Sanders’ Early-State Polling Edge Would Earn Him Fewer Delegates than Losing Did in 2016

January 28, 2020

The 2016 Primary Map Shows Where That Could Happen

Read This & You’ll Know More About the Caucus Rules than Most Caucus-Goers

By Al Giordano

Note: This text was sent out yesterday to subscribers of Al Giordano’s América newsletter. From time to time we make the contents of a newsletter issue publicly available at Organize & Win. To subscribe and receive detailed projections for all the upcoming primaries & caucuses, and full access to all the content here at Organize & Win, click here.

In 2016’s first three Democratic primary contests, Bernie Sanders got 49 percent of the vote in Iowa, 60 percent in New Hampshire, and 47 percent in Nevada. Clinton had narrow victories in two of those states because the primary had already become a two-horse race. The combined pledged delegate count from the three states was: Clinton 52, Sanders 51. By the time the convention came around, although Sanders won 43 percent of the overall primary vote, he had 46 percent of the delegates thanks to the Democratic Party’s proportional delegate allocation rules.

This time around, the same rules that helped him may dampen any shot at the nomination. No matter who “wins” each of the early contests, as long as at least three candidates survive, even if one candidate were to run the table in the first three states, he or she would gain, at best, around 40 percent of those state’s delegates. The second and third place candidates, if the same in each state, would each have about 30 percent.

If three (or more) candidates survive through Super Tuesday, they will compete in the Super Tuesday states that will vote on March 3: Alabama, American Samoa, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia. When that happens, 38 percent of all pledged Democratic National Convention delegates would then already be chosen. Even if Sanders (or another candidate) were to gain a plurality of votes in those states where he won or came close in 2016, and matches his 2016 totals in others, he will gain only about a third of the total delegates chosen – around 13-percent of all national convention delegates.

With the remaining 62 percent of delegates yet to be chosen, to get to the 50-percent-plus-one needed to win on the first ballot, a candidate would then need to win at least 60 percent of what is left. That’s virtually impossible under the proportional representation rules (you’ll understand the details of those rules better than most caucus-goers by the time you finish this newsletter).

Even if after Super Tuesday on March 3, the primary becomes a two-horse race, it is growing increasingly unlikely there will be a first-ballot convention winner – unless a third-place finisher cuts a deal for, say, the vice-presidential nomination and two candidates join forces.

In that sense, the real action in Iowa and the other early contests isn’t necessarily who “wins,” because nobody is likely to win a majority in most states. If we buy the conventional wisdom that the two strongest candidates are Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (and it’s still premature to presume it will be those two), the perhaps more outcome-determinative dynamic will come in which of the remaining candidates have enough votes, organization and money to remain viable for the long slog through the primaries. That third-place finisher may well prove to be the convention king or queenmaker, and the vice-presidential nominee, to boot.

Many people who hope one candidate or another will choose an ex-candidate as VP, say, Kamala Harris or Julian Castro, don’t yet see this dynamic. (Harris, if VP is her goal, might have done better to hang on and stay in the race, but that’s water over the dam now, and we respect her right to call it as she saw it at the time.)

And if you are Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar or Elizabeth Warren, one of whom may end up as the one who holds all the remaining cards, which would you rather work for as VP? Biden? Or Sanders? For anyone with a healthy ego and a dollop of self-awareness, the answer to that question is not hard. One of them knows how to negotiate, how to work in a team, and has a reputation for keeping his word. He also happens to know a lot about the vice presidency. The other, well, if he does he hasn’t demonstrated those skills yet to his closest colleagues of the past quarter century.

The recent conflict between Sanders and Warren over words said in 2018 has dashed Michael Moore’s stated fantasy that the two, at the convention, might then join their delegates together to win the convention. Sanders may end up regretting that he caused his rival to ask, “Did you just call me a liar on national TV?” He may also grow to lament his ongoing refusal to tamp down his online stormtroopers. Supporters who run around calling the one person who could have been possibly courted as a convention ally a “snake” will prove to be an internal enemy worse than any external threat to the campaign. And since they were so visibly egged-on by paid campaign staffers, that fantasy ship has left port already.

When you literally hold each’s fate in your own hands you’ll be able to write your own deal. You’ll write your check – “I want to be vice president and, say, treasury secretary, or maybe if I’m Amy Klobuchar, attorney general, and these are the policies I want you to sign onto” – and make one of them sign it. Or maybe the two women will emerge as the finalists and put their power rings together. The voters are going to have a lot to say about who gets that opportunity.

That leads to the question: would Biden or Sanders simply make the other his VP to make that deal? And if one offered, would the other accept it? One has already been VP. The other doesn’t play well with others, nor show any capacity to work as a subordinate on a team. That seems a path far more fraught with peril than joining forces with one of the others.

We don’t yet know, however, that it will end up a Biden v. Sanders finale. Maybe Buttigieg, Klobuchar or Warren, or two of them, will succeed in being in the final two. Maybe Mike Bloomberg will wiggle into a seat at a contested convention table with some delegates to deal. All that is going to start to shake out in the coming weeks, starting a week from tonight in Iowa.

