Last weekend, after Bernie Sanders’ enormous Key Arena rally, I threw something of a wet blanket on the exercise, writing that the nature of America’s media landscape and oligarchic politics meant that Donald Trump had a much easier path to the presidency than Sanders; that no amount of huge rallies or enthusiasm would change that; and that what really matters is whether the movement Sanders has spawned can survive the election and become an ongoing political force.
Sadly, that’s all still true. It’s not going to change, today’s enormous wins for Sanders notwithstanding. But I had no interest in dampening the local enthusiasm for Sanders in the days leading up to today’s caucuses. So, I’ve held off all week as I’ve read one after another impassioned and/or angry rant that Bernie can win, here’s the math, you all are wrong and/or biased and/or corporate sellouts for writing off his chances for the nomination.
After today’s successful results, that noise is only likely to increase. But it’s delusional. Last weekend, I didn’t get into the numbers and mechanics of why Hillary Clinton has the Democratic Party nomination virtually sewn up. Unless a major scandal or incapacitation befalls her before the convention, it’s in the bag. Even if those things do happen I don’t think much of Sanders’ chances.
I don’t like it – I think that Clinton is both a terrible candidate and a prospectively awful president, and that she could get beaten by Trump much more easily than Sanders could. There’s no way I could in good conscience vote for Hillary Clinton in November over a third party candidate like Jill Stein for a dozen different compelling reasons. But all that still doesn’t mean the Democratic Party won’t pick Clinton. Even if it’s electoral suicide, they will.
I bring this up not to dismiss Sanders or his supporters; quite the opposite. I want to see this movement survive and continue to grow after Clinton is handed the nomination, and after the November election. It’s the most promising opportunity to bring sanity to large-scale American politics I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I don’t want to see it lost because too many people have unrealistic expectations of how politics work, especially in America’s farcical imitation of a democracy. I don’t want to see happen what I’ve witnessed countless times over the years when a candidate or movement has inspired support from people new to electoral politics, up to and including not just Occupy, but many of Hillary Clinton’s passionate supporters in 2008 (who are notably absent this year): people becoming discouraged, cynical, or disabused and dropping out after their effort doesn’t succeed. There’s a lot of reasons to keep fighting and keep adding to the progress that Sanders’ campaign has already generated, starting with the stark reality that the next President of the United States isn’t going to be Sanders, and she or he is going to suck.
First, let’s concede that Sanders is not only far better than Clinton (let alone any Republican) on issues I care about. He is a more formidable general election candidate, he has a lot more momentum right now than Clinton, he’s done far better than anyone expected, and Clinton is a deeply flawed candidate on both style and substance. All of these things are true, and none of them are likely to come into play in determining who wins the Democratic nomination.
The closest any actual data comes to relevancy in making the case that Sanders could still win is the factoid that even before today, according to the number-crunchers at the invaluable fivethirtyeight.com, Sanders projected to nearly 90% of the delegates he’d need to have a majority of “earned” or “pledged” delegates, i.e., delegates generated by voter or caucus results and committed to supporting their candidate on the first ballot.
That sounds closer than it is. On the Republican side, all of the remaining contests are winner-take all, making it far likelier that Donald Trump will go to his convention with an absolute majority of delegates. But the Democrats allocate all of their earned delegates proportionately according to vote or caucus results. That makes it much more difficult to gain a lot of ground quickly. You can win 60 percent of a 10-delegate state, for example, and only gain 2 delegates (6-4), whereas in a similar Republican contest, Trump would get all ten.
Here’s a handy chart of the numbers that are most important in following the math below:
All delegates 4,763 (2,382 needed to win)
Total pledged delegates 4,051 (2,026 for a majority of pledged)
Pledged delegates in contests after 3-26 1,747
Pledged delegates through 3-26 1,263/1,041 (Clinton/Sanders)
Delegates still needed for majority pledged 763/985
Current superdelegate projection 556/156
Total delegates using current projections 2,872/2,165
[BEGIN TEDIOUS EXPLANATION OF THESE NUMBERS]
Prior to today, Clinton led Sanders in pledged delegates, (i.e., not counting superdelegates) by nearly 300 – 1,229 to 933 – with 2,382, a simple majority of the total of 4,763 voting convention delegates, needed to win the nomination. A total of 4,051 of those are delegates pledged – i.e., committed by party rules to vote for their candidate on the first ballot; the remaining 712, nearly 15 percent of the overall delegate total, are the superdelegates.
