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Bernie Sanders’s canary in the coal mine: Massachusetts

February 29th, 2016, 10:00am by Sam Wang

Tuesday’s Democratic Party primary states are unusually favorable for Hillary Clinton. The left side of the graph above shows Democratic polling percentages, weighted by the number of delegates. On the right are national poll medians. Where possible, the data come from poll samples of February 22 or later.

Clinton’s Super Tuesday margin is about 15 percentage points better than her national margin. A number of states should come in very strong for her: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Minnesota, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. She leads in these states by margins of 20 to 35 percentage points. Most are Southern states, where Clinton benefits from a considerable black vote (of which she won an amazing 86% in South Carolina). Big wins matter, since Democratic convention delegates are assigned close to proportionally to vote share.

However, proportional representation of votes does not mean that Sanders or Clinton needs 50% of the overall vote to get the nomination. There are also superdelegates, who comprise about 10% of all delegates; nearly all of them are committed to Clinton. If they were to stick with their current commitment, Sanders would need about 56% of the national popular vote to be headed for a majority at the convention. Sanders has a tall hill to climb. In contrast, Clinton would only need 44% of the popular vote.

(In comments, several of you think that if Sanders were to get a clear majority of pledged delegates, the superdelegates would come under considerable pressure to change their allegiance. That is possible – but hard to estimate. Practically speaking, I think that Clinton’s popular-vote requirement is somewhere between 44% and 50%, but we don’t know where. I note that if pre-election polls are accurate, we will never learn the answer to this question.)

For those of you who think this is an unfair advantage for Clinton, keep in mind that on the Republican side, Donald Trump’s advantage is larger. In a divided field, he only needs 30% of the popular vote on Super Tuesday to end up with a majority of the cumulative delegates. So even though Trump has a much smaller share of support in the Republican primaries than Clinton does in the Democratic race, the two candidates are in fairly similar competitive positions.

Sanders’s one big expected win on Tuesday is Vermont (Sanders 82%, Clinton 12%). To be competitive for the nomination, in other states Sanders needs to do about 10 percentage points better than indicated by polls. That would involve winning Massachusetts (currently Clinton 49%, Sanders 44%, median of 3 polls) and narrowing Clinton’s wins elsewhere to 10-20 percentage points. However, if the polling numbers above turn out to be accurate, Clinton will have a great day – and a clear path to the nomination.

Tags: 2016 Election · President

40 Comments so far ↓

  • Matt McIrvin

    I find it hard to believe that the superdelegates would stay committed to Hillary Clinton if Sanders had a clear popular majority and a majority of earned delegates. We heard a similar tune in 2008.

    That said, I suspect it’s moot, because I don’t think Sanders will get a majority of earned delegates.

    • 538 Refugee

      Clinton has been a card carrying Democrat for decades. Bernie still waffles on his affiliation so having the rank-n-file Democrats supporting her shouldn’t seem that odd to anyone. That said, Sanders has a better party line voting record than many Democrats.

      If Bernie collects enough popular support we could see some drift. To be a cynical I’ll remind you that the winner gets to dole out appointments so there could be some allegiance shifting.

    • Petey

      “I find it hard to believe that the superdelegates would stay committed to Hillary Clinton if Sanders had a clear popular majority and a majority of earned delegates.”

      Yup. I find it next to impossible to believe.

      There are many, many, many reason I don’t see it happening. But tops is that it’d mean the quick elimination of superdelegates. Plus given that most supers are elected Dems, it’d open up vulnerability to primary challenges. So pure self-interest would keep them from doing it, though there are several other reasons too.

      Only way I could see it happening is if GenElex polls before the convention show Clinton up 10 and Sanders down 10. Which is really the majority of the reason the superdelegates exist in the first place…

      “That said, I suspect it’s moot, because I don’t think Sanders will get a majority of earned delegates.”

      Agree again.

      And highly worth noting that we’ve just seen the first post-SC national phone poll from a non-joke organization, CNN, this morning, and Clinton is up 55 – 38.

      Momentum is real in primaries. So while this poll may turn out to be an outlier, right now it’s the only piece evidence we’ve got on the current state of the national preference. And if it’s true, it makes Sam’s otherwise wonderful post here mostly moot.

    • Mark F.

      Right, I don’t really get why Sam keeps bringing up the superdelegates when it’s fairly clear to me that they probably would not go against Sanders if he actually won the most elected delegates. But I also agree the point is almost certainly moot.