It’s All About the Delegates

So much media emphasis is put on who “wins” each primary state that the more important dynamic – how a candidate gets to 50-percent-plus-one of the delegates to become the nominee – is obscured. In a three-or-more candidate stretch, “momentum” doesn’t get anyone to the catbird’s seat. The momentum from the last contest dissolves once the next state’s results roll in. The roller coaster ride goes back and forth, up and down, while the proportional representation rules keep anyone from running away with it in a multi-candidate field.

For that reason, if anybody is worried because one or another candidate they dislike may “win” Iowa, or possibly then run the table in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada before African-American voters begin to vote in big numbers starting in South Carolina in late February, there will be no good reason to panic. The nomination is one thing only: a slog for delegates.

In a two-candidate race like that of Clinton v. Sanders of 2016, who “won” each contest was far more important, because the winner would then take a clear majority of the delegates in each.

Because in a crowded field a candidate can “win” a primary with, say, a third of the vote, even if Sanders continues to lose a large chunk of his 2016 voters he could end up with some early-state first-place finishes – but with significantly fewer delegates than he got by “losing” the two-horse contests four years ago.

There is a saying that if you want to know who someone really is, give them money or power – or the illusion of either. Then you will see, by how they respond, their true character. There are people who are gracious in victory and others who, upon gaining what they perceive to be an advantage over others, show their natures to be cruel and bullying.

One need only look at 2016 supporters of Donald Trump today to see ample evidence of the latter. Winning the presidency while losing the popular vote by three million ballots would, for a normal person, instill her or him with humility and graciousness. Most of us are able to understand that when we have a stroke of luck it’s not something that makes us feel superior to others. That’s not what happened with Trump or his base. The opposite tone was set: In victory he and his fans behaved even more aggrieved and punitive than when they were out of power. Hate crimes, mass shootings and sadistic targeting and punishment of women and minorities, even of children and others unable to defend themselves, have been on the rise ever since.

The other side of that coin is how those of the side that loses a battle or that experiences a setback respond. Most of us go through the proverbial “five stages of grief” after any kind of defeat: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance – then we pick ourselves up, walk off the emotional punches, and get back to work on the greater goals.

Others never get through the trauma to be able accept the setback and move on. They get stuck in their rage or deny that they experienced loss. They plunge into depression and don’t even recognize that they are under that cloud.

Fortunately, starting from Trump’s inauguration with the massive Women’s March, a critical mass of those of us on the losing side of 2016 quickly got back to work. We bargained that while we can’t change the presidency we could win back the US House in 2018, and we did. That spirit is needed for 2020 more than ever.

Trump’s despotic crowd feeds off the misery of those who remain wallowed in their grief. They were never really in it for the politics or the policy. More like sports fans, they sought to revel in the perception that their “enemies” had been humiliated and undertook to inflict more pain on them.

Every time the Trump administration announces a policy change that is cruel and that targets people that are inflicted already – children, poor people, immigrants, women, LGBTQ, black and brown Americans – they feed off the adrenaline and the narcissistic supply of the bullying spectacle. Like the fascist farm supervisor played by Donald Sutherland in Bertolucci’s epic film 1900, when he tortures a cat and then flings it across the room, there are people who feed off the pain they can cause others.

We saw in 2016 how many Sanders supporters handled their defeats and setbacks: the violent outbursts at the Nevada state convention, the targeted online stalking, character assassination and doxing of Hillary Clinton supporters, the harassment line at an LA Clinton fundraiser, and, of course, the “Bernie or Bust” tantrum that made third-party and Sanders write-in votes the margin of Trump’s Electoral College victory in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Even today, after such actions sealed and widened their 2016 defeat, they justify making the same mistakes all over again on the belief that “the other side” of the Democratic primary voters, if put in their shoes, would do the same.

That’s why Sanders’ most zealous online keypad warriors love it each time a supporter of another candidate lashes out by declaring “Never Bernie” or that they won’t vote in November if he’s the nominee. It absolves them from their responsibility for Trump’s 2016 win. “See? They do it, too,” they gloat. Worse, they know they are in your head, inflicting your emotions, and if you go there they double down on kicking you harder.

If you’re panicking over recent poll numbers, try to consider that worrying is mainly a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder from the experience of 2016 and the knowledge that if a certain cohort thinks it is winning it will grow even meaner, more aggressive, indeed, more Trumpian than it already is. But as Don Quixote said to Sancho Panza, “let the dogs bark, Sancho. It’s a sign that we are moving forward.”

Pay them no mind and keep your eyes on the delegate count and the math to 50-percent-plus-one. Those who do that will have nothing to panic about and will be able to do the necessary work in relative calm. Winning this nomination is increasingly likely to require a coalition and the skills to construct one.

An Iowa “Win”: Short-Term Momentum, but a Delegate Wash

In 2016 only two candidates reached viability in Iowa, Clinton and Sanders. The state had 44 Democratic National Convention delegates. Clinton won 23 and Sanders won 21.

This year Iowa will have 41 delegates.

