Democratic primary drama: Bernie Sanders looks to defy the reality of delegate math

Can Bernie pull out upset wins in the Midwest? And will it matter if Hillary still racks up delegates in the South?

By Simon Maloy

Published March 15, 2016 4:25PM (EDT)

 (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Today’s Democratic presidential primaries can probably best be described as a case of narrative vs. results. Democrats will be voting in Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, and Missouri today, and if you’re interested in the dramatic portion of the festivities, keep your eyes trained on the Midwestern states. If delegate counts are more your thing, look southward.

As it stands right now, there’s a not insignificant chance that Bernie Sanders could win more states than Hillary Clinton today. The polling averages for the Midwestern states show three tight races that could go either way. Polls from Missouri have been sparse, but what data exist point to a toss-up. In Illinois, a cluster of recent polls have shown Hillary’s lead dwindling down to the low single digits. Ohio looks like it could be stronger territory for Hillary (her lead looks to be in the high single digits) but after Sanders’ surprise win in Michigan last week it feels risky to assume she has it locked down. If Sanders puts up a strong showing in the Midwest and claims narrow wins in all three states, he’ll ride a massive wave of good press. That would undoubtedly be good news for Bernie, a validation of his campaign message and organization, and he’d probably raise a ton of money off of it. It would also send shudders through the Clinton campaign, which finds itself unable to erode Bernie’s strength with white working class-voters.

The problem, however, is the same problem that’s bedeviled Sanders for the entire primary: delegate math. Democratic delegates are meted out proportionally, so while narrow wins in big states like Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri would be great for his insurgent narrative, they wouldn’t really help Bernie eat into Clinton’s delegate lead. Consider what happened last week: Sanders squeaked out a close and dramatic victory in Michigan, but walked away from the state with just seven more delegates than Clinton. That margin was more than wiped out by Clinton’s lopsided win in Mississippi, which netted her 26 more delegates than Sanders. Bernie got the big win and the headlines, but Hillary padded her delegate lead.

The same dynamic might well come into play in today’s contests. While Bernie is competitive with Hillary in the Midwest, it looks like she’s blowing him out in Florida and North Carolina. Both those states are right in Hillary’s demographic wheelhouse, with large numbers of black voters in North Carolina, and high percentages of black, Hispanic, and older voters in Florida. Big margins in those two states would mean huge delegate hauls for Clinton.

For Hillary, this dynamic represents something like a semi-reversal of roles from 2008. Back then, she was the still the presumed frontrunner and she was still struggling to fend off an insurgent challenger, but she was the candidate leaning on the narrative of “most states won” and “winning the states that matter” while her challenger was busily putting up huge delegate victories. Now she’s the one making the case that the delegate math is ultimately what will carry her to the nomination and fighting against the narrative that arises from losing close contests in big states. In the end she’s right: the delegates are what matter.

None of this is meant to suggest that Bernie’s narrow wins wouldn’t be significant. The only way for Sanders to defy the reality of the delegate math is to keep winning where people don’t expect him to. Even if those victories don’t translate to big delegate gains, he turns himself into a more credible and dangerous candidate each time he triumphs over Clinton, and the more people see him win, the higher the likelihood that more people will vote for him in later contests. The odds are still long for Sanders even if the most optimistic of scenarios, but wins tonight in the Midwest would show that he’s doing everything he can to overcome them.

Simon Maloy

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