Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has run an impressive presidential campaign. Heading into the June 7 primary contests – in which the final six states will cast ballots for the Democratic nominee – Sanders has won 21 contests and has secured 1,542 delegates (1,499 pledged). By any measure, Sanders has outperformed expectations.
But despite his success, the Sanders campaign finds itself in the same no mans land that Hillary Clinton faced in 2008. Even after rattling off win after win, Sanders hasn’t been able to make up much ground on Clinton – herself the winner of 27 contests and 2,310 delegates (1,769 pledged). It’s a frustrating situation for Sanders personally. And it’s even more frustrating for many of Sanders’s supporters. Nerves are frayed. Tempers are flaring. The frustration is boiling over.
In recent weeks, there has been an uptick in complaints from Sanders that the Democratic Party’s nominating system is “stacked” against him. Sanders has long complained that the nominating process is undemocratic. He frequently protests the existence of Superdelegates – the Democratic state and federal elected officials and party officials who get to go to the nominating convention unpledged. And he rails against “closed” primaries – primary contests where non-Democrats (not just “Independents,” but Republicans as well) are not permitted to vote.
It is easy to be sympathetic to these arguments. And there is, in fact, a grain of truth them. Democratic party elites have long viewed Sanders with skepticism – including leaders of interests groups whose agenda largely align with Sanders’s policy positions. And Sanders has faced some genuinely monumental obstacles that have held him back.
But Sanders is dead wrong in arguing that the nominating process is “rigged.”
The Political Party Chooses the Nominee, Not the Public
Like it or not, that’s the cold hard truth. But it’s something that is rarely acknowledged.
Part of the reason why Sanders’s fairness arguments are so compelling is because most people harbor the misconception that the nominating process is (or should be) subject to the same rules and constraints as the general election. But political parties are not government. An election primary is not a civic function. Rather, political parties are private corporate clubs. The nominating process is for the choosing of the representative of that private corporate club.
And because of that, the parties set their own rules.
Democrats rely on the Delegate Selection Rules for the 2016 Democratic National Convention and the Call for the 2016 Democratic National Convention to set national rules. State Democratic parties are required to submit delegate selection plans to the Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee to determine compliance with national party rules and receive approval in the year before the presidential election.
For Republicans, the national party sets certain general parameters for the nominating process in The Rules of the Republican Party and the Call of the Convention, but leaves many of the details of delegate selection to the state parties. That is why there is a great deal of variation in how each state party elects its delegates to the national convention.
It is important not to confuse the statement that “political parties are private corporate clubs” with the notion that they can do whatever they want and conduct their primary contests in whichever manner they want. The primary process is subject to various federal and state laws.
An important layer in this system is the federal government, which mandates that all federal elections, primary or otherwise, be held in accordance with the Voting Rights Act. In addition, the states hold considerable power in determining the rules for all elections that happen within their borders. A state may, for example, decide which method of voting will be used, whether felons can vote, and whether voters must show some for of identification at the polls. Yet neither the federal government nor the states have absolute power. While state governments conduct primaries, state parties run caucuses. The Supreme Court has struck down measures that encroach upon the ability of political parties to set the rules for their primary contests – in 2000, for example, the Court struck down a voter-approved law requiring “blanket” primaries in California. And the political parties are in complete control of how delegates will be assigned in light of primary results.
You may not like the way the process is being run. You may not like the fact that Superdelegates and unpledged delegates are not accountable to the will of the people. You may find it abhorrent that one political party required its members to sign an oath of loyalty. These concerns are justified. And you’re right to think that some of these aspects are profoundly unfair. Superdelegates, for example, were created in part to give Democratic party elites the opportunity to put their finger on the scale and prevent nominations the party deems undesirable (e.g. George McGovern in 1972).
But they do not mean that the process is “rigged.” Much of the criticism of the primary process proves that many Americans – including, as Sanders has demonstrated, some politicians – are fundamentally confused who these political parties really are.
Clinton Is Winning the Election – Fair and Square
Hillary Clinton is winning because more Democrats want her to be the nominee. Bernie Sanders is losing because he has won less states and received less of the popular vote than Clinton. These are the facts. But astonishingly, 40 percent of Sanders’s supporters don’t think Clinton is the most likely person to become the Democratic Party’s nominee. Sanders himself deserves part of the blame for this. He keeps saying things like the “campaign is going to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia,” and that the race “is not over yet.”
Sanders is technically correct. It is theoretically possible for him to get the nomination. But it would take some Herculean efforts. This really is simple math, and it is time to accept the harsh truth that Bernie is not going to win the Democratic nomination to be President of the United States.