    • 538 Refugee

      Also, only 64% of the Republican delegates will be awarded by the end of March so to say Trump is mathematically eliminated given his current and likely vote total by that time, even if he loses Texas (proportional), Ohio and Florida seems to be a bit ‘Rovian’ to me.

      ” By the end of March, which is heavy with primaries in medium-to-big states, the Democrats will have selected 56 percent percent of their delegates and the Republicans 64 percent.”

    • 538 Refugee

      I seem to have been on the wrong window when I posted the above. It was in response to Jayboy2K in the ‘Cake Bake’ thread. Sorry.

  • David C Mace

    Clinton better win by a clear majority of the delegates
    failing that many Sanders supporters will not vote for her (not turnout) and she will lose
    in fact I am increasingly doubtful she can win against anyone other than Trump (good thing he is ahead)

    • Roke

      The only viable and competitive candidate would be Rubio. Cruz is just as bad as Trump and Kasich and Carson don’t matter.

      This is a race against the clock where democrats should root for Trump and Republicans should root for Rubio.

      I really don’t understand the stubbornness of Kasich, he seems like an intelligent guy and should realize that he is the one that keeps the establishment lane divided.

    • Owen

      Are you kidding? If Clinton becomes the nominee after Bernie wins a majority of earned delegates, there will be blood in the streets. It will make 1968 look like a church picnic.

      And the Bernieites won’t stay home; they’ll vote Trump so that their own party can be cleaned up by 2020. I’m a straight ticket Democrat and a Clinton supporter, but I’d vote Trump. And hundreds of supers would lose their jobs in primaries in the next two years.

      It simply won’t ever happen because it would be too disastrous. If Bernie wins a majority, even by a single half delegate, he will win the supers.

    • Owen

      Also, Rubio would be the very easiest for Clinton to beat. He has no appeal among white working class voters while Clinton’s core support in VA, OH, PA, WV and northeast white working class is her strongest swing voter asset.

      Rubio’s profile makes him totally unelectable in CO and NV and endanger AZ. That leaves only one map where Rubio could win: He must take FL and IA and OH and VA.

      Clinton will be favored in all those states because of her regional working class appeal and Rubio’s total lack thereof (maybe even in FL). She can lock down VA easily with a VP pick. Any one of the four wins the election for her.

      Meanwhile against Trump it will be a competitive election but Clinton is mildly favored.

    • whatever next

      Trump and – more so – Cruz do nearly as well as Rubio in match-ups against Hilary now – though Kasich does the best. We don’t know about Carson, because no-one bothers polling him any more (he used to get the GOP the best results of all in match-ups) even though he’s at least on a par with Kasich nationally.

      Of course, I’m putting that first sentence positively. If you look at Sanders and Clinton’s lead with some pollsters, what it really means is Trump has dragged the other main GOP candidates down to his level.

    • Josh

      It seems quite early to be speculating about general election match-ups. Polls conducted on this front won’t be meaningful until after the primaries are settled–and even then there will be a bunch of undecided voters.

  • Kevin

    Isn’t the level of support Trump needs 32%?

  • P G Vaidya

    As a Bernie supporter, I am searching for a ray of hope.
    Consider the other end of the spectrum. If Hillary has a clear majority of earned delegates, but her email/foundation troubles worsen before the convention. Wouldn’t the super-delegates throw their weight the other way?

    • Froggy

      If Clinton beats Sanders with a clear majority of earned delegates, and then some scandal torpedoes her as a viable candidates, I can’t see superdelegates moving to Sanders. If superdelegates abandon Clinton there would be great pressure on her to drop out, with the establishment then backing a new candidate. (Biden comes to mind as the first person to whom they would turn.)

    • Sam Wang

      I guess I was just thinking that committed delegates are really committed, like money in the bank. I agree with the political point that superdelegates only appear to be committed. However, I don’t know where the line is between “we’re sticking with Hillary, even if she is behind by a micro amount of pledged delegates” and “we have to switch to Bernie because he has a lot more pledged delegates.”

      The polls suggest that this is not going to matter, on the grounds that Clinton will get a majority of pledged delegates. If so, it is just as well for the Democrats, since they probably want to avoid having a chaotic convention with a lot of ill will.

    • P G Vaidya

      Froggy: I agree.

