The Pivot

Super Tuesday is behind us, as are a couple dozen Democratic candidates. Now we pivot to the final stage of this protracted primary: a brawl between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, one that could drag on for months. (I feel like we should be listening to this track from Rocky II. Bill Conti, ladies and gentlemen!)

We’re already seeing their supporters tussle online, a clear home game for Sandersites. They’re beside themselves that Democrats would actually nominate Biden, promising (or at least threatening) not to vote for him. Meanwhile, Biden supporters chide them for such language, pretending they wouldn’t be reacting the same way were it Sanders on his way to the nomination. It’s going to be an ugly spring.

Without question, Biden has the upper hand, but can we expect a Sanders comeback? Or at least an open convention?

To both questions, I’m afraid the answer is no.

You know how much I want to cover a contested convention, but, in the words of bygone Red Sox and Cubs fans: maybe next time. To illustrate, let’s talk about Andrew Yang’s favorite topic — math. Try to keep up with my Wilsonian fourteen points.

  1. There will be 3,979 total pledged delegates at this year’s Democratic National Convention.
  2. A candidate must earn a majority, or 1,990, to become the nominee.
  3. At current count, Biden has 681 and Sanders has 608.
  4. All other campaigns combine for 179. We can assume that number will not grow with future contests.
  5. If we subtract 179 from total delegates (3,979), that leaves 3,800 delegates for Biden and Sanders to divvy, including the ones they’ve already won.
  6. If we divide the required delegates for a majority (1,990) by available delegates for Biden and Sanders (3,800), that means the winning candidate must win just 52.4% of available delegates. In a two-person race, that’s almost certain to occur.
  7. To illustrate, let’s plug in Biden and Sanders’s delegate numbers to determine what percentage of the remaining delegates they need. At current count, we’ve had 1,468 delegates allocated (Biden’s 681 + Sanders’s 608 + All Others’ 179). That means there are 2,511 left (3,979 – 1,468).
  8. For Biden to get to 1,990, he needs to win 1,309 more delegates moving forward (1,990 – 681), or 52.1% (1,309/2,511).
  9. Sanders has won 608 delegates. He needs to win 1,382 more, or 55% of the remaining delegates.
  10. Therefore, for a contested convention to occur, we need Biden to win no less than 45% of the remaining delegates but no more than 52.1%. (If he wins less than 45%, that means Sanders won 55% or more and earned a majority. If Biden wins more than 52.1%, that means he himself has won the majority.) That’s a tiny window!
  11. But wait, there’s more! Though district delegates are expected to remain loyal to their initial candidates, statewide delegates are not locked in, as they are chosen at later state party conventions. In other words, the statewide delegates currently allocated to a Buttigieg or a Bloomberg can eventually vote for Biden on the first ballot. Similarly, delegates allocated to Warren could vote for Sanders (or Biden).
  12. So if we return to that 179 number — that is, the number of delegates that have been ostensibly allocated to the dropped out candidates — about a third of them can/will be re-allocated to a new candidate just on party rules. This will definitely happen if either man is close to a majority.
  13. Moreover, even delegates supposedly pledged to their initial candidate can technically change their mind at the national convention, and they usually do so if their initial candidate “releases” them, likely with a specific request to vote for someone else.
  14. In truth, therefore, both Biden and Sanders — especially Biden — are closer to 1,990 then current delegate estimates suggest. We are not having a contested convention. As I’ve said before, we’d need at least a third strong candidate — one who will not turn over their delegates — to get one.

Okay, so keep smoke-filled rooms out of your mind (and lungs). We have a Biden-Sanders race, and one of them will get to 1,990 before the convention. But which one?

You already know my answer, as revealed on the morning of the Iowa caucuses and again this past Friday. Though Sanders has a chance — the math above shows he’s very much alive, as Biden still needs to win a majority of delegates moving forward to win the nomination — it’s a remote one.

The problem for Sanders is that momentum is squarely behind Biden with no signs of reversal, and it won’t be long until it truly is too late. Let’s take a look at the primaries for the rest of the month (delegates per day in parentheses):

10 Tue. (352) Idaho primaries 20
Michigan primaries 125
Mississippi primaries 36
Missouri primaries 68
North Dakota Democratic caucuses 14
Washington primaries 89
14 Sat. (6) Northern Marianas Democratic convention 6
17 Tue. (577) Arizona Democratic primary 67
Florida primaries 219
Illinois primaries 155
Ohio primaries 136
24 Tue. (105) Georgia primaries 105
29 Sun. (51) Puerto Rico Democratic primary 51

That’s another 1,091 delegates this month. Thus, when April arrives just three weeks from now, we’ll be nearly two-thirds through the delegates:


If things keep going the way they’re going, in just a couple weeks Biden’s lead will be even larger and the number of remaining delegates available to Sanders will be even lower. Their head-to-head March 15 debate in Phoenix is probably Sanders’s last chance for a hairpin momentum turn before this gets out of hand.

And get out of hand it might. It’s easy to see big Biden wins forthcoming — Florida and Georgia will likely give Biden huge delegate hauls — but it’s difficult to see where Sanders can negate those advantages, to say nothing of abrade the overall deficit. He should win more western states and the few caucus states remaining, but they’re not delegate-rich. And let’s not forget — he was supposed to win Maine, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, too. A liberal west coast state like Washington should be tailor made for him — in mid-February Sanders had a 21-point lead on Biden there — but both post-Super Tuesday Washington polls actually show Biden surging and grabbing narrow leads. Sanders could certainly win the state tomorrow, but not at the kind of margins he would need.

We also should keep in mind that Sanders, outside of Nevada, has been underperforming his polls and hasn’t closed well, so it’s not like we should expect a Michigan surprise like in 2016. He’s also admitted to having trouble with turning out the new young voters he’s been promising. Interestingly, voter turnout and close-ability were actually strengths of his campaign four years ago. Perhaps returning to the two-person, zero-sum dynamic of 2016 will help Sanders stabilize himself. It’s possible. Then again, four years ago he lost.

I started today’s piece by calling the next few months a “brawl,” but there are rules to this fight, so perhaps a better metaphor would be a boxing match. We shouldn’t expect Biden to knock out his opponent early. Sanders’s chin is much too strong. Still, as more states weigh in, we’ll notice Sanders’s legs look increasingly wobbly. Sanders’s big left hook gives him a puncher’s chance — the March 15 showdown is everything right now — but all signs point to a Biden TKO in May. At the very least, he’ll win on points.

And then, The Final Bell. (BILL CONTI!)



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