Quick Hit Friday: Comparing the Paths of Trump 2016 and Sanders 2020

Bernie Sanders is without question in the best position to win the most delegates in the Democratic Primary. He won the popular vote in the first two contests, he now leads national polls, and Joe Biden, once Sanders’s top rival in this race, looks like a car driving down the road with various parts falling off it.

Though Sanders faces resistance from the pile-up in the moderate lane, a pile-up it remains. As long as Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg vie to be the alternative to Sanders, Sanders should win most primaries and caucuses.

Considering the above, some people compare Sanders 2020 to Trump 2016. Both had a high floor of devoted, non-mainstream support, which aided them against the internecine conflicts of the establishment. Though Trump had a hard time winning popular vote majorities, his consistent plurality victories were enough to dominate the primary. Indeed, though he only won 44.9% of the primary vote, he won 1,441 of the 2,472 pledged delegates — a comfortable majority rate of 58.2%. Even that 44.9 number was a bit inflated; he clinched a delegate majority before the the last nine contests, each of which voted for an opponent-less Trump with 60 to 80 percent of the vote, including a 75% number from mega-California.

The theory now is that Sanders can follow a similar path: keep winning pluralities and contests until he has a delegate majority, outlast all the losers, and then voters have no one left to choose by the end of it. Makes sense.

Or does it?

The Republican and Democratic primary processes have different rules — differences that are critical when determining if Sanders’s path can mirror Trump’s.

I’ll leave 270towin.com to fill you in on the details and nuances of the Republican approach.[1] The main takeaway is that most states aren’t decided proportionally. After the earliest part of the primary, which did have mostly proportional states, it quickly became much easier to arrive at a winner-take-all number for a plurality leader of a state and/or Congressional district:

  • Many states and districts had a 50% threshold — if a candidate won a majority of the state or district, they would get all of its delegates. For example, the Republicans in my home state of Connecticut voted for Trump with only 57.86% of the vote (and each district also voted for him at a majority clip, somewhere between 53 and 63 percent) but he got 100% of our delegates.
  • Or, frequently, a second candidate would have to get to 20% to get any delegates. If no one but the leader did so, the winner could take all the delegates without even getting to 50%. Under those rules in this past New Hampshire Primary, Amy Klobuchar’s 19.8% would have locked her out of statewide delegates. If Buttigieg were also held to under 20, Sanders would have received all of the delegates, even if he only won 30% or so of the votes.
  • And in some states, like Florida, source of the third largest GOP delegation, the plurality winner takes all delegates regardless of the vote. One early state was also allowed to this: South Carolina, the third Republican state, gave Trump only 32% of its vote — and three of its seven Congressional districts gave him a plurality victory with only 28% — yet he won all 50 South Carolina delegates and opened up a big delegate lead early in the process.

In sum, the GOP built a primary that easily allows a candidate to achieve escape velocity, consolidate support with an early presumptive nominee, and head into the convention and general election with momentum.

The Democratic Party, perhaps leaning a little too far into its name, doesn’t do that.

No, instead, the Democratic Party mandates proportionality from beginning to end. All 57 contests have but a 15% threshold to earn delegates, with no winner-take-all opportunities even for candidates who score a majority of the vote. Therefore, the only way for Sanders or anyone else to take an entire state delegation is if no other candidate hits 15%, which seems pretty unrealistic given the ideological breakdown of the party.

If we are to trust a recent pre-Iowa poll that suggested Biden had only a 29 to 26 lead over Sanders in an open field but that a Biden v. Sanders race would break 54 to 38 in favor of Biden, that means most of the country favors a more moderate candidate. The evidence out of New Hampshire agrees with that assessment: Sanders picks up few undecided voters while most voters were choosing between moderates. Yet, we know Sanders has the most committed following. It follows that we’ll always have at least two candidates earning 15% — and sometimes three:

  • Sanders;
  • the Moderate February Winner (MFW) — whoever emerges from Buttigieg, Biden, and Klobuchar;
  • and Bloomberg down the stretch.

It really seems like we’ll have two or three viable candidates often clearing 15%. If that’s true, then I don’t see how Sanders wins a majority of the delegates.[2]

Of course, Sanders should still be considered a heavy favorite to win a plurality of delegates. While I think three viable candidates will be picking up delegates for a while, that doesn’t necessarily mean three candidates will clear 15% in all the contests. Sanders without question will do so, but perhaps only one of Bloomberg and the MFW will also do well in a particular state. If this scenario plays out, we actually would see Sanders pull down some delegate majorities, if not popular vote ones, and get him out to a nice delegate lead.[3]

With a plurality of overall delegates, Sanders would be set up nicely in a contested convention, where there’d be considerably pressure to rubber stamp the will of the plurality or risk certain doom in November. He’s not treading Trump’s path, but he might be on the next trail over.


[1]I can’t beat its opening line: “There are almost as many Republican delegate allocation formulas as there are states.”

[2]It’s possible all MFWs remain and we descend into old-school regional factions, with Klobuchar winning in the Midwest, Bloomberg in the northeast, Sanders in the West, and Biden in the southeast. (Yes, the South might hold for Biden. A post-Iowa poll of North Carolina still showed him with a 9-point lead, and a post-New Hampshire poll in Georgia had him up 18.) If that’s the case, either Sanders builds up a huge lead and wins the delegate majority despite not having a popular vote majority — due to several moderate candidates frequently falling below the 15% threshold — or hello, chaotic contested convention!

[3]By no means is this a guarantee. If a moderate candidate clearly triumphs by the end of Super Tuesday, we should see the candidate become the nominee. But that’s a big if.


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