end it all in two weeks!”).

But if you put aside con­jec­ture and spec­u­la­tion for a moment, there’s real­ly only one fact we can know for cer­tain: Sanders trailed Clin­ton by just a sin­gle pledged del­e­gate, 51 – 52, after Neva­da. Yes, it’s true that, includ­ing superdel­e­gates (which we’ll get to in a bit), a can­di­date needs to amass at least 2,383 total del­e­gates in order to claim the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion — but that’s just anoth­er way of say­ing that you have to win by one.

That’s not how the media tends to talk about the nom­i­na­tion, but it’s the frame­work to keep in mind as things unfold over the next few weeks and months — and it’s a frame­work the cam­paigns them­selves clear­ly under­stand. For all the talk of momen­tum, it’s math that will deter­mine the winner.

(Re)setting expec­ta­tions

When polls closed in New Hamp­shire, two things hap­pened with­in sec­onds: the net­works declared Sanders the win­ner, and the Clin­ton cam­paign released a three-page memo that attempt­ed to reframe not just her loss but the entire­ty of the race to come. The memo explained:

While impor­tant, the first four states rep­re­sent just 4% of the del­e­gates need­ed to secure the nomination. …

The way to win the nom­i­na­tion is to max­i­mize the num­ber of del­e­gates we secure from each pri­ma­ry and cau­cus. That means, in many cas­es, that the mar­gin of vic­to­ry (or defeat) with­in a giv­en state is actu­al­ly more impor­tant than whether the state is won or lost.

Giv­en its tim­ing, the memo may have looked like sleight of hand to dis­guise an embar­rass­ing loss, but the under­ly­ing point is absolute­ly cor­rect. The ear­ly states, with their rel­a­tive­ly small pop­u­la­tions, account for only a frac­tion of the total pri­ma­ry votes. And though every del­e­gate is a zero sum game (either Clin­ton wins it or Sanders does), every state is not. The mar­gins matter.

So, let’s look at the margins.

What it takes

Try­ing to map the 2008 race to 2016 is an imper­fect sci­ence, but 2008 does pro­vide the most recent exam­ple of what a long, con­test­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry looks like (and of course, there’s one con­stant in both: Hillary Clinton).

Most every­one remem­bers the excit­ing first act of 2008: Barack Oba­ma’s his­toric vic­to­ry in the Iowa cau­cus, Clin­ton’s teary-eyed come-from-behind win in New Hamp­shire, and the pho­to-fin­ish of the Neva­da cau­cus. When seen in terms of del­e­gate dif­fer­en­tial, how­ev­er, it looks likes this:

The real­i­ty is con­sid­er­ably less dra­mat­ic, isn’t it? Math will do that. Now, here is where the race stands at the same point in 2016:

Next, let’s look at how the rest of the race unfold­ed in 2008, focus­ing on pledged del­e­gates won by each can­di­date in each con­test on the night of the elec­tion or cau­cus*, as well as the mar­gin of del­e­gate victory:

Note: The pri­ma­ry results in both Michi­gan and Flori­da were ini­tial­ly nul­li­fied because the states broke par­ty rules by hold­ing their elec­tions too ear­ly in the year.

Three things stand out:

First, blow-outs are rare, but they can be dev­as­tat­ing. Near­ly half of Oba­ma’s total del­e­gate mar­gin came from just one state: Illi­nois. Clin­ton had a chance to return the favor in New York, but despite the fact that her home state had many more del­e­gates to award than Obama’s, her mar­gin of vic­to­ry was much narrower.

Sec­ond, a big win in a small state can be just as impor­tant as a small win in a big state. In 2008, the epic six-week bat­tle for Penn­syl­va­nia (which saw the release of the Rev­erend Wright videos and Obama’s sub­se­quent speech on race in Philadel­phia) was one of the most intense and cost­ly of the cam­paign. Yet, after more than 2.3 mil­lion votes were cast, Clin­ton’s mar­gin of vic­to­ry of +12 del­e­gates was iden­ti­cal to what Oba­ma gained in win­ning Ida­ho, a cau­cus of less than 22,000 peo­ple that flew com­plete­ly under the radar.