The numbers aren’t final, but of the 142 delegates at stake today in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington, let’s say Sanders has won 108 of those delegates today – probably a bit higher than the final tally, but close enough for our purposes and a phenomenal result for him. Let’s say that after today, Clinton has 1,263 pledged delegates, and Sanders has 1,041.
Looking better for Sanders, right? However, before today, to keep pace with the state-by-state projections, Sanders would have needed to win 1,048 pledged delegates; he’d actually won only 933. Should today’s result stay at 108 delegates, that’s a remarkable 76 percent of today’s available delegates, but the projection expected him to win 82 – so he “only” overperformed the projection by 26 delegates, and remains 87 behind his projected needed-to-win pace.
With 22 primaries or caucuses remaining, including the major coastal states of Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and California, that should be achievable, right?
Not so fast. The same projections show Sanders needing 967 pledged delegates in the remaining states to get his majority, and Clinton needing 1,072, because she projects as stronger overall in the remaining 22 contests than Sanders is. After today, Sanders would need to win 985 of the remaining 1,747 pledged delegates – about 56.4 percent – to go to the convention with a majority of pledged delegates. Instead, Clinton is currently favored to win a majority of those delegates.
One can argue that the fivethirtyeight.com projections, which are similar to those of most other objective analysts, underestimate Sanders’ strength. Maddeningly, a lot of Clinton’s support is shallow and resigned, arguing that Clinton isn’t great, but she’s a stronger prospective opponent for a Donald Trump. I disagree, but that myth will persist simply because Clinton has been a national political figure for far longer.
Nonetheless, with more favorable states upcoming than the overall electorate to date, and with his very strong caucus performances, Sanders will easily go to the convention with enough earned delegates to require whomever wins the nomination to have superdelegate support.
That’s where it all falls apart, because a strong majority of the 712 superdelegates are in Clinton’s camp, a lead of an additional 400 delegates beyond Clinton’s current lead of 222 in pledged delegates. Even though they can legally change their support before or at the convention – the key to any case that Sanders could win – there’s no evidence that any of them will, let alone the majority needed to win a close contest among earned delegates.
Many of those superdelegates are elected officials who have publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton, and lots of them owe nothing to Sanders and quite a bit to the Clinton machine. The superdelegate system was set up by the Democratic Party establishment after McGovern won the nomination in 1972 for precisely this scenario – to prevent another McGovern, some other progressive, populist candidate (like Sanders), from getting the nomination. That’s its function, and that’s why so many superdelegates are Clinton allies. There’s no precedent for them flipping in any significant numbers for a candidate who hasn’t already outright clinched the nomination (as, for example, Obama did in 2008). None. And it’s even that much less likely for a candidate with virtually no establishment party support.
In short, Sanders needs to catch up by 222 pledged delegates, or 56.4 percent of the remaining available pledged delegates, just to make the case at the convention that he reflects the will of the majority of Democratic voters. But he’d finish behind by 707 delegates overall using current projections.
Sanders would need to win nearly 80 percent of remaining pledged delegates (1,385 of 1,747) to win with Clinton’s current level of superdelegate support. That level of support didn’t even happen today, in three of Sanders’ strongest states. Anything less than that 80 percent winning – an unprecedented level given that the contest to date has favored Clinton, not Sanders – requires flipping superdelegates committed to Clinton. If Sanders wins 70 percent of the remaining earned delegates, he’d need 173 more superdelegates. If he gets 60 percent, he’d need 343 more. And so on. With no precedent that any will flip in that way.
Not. Going. To. Happen. Sorry, Bernie fans..it’s been a far closer race than most expected, but Clinton’s current delegate lead is insurmountable in any realistic scenario.