The first step will be next Monday’s caucus, held in each of 1,600+ electoral precincts in the state. Each precinct will send between two and twelve delegates, calculated by the number of votes that precinct gave to the Democratic nominee in 2016, pledged to the candidates that meet a 15 percent threshold vote, to a county convention. Here’s how caucus night will work in 2020:

Upon entrance to the caucus site the voter will sign-in. On-site voter registration, with proof of residence, is provided for. Once signed in, each will be given a voter preference card on which they will write their candidate’s name then sign it. They will then go sit or stand in a group with others supporting that same candidate. Once the precinct chair and team count the total ballots, they’ll return the cards of supporters of candidates that did not make 15-percent threshold and offer that they can fill out the “second choice” form on the back. (If one’s candidate made the threshold, one cannot then change his or her vote – that’s a new rule in 2020.)

At that point, some supporters of unviable candidates will leave (about a third of Tulsi Gabbard’s supporters and a fifth of Andrew Yang’s have told pollsters they will exit the building) and some will then go sit with the supporters of a different candidate, turning in their signed second-choice cards.

If any front-tier candidates don’t make 15 percent in one precinct or another, that will have a major impact. A plurality of Buttigieg and Klobuchar supporters tell pollsters they’ll then go with Biden, but some to Warren, too. About half of Warren or Sanders supporters say they’ll go with the other, and the other half will go for other candidates or leave.

Typically, in a large field there are only three tickets out of Iowa, in terms of convention delegates. A campaign that attacks and alienates the supporters of rival candidates will likely then find itself outnumbered by two-to-one at each convention on the path to the national one. In Iowa the precinct delegates will go on March 21 to one of 99 County Conventions. There, the 15 percent viability rule applies as well. Only candidates that meet it will get delegates to the next step, to the four April 25 Congressional District Conventions. There again, the 15 percent threshold applies.

Twenty-seven of Iowa’s 41 pledged convention delegates will be selected by Congressional District: CDs 1 and 2 each get seven national delegates, CD3 gets 8 and CD4 gets five. In a close finish it is entirely possible that different CDs will produce distinct winners.

If three candidates survive the viability threshold in the first and second CDs, the breakdown in each will be three delegates to the winner and two apiece for the two also-rans. In the eight-delegate CD3 the winner will get five or six delegates and the runners-up will get at least 2 apiece and one might get a third. In the five delegate CD4 the breakdown will be 3-1-1 or 2-2-1.

Thus, if one candidate uniformly wins in all four CDs, of those 27 district delegates the winner will emerge with 10 to 12 of those while the two runners-up get 7 to 9 apiece depending on the math.

From those four district conventions, delegates will then go to the June 13 State Convention to choose 14 statewide delegates: nine “at-large” and five “PLEOs,” Democratic elected officials bound to vote for a specific candidate on first ballot. If three qualify then they’ll likely divvy up the at-large delegates evenly with three apiece while the overall winner will get 2 or 3 PLEOs to one or two for each surviving runner-up.

The “winner” will emerge with likely 15 to 19 delegates out of Iowa while the “losers” will get at least 11 – and maybe one or two more – apiece.

At the Democratic National Convention, the “winner” will still be outnumbered in that state delegation by something close to 15 to 26.

If three candidates then prove viable (garnering over 15 percent) statewide, and uniformly do so in the four Iowa congressional districts, the final Iowa delegate tally will look something like a 15-13-13 delegate split.

If four candidates achieve viability statewide (not likely but mathematically possible) the delegate split will be 11-10-10-10 or close to that. That means that while the winner of the Iowa caucuses this year will get a national momentum boost out of it, he or she will still get 50-to-25-percent fewer delegates than Sanders won by losing a two-way contest in 2016.

And even if candidates drop out of the contest before the convention, each campaign will continue to insist on maintaining the delegates it earned because those could be valuable bargaining chips in a brokered convention for, say, a vice presidential nomination or some other future benefit.

If three or more candidates hang on for the bulk of the primaries – and all indications are that most will stay on at least through Super Tuesday, when a total of 38 percent of National Convention delegates will have then been selected, there will be a likely parity in delegate counts, with the leader now having amassed only twelve or thirteen percent of the overall national delegates.

That means to get to 50-percent-plus-one on the first ballot, the candidate would have to win a virtually impossible 60 percent of all remaining delegates. Even if after Super Tuesday it turns into a two-horse contest, that’s too tall of an order. If we still have three or more viable candidates come Super Tuesday, we are indubitably headed to a contested convention.

A week from today, before the voting begins, subscribers will receive my projection, based on the data, the demographics, and the strength of each candidate’s field organization, for the final tally in Iowa. If the candidate I project as the winner is not the one you prefer, don’t sweat it. Watch the delegate count, and not the order of finish. Rinse and repeat for the months of primaries ahead.

Long-building problems don’t often have fast solutions. While there are some possible Iowa scenarios that could radically change the dynamic of the race – mainly, if a major candidate falls under the 15 percent viability threshold – the far more likely outcome is that Iowa will be merely the first step in a long-distance run. It is a fool who plays for the headlines and a sage who plays for the delegates. Let the dogs bark and keep moving forward.

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