The cold hard math of the Democratic primaries

Volunteers for Hillary Clinton in Des Moines, Iowa

Volunteers for Hillary Clinton in Des Moines, Iowa

Right now, it’s silly season in politics. The mainstream media, the presidential primary candidates and their campaigns are serving up small shiny objects, and the public is lapping them up. On the Democratic Party side, in the primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, these shiny objects range from coin tosses to speaking fees to the definition of a “progressive” to “Berniebros.” But hidden behind these superficial stories is some cold hard math involving delegates and demographics.


The presidential primaries are simply a contest for delegates. On the Democratic Party side, 4763 delegates are at stake. To secure the presidential nomination, the winning candidate must accumulate a simple majority of these delegates, 2382. If you only look at the Iowa Caucus, which is the only caucus or primary completed thus far (the New Hampshire primary is happening today), you might think that the winner, Hillary Clinton is just slightly ahead of Bernie Sanders with about 23 pledged delegates to 21.

However, this ignores the superdelegates, who are not tied to particular state primary or caucus results. Superdelegates can give their votes at the national party convention to any of the candidates. Indeed, 15 percent of all the Democratic Party delegates this year are superdelegates, and they are endorsing Hillary Clinton in droves. So as of now, the true current delegate totals are roughly 385 for Clinton and only 29 for Sanders. This means that Clinton already has over 16 percent of the delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination. It’s something you won’t hear from the mainstream media, because they want a close horse race.


The second type of cold hard math in the Democratic presidential primaries is demographics. Simply put, there are huge numbers of minority voters — black, Hispanic or Latino, Asian, etc. — who make up the Democratic Party electorate in the primaries and the general election. And these minority voters heavily favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.

In reality, Iowa and New Hampshire are outlier states, with 87 percent and 91 percent white population, respectively. Iowa and New Hampshire simply don’t look like the rest of America, which is only 62 percent white, and they especially don’t look like the Democratic Party electorate. Iowa and New Hampshire just happen to be number one and two in the caucus and primary order, so the media place outsize importance on them.

Iowa and New Hampshire are tailor-made for Bernie Sanders, whose appeal is overwhelmingly among white voters. That’s why Hillary Clinton said that she breathed “a big sigh of relief” after winning the Iowa Caucus. Likewise, it’s no surprise that Sanders is well ahead in New Hampshire and is expected to win its primary, given the demographics and the fact that New Hampshire is next door to Sanders’ state of Vermont, another outlier with 93 percent white population.

However, immediately after New Hampshire, the Democratic primary race turns to diverse states that more closely represent America and the Democratic electorate. The Nevada Caucus is first, on February 20. Nevada is 28 percent Hispanic or Latino, nine percent black, eight percent Asian and two percent American Indian. After Nevada is the South Carolina primary on February 27, with 28 percent black population. Black voters are expected to make up 50 percent or more of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina. And Clinton is beating Sanders in South Carolina by nearly 30 points.

Three days after the South Carolina Democratic primary is March 1, “Super Tuesday,” with numerous primaries taking place. The Super Tuesday states have a huge number of delegates (Texas alone has well over 200) and very diverse populations (e.g., Alabama, Georgia where Clinton is ahead of Sanders by 40 points or more, Arkansas where Clinton is up by more than 30 points, Oklahoma where a new poll shows Clinton leading by 14 points, Virginia, etc.)

It’s a similar situation in Michigan, which holds its primary on March 8, and where Clinton currently leads Sanders by over 30 points. A week later, on March 15, primaries take place in Florida (again, well over 200 delegates), Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina, which have similar numbers. For example, Clinton is up by 26 points in North Carolina and 25 points in Florida. Although the mainstream media would love to spin it otherwise, the Democratic presidential nomination contest could, for all intents and purposes, be over by mid-March.

Of course, the state of these primary races could change at any time. However, prognosticators such as Nate Silver have been working on predictions and tracking the polls. Thus, for example, Silver gives Hillary Clinton a 95 percent chance of winning the South Carolina primary, a 96 percent chance in North Carolina and a 98 percent chance of winning Michigan.

The good news for Democrats is that the increasing minority demographics in the United States favors the Democratic Party in the upcoming general election. That is why Republicans are desperately trying to prevent so many would-be Democratic voters from voting.

Photo by Evan Guest, used under Creative Commons license.

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