[END TEDIOUS EXPLANATION OF THESE NUMBERS]
Even with, essentially, a tie in the popular vote and the resulting earned delegates, Hillary Clinton has the active support of the entire party leadership, including having worked for the current president and being married to the previous Democratic president. The likelihood in that case that an absolute majority of superdelegates would flip, even with a compelling case that Sanders is a far stronger candidate, is nil. Reality check: Sanders is NOT a far stronger candidate for the deep-pocketed corporations that are the party establishment’s only true constituency. Quite the opposite – they’d vote for Trump before they’d vote for Sanders.
Moreover, because it’s basically been a two-person race with sharply different candidates, the number of delegates who are uncommitted or pledged to, say, Martin O’Malley is fairly small. Earned vote delegates must vote for their pledged candidate on the first ballot. Changing that would require action by the convention’s rules committee, which is also dominated by Clinton loyalists. It’s even unlikely that Sanders delegates and delegates who are uncommitted and undecided would be enough to deny Clinton the first-ballot majority she’d need for the nomination – even if they ALL broke for Sanders, which they wouldn’t.
But if that does happen, and things move to a second ballot, it’s true that voter-generated delegates are free to vote for whomever they like. Those votes are more likely to flip to Sanders than the superdelegates are, but they’re still picked for their devotion as Clinton loyalists. And even that’s assuming the Clinton-run rules committee doesn’t change the rules in her favor on the second or even the first ballot, which is far more plausible than a Sanders win. Hell, even if Clinton dropped dead, they’d find some establishment retread to take her place.
That’s the convention strategy Republican establishment types are hoping to use to stop Donald Trump. They won’t succeed – he’ll have enough delegates to win on the first ballot – but that’s exactly what happened on the Democratic Party side in Chicago in 1968. Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and rather than go with the second-place candidate, the anti-war Eugene McCarthy, the Democratic powers-that-be drafted the moderate sitting vice president, party stalwart Hubert Humphrey. They did so despite the now-infamous police riots that ensued outside the convention center. Humphrey then proceeded to lose the general election to one Richard Nixon.
It’s ancient history worth remembering, because today’s establishment Democrats are just as devoted as the ones a half-century ago to hanging on to their gravy trains, and just as convinced that everyone else adores them as much as they adore themselves. The same outcome as in 1968 would likely happen this year with Joe Biden, or whomever, in a similar scenario. Establishment Clinton loyalists, and the big money donors they serve, would still rather risk losing to Trump than letting Sanders get the nomination.
But there’s still a lot for Sanders supporters to fight for.
There is no clear path to Sanders winning the nomination short of multiple acts of (insert your favored diety here). National pundits have been saying it’s over for a reason; not only is the math formidable, but they understand that the process itself is rigged. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Sanders could get 60% of the earned delegates – he won’t – but if he did it would still be an uphill battle to win the nomination.
There’s zero reason Sanders should give up, and a lot he can do to create progressive momentum going forward, by taking his case all the way to the convention. I hate to be the cynical killjoy, because there’s tons of positive things that can come out of this year’s enthusiasm for Sanders. If the coalitions Sanders has assembled can continue to work together, they have the potential to fundamentally change American politics, away from Reagan conservatism and boomer narcissism and cronyism and toward a more inclusive, sustainable society. Both grass roots and electoral political activists can learn a lot, and will have gained valuable experience and momentum, from Sanders’ run. This year’s Democratic platform will have a heavy Sanders influence, and there’s the potential to influence a lot of downticket races. But the real prize is the potential for what can happen after the November election comes and goes. Someone has to provide the pressure that forces Congress and a President Clinton to the left. And envisioning a better world is a bottom-up project; the politicians wind up following, not leading, such a movement. That’s the far likelier path for Sanders’ revolution.
But hoping and wishing Sanders will win this year doesn’t change political reality. Winning the Democratic Party nomination is not, in the end, a democratic process, and it isn’t democratic precisely to prevent someone like Sanders from winning without overwhelming party support. Which he does not and at this point, mathematically, cannot have. Sanders isn’t going to win the presidency – but the movement he’s galvanized can win much, much more.