Third, it’s hard to rack up big del­e­gate wins, even with a clear major­i­ty of the vote. Each state has its own way of appor­tion­ing del­e­gates, and whether you see it as a fea­ture or a flaw, the sys­tem is designed in a way that pro­vides even the los­er with a large num­ber of del­e­gates. As an exam­ple, in New Hamp­shire ear­li­er this month, if Clin­ton had just man­aged to break 45 per­cent the del­e­gate split would have been 8 – 8: a draw.

Super freak

Before we go on, a word about superdel­e­gates. In addi­tion to the pledged del­e­gates award­ed in each state based on the vot­ing, there are 712 unpledged del­e­gates — so-called super” del­e­gates — who are free to vote for whomev­er they choose, when­ev­er they choose — and they can change their minds when­ev­er they like. These are Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­ers such as gov­er­nors, mem­bers of Con­gress and par­ty offi­cials. They make up 15 per­cent of the total num­ber of del­e­gates, more than enough to upend the result in a close race. But that will nev­er happen.

In 2008, there was a fair amount of hand­wring­ing over the pos­si­bil­i­ty that superdel­e­gates sup­port­ing Clin­ton would deny Barack Oba­ma the nom­i­na­tion even if he won the most pledged del­e­gates, and we’re see­ing the same anx­i­ety among Sanders’ sup­port­ers today. A num­ber of pro­gres­sive groups are already putting pres­sure on superdel­e­gates to hon­or the results of the indi­vid­ual pri­maries and cau­cus­es, and the superdel­e­gate freak-out is like­ly only beginning.

But despite Clinton’s mas­sive 452-to-19 lead among superdel­e­gates who have endorsed so far, par­ty offi­cials sim­ply aren’t going to over­rule the will of Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers. Doing so would dam­age the par­ty and almost cer­tain­ly doom the nom­i­nee. Imag­ine, say, Don­ald Trump being able to (accu­rate­ly) claim that his gen­er­al elec­tion oppo­nent couldn’t even win over a major­i­ty of Democ­rats, and was only on the bal­lot because the estab­lish­ment rigged the game. That’s not going to hap­pen. This is going to be decid­ed by voters.

What is dis­turb­ing, how­ev­er, is that many main­stream out­lets (includ­ing MSNBC and Politi­co) have begun com­bin­ing superdel­e­gate totals in with pledged del­e­gates as part of their results on elec­tion night, and The New York Times, the Asso­ci­at­ed Press, Bloomberg news and oth­ers have begun includ­ing superdel­e­gate endorse­ments in their over­all del­e­gate counts. Fair­ness and Accu­ra­cy in Report­ing points out that this didn’t use to be the case, and doing so gives the false impres­sion that superdel­e­gates are some­how con­nect­ed to the vot­ing itself. They are not, and the media should stop pre­tend­ing otherwise.

What hap­pens next? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It’s dif­fi­cult to go much fur­ther with­out mak­ing lots of assump­tions about some 30 mil­lion peo­ple who have yet to vote, each and every one of whom will ulti­mate­ly decide between Hillary Clin­ton or Bernie Sanders for rea­sons unique and know­able only to themselves.

But FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Sil­ver recent­ly took a close look at the two dozen or so states where Sanders seem­ing­ly has the best chance to do well, and Sil­ver and oth­ers have begun to paint a more detailed, nuanced por­trait of the emerg­ing Sanders coali­tion and how it’s already mak­ing for a much dif­fer­ent race than we saw in 2008. The one thing that hasn’t changed since 2008 is that the slow accu­mu­la­tion of del­e­gates — not states — will be what deter­mines the even­tu­al winner.

Polling in upcom­ing states, to the extent that polling can even be trust­ed in the mod­ern cam­paign era, is vir­tu­al­ly nonex­is­tent. Sanders won huge mar­gins of young vot­ers in both Iowa and New Hamp­shire, but we’ve yet to see if that will hold true with young vot­ers of col­or. Clin­ton is win­ning the African-Amer­i­can vote, but it’s unclear yet if she’ll be able to con­tin­ue doing so with the same over­whelm­ing mar­gin that Oba­ma did in 2008. Sanders is reach­ing white vot­ers that Oba­ma lost to Clin­ton, and Clin­ton is win­ning over house­holds with high­er incomes that Oba­ma won. Turnout so far has not been near­ly as high as it was in 2008. There are a lot of unan­swered (and unan­swer­able) questions.