    • Petey

      “I guess I was just thinking that committed delegates are really committed, like money in the bank. I agree with the political point that superdelegates only appear to be committed.”

      This is true.

      But interestingly, in a “suddenly toxic” candidate scenario, even “bound” earned delegates only appear to be committed.

      The delegates to a convention are sovereign. RNC rules or DNC rules can’t bind them. State laws can’t bind them. If a majority of the delegates vote to unbind the delegates on the 1st ballot, voila, they’re suddenly all unbound. A majority of delegates can make or unmake any damn rule they please.

      All this is incredibly unlikely to ever happen, of course. But it’s a valid thought experiment that theoretically could happen.

    • seeker

      Do you really think Obama, the party, the elected officials who have endorsed would be behind her if there were even a small chance of indictment?

      Are all of those plugged-in people simply stupid?

  • Olav Grinde

    “To be cynical, I’ll remind you that the winner gets to dole out appointments so there could be some allegiance shifting.”

    Speaking of which, if I was wearing Donald Trump’s hair-transplants (or in his shoes), I would be whispering something like that to Kasich and Carson: hinting at possible appointments or even a VP nomination, if they can prove their popularity in the coming primaries.

    Say anything to tempt them to stay in the race!

    • whatever next

      Except that Carson dropping out helps Trump more than anyone else, if you look at 2nd preference polls.

      Even Kasich dropping out is not too bad for Trump I don’t think, on the surface of it, although would help Rubio more in its domino effects.

      FWIW Rubio dropping out is what would get Trump into trouble – Rubio voters disproportionately have Cruz as 2nd choice – though not vice versa.

  • Amitabh Lath

    The dog that didn’t bark in this entire primary season is the polling. Frankly given the mess in the 2014 midterms not to mention Israel and the UK, not to mention the unusual candidate choices on both sides rendering the usual Likely Voter filters useless, I expected the polls to miss by a lot more than they have.

    Two explanations come to mind: a) polling firms fixed their problems with better methodology and outreach to cellphone-only, young, old, transient, etc. or b) they reweighted, prayed, and got lucky. Given that the former costs money and latter costs nothing, I have my suspicions.

    • bks

      In 48 hours we’ll have a lot more grist for that mill.

    • Sam Wang

      On the Democratic side, it could also be that two-candidate races are easier to poll. On the Republican side, they are older and ethnically more homogeneous, so the technical challenges might be somewhat reduced.

    • Matt McIrvin

      There’s been a lot of theorizing about a Bradley-like effect with shy Trump supporters. Matt Taibbi thinks that’s why Trump does better in automated polls than in phone polls. Eyeballing it, it looks to me like there’s an effect there but it might be going away as Trump becomes seen as a mainstream choice.

  • Matt McIrvin

    And highly worth noting that we’ve just seen the first post-SC national phone poll from a non-joke organization, CNN, this morning, and Clinton is up 55 – 38.

    Which is actually consistent with the polls from the less reputable organizations, for what it’s worth. A couple of weeks ago several national polls had Sanders at or nearly at parity.

  • Roke

    Regarding the canary in the coal mine. released a really cool tool to judge the state of the race.

    I would really like a detailed analysis from them how they calculated their benchmarks.

  • Olav Grinde

    I am unable to find any Democratic polls of American Samoa – and yet the primary is tomorrow…

    • Owen

      2008 Samoa — 285 voters, 9 delegates (states usually have about 1,000-5,000 voters per delegate, not 30)

      Since then, Clinton has been attacking and punishing the main Obama supporter behind the scenes using her powers as SoS and he’s lost reelection. I don’t know whether that presages total submission or backlash.

  • A New Jersey Farmer

    At what point doe the GOP come around and begin to mend fences with the Trump campaign? March 15? April 30? Never?

    Hillary seems to have the nomination in front of her and the polling has been pretty consistent in her favor.

  • Olav Grinde

    Senator Eliizabeth Warren has endorsed Bernie Sanders. I wonder whether that may help him in any of the Super Tuesday primaries.

    Strange that this story isn’t generating more headlines, given Warren’s stature in the Senate and in the Democratic Party…

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  • Dennis

    If Donald Trump goes up against Bernie Sanders, because Hillary cannot run for the Oval Office due to her indictment, Trump must disarm Sanders, by agreeing with him. That New York City bankers, Treasury Secretaries & Fed Chairman are criminals just as Dr. William Black of Univ of Miss at KC said so. when he testified before Congress.

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