But for the pur­pose of this thought exper­i­ment, let’s assume that a best-case sce­nario for Sanders would need to com­bine some or all of the following:

• Good per­for­mances in cau­cus states: Oba­ma won 15 out of 16 cau­cus­es in 2008, where turnout is low­er and the activist base of the par­ty has an out­sized impact. The Clin­ton cam­paign knows this, and they’re focus­ing much more atten­tion on the kind of orga­niz­ing it takes to win these. That paid off in Neva­da, but the cau­cus states could still pro­vide Sanders (and his enthu­si­as­tic sup­port­ers) some of his best chances.

• Win­ning (enough) African Amer­i­can votes: Nation­wide, Oba­ma won the African-Amer­i­can vote 85 per­cent to 13 per­cent, and this trans­lat­ed into some of his biggest wins, includ­ing South Car­oli­na, North Car­oli­na and Geor­gia. This time, it’s Clin­ton who is win­ning the ear­ly sup­port of African Amer­i­cans. Sanders will have to nar­row that gap enough to pre­vent big blowouts.

• Win­ning (enough) white work­ing class vot­ers in the South: Some of Oba­ma’s biggest loss­es in 2008 were Ken­tucky, West Vir­ginia and Ten­nessee — states with a large pro­por­tion of white, work­ing-class Democ­rats. These may not seem like ide­al states for a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist either, but there are signs that Sanders could con­ceiv­ably be com­pet­i­tive—or even win—in places like this where Oba­ma lost big.

• Win­ning large states with pro­gres­sive vot­ers: No mat­ter how close Sanders keeps his loss­es, he’ll have to win some­where. Three of Oba­ma’s five biggest wins in terms of del­e­gates were Wash­ing­ton, Vir­ginia and Min­neso­ta, and it is states like these — with rel­a­tive­ly large pop­u­la­tions of white, pro­gres­sive vot­ers — that may be Sanders’ best bet.

• Keep­ing it close: If Sanders does win, it’s like­ly to be much, much clos­er than Oba­ma’s even­tu­al 116-del­e­gate mar­gin. In 2008, many of Clinton’s top cam­paign advi­sors famous­ly failed to plan for—or even under­stand—the actu­al mechan­ics of the nom­i­nat­ing process. This time around, both cam­paigns have shown that they get how del­e­gate math works and what it takes to win.

With all of this in mind, here’s a look at one hypo­thet­i­cal out­come where Sanders runs the table on all the fac­tors above — and wins by one delegate:

This isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly meant to be pre­dic­tive — you could eas­i­ly argue any (or all) of the indi­vid­ual out­comes above. There are plen­ty of sce­nar­ios where Clin­ton ulti­mate­ly wins by even more than Obama’s 116 pledged-del­e­gate mar­gin from 2008, and she remains the clear favorite over­all. But the point is this: As the elec­tion goes on, the math takes over — and the math is incre­men­tal, not momen­tous. The cam­paign will undoubt­ed­ly con­tain more big moments, but the vic­to­ry will lie in the margins.

The last and per­haps most inter­est­ing thing illus­trat­ed by the sce­nario above is that Sanders will almost cer­tain­ly have to come from behind to win, maybe more than once. The sched­ule for ear­ly March heav­i­ly favors Clin­ton. But from March 22 on, things look con­sid­er­ably more favor­able for Sanders, and a string of pri­maries and cau­cus­es could pro­vide him with a chance to rack up a series of con­sec­u­tive wins. If that hap­pens, we could see an ever-tight­en­ing race to the fin­ish. This is a long way from over.

* Every state has its own (often byzan­tine) rules for award­ing del­e­gates, and in some cas­es the pledged del­e­gate count isn’t final­ized for some time. The 2008 del­e­gate tal­lies ref­er­enced here reflect, to the extent pos­si­ble, the results from each elec­tion or cau­cus on the day it took place.

This is the first in an ongo­ing series on the del­e­gate race for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion. Sign up here to make sure you don’t miss any upcom­ing installments. 

Christo­pher Hass is the exec­u­tive pub­lish­er of In These Times. Before join­ing ITT, he spent eight years work­ing on polit­i­cal and advo­ca­cy cam­paigns, includ­ing both the 2008 and 2012 Barack Oba­ma pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns. He is also the for­mer edi­tor and pub­lish­er of P8NT Mag­a­zine.

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