It’s always instructive to look at real-world numbers. So here are the Democratic votes and delegates based on actual results, so far:
2016 Democratic Primary Actual Results*Note = Number in columns re: popular vote is in thousands.
|State||Caucus||Closed||Winner||Margin||Clinton Vote (Thousands)||Sanders Vote (Thousands)||Clinton Delegates||Sanders Delegates|
From this data, the will of the Democratic party is pretty clear: they want Clinton to be the nominee.
Forget the Superdelegates for a moment. At 1,771 pledged delegates, Clinton has an extremely large lead (+272) over Sanders, who has won 1,499 pledged delegates. To put this into perspective, in 2008 Barack Obama beat Clinton with a much smaller margin (+123) of pledged delegates – Obama emerged from the primary with 1,763 pledged delegates, compared to Clinton’s share of 1,640 delegates. Clinton has also won far more votes – 3,031,245 more than Sanders so far. This is simple math, and the truth is that Clinton has won this nomination – and fair and square at that.
The real-world numbers put Sanders’s “fairness” arguments in a harsh light. When Sanders argues that the Superdelegates should be supporting him instead, he is really arguing that the Superdelegates should ignore the will of the people. Sanders’s argument is also somewhat ironic, because apart from the issue of Superdelegates, Sanders has been the beneficiary of some of the most “unfair” and “undemocratic” parts of the nomination process.
Counting only caucuses, Sanders has won 63 percent of the vote, 64 percent of the delegates and 11 of the 16 contests. In doing so, he has earned 341 elected delegates, compared with Clinton’s 195 delegates, for a margin of 146 delegates. The problem with caucuses, though, is that they are profoundly elitist and undemocratic. In contrast to a primary that includes a statewide voting process, a caucus is a system of local gatherings where voters decide which candidate to support and select delegates for nominating conventions. As a result of this format, caucuses typically require hours of participation and mean lower turnout. In addition, caucus states in 2016 are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly rural compared with primary states.
In other words, caucuses are not representative of what would happen if a larger electorate had its say. What happened in Washington last Tuesday is a perfect example of this. Sanders won the Washington state caucuses on March 26, which had 26,299 participants, by 45.6 percentage points (72.7% to 27.1%). Well, funny thing, Washington also has a primary (which the state Democratic party has historically ignored). The results are still being finalized, but the Associated Press has declared Hillary Clinton the winner, by 6 percentage points. The primary was a mail-in, beauty-contest primary – so voting was easy. As a result, more than 785,000 people participated.
So, turnout was much higher in the Washington primary than in the caucuses, and Clinton did much better. A similar thing happened in Nebraska, where Clinton lost the early March caucuses by 14 percentage points and won the early May primary by 7 percentage points. But when Sanders supporters claim that the Democratic primary system is rigged, they often fail to mention results like these. Sanders has benefited tremendously by elitist, low-turnout caucuses.
Let’s Run an Experiment: What Would Happen If We Made the Election More Fair? Who Would Be Winning?
Let’s do a thought experiment and create a fairer nominating system. Our goal in this experiment is to create a nominating process that awards candidates based off performance alone, and eliminate any factors that could tip the scale in any one direction. That means eliminating Superdelegates, eliminating caucuses, and allocating delegates through a simpler proportional calculation.
By doing so, however, we need to alter the total number of delegates needed to secure the nomination. Currently, the Democratic primaries award a total of 4,765 delegates, half of which (or 2,383) are needed to secure the nomination. Included in the total figure are 712 Superdelegates. Without those Superdelegates, the total number drops to 4,053. As a result, without Superdelegates, the magic number of delegates needed to win the nomination is decreased to 2,027.
Here is what the Clinton-Sanders count would look like if Democrats eliminated the complex multilevel and multistage proportional allocation system they use in all states. What if every state used a single and straightforward proportional calculation? Let’s get to it.
2016 Democratic Primary HypotheticalAbbreviation Legend - HRC = Hillary Clinton; BS = Bernie Sanders.
|Contest||HRC Curent||HRC Proportional||HRC Change||BS Current||BS Proportional||BS Change|
Before we get to interpreting these results, a few notes:
- As we mentioned above, there are 16 states that conduct caucuses instead of primaries: Iowa, Nevada, Am. Samoa, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Maine, N. Marianas, Utah, Idaho, Hawaii, Washington, Alaska, Wyoming, Guam. For each of these states, we projected the Democratic results if they had held primaries. For Washington and Nebraska, we have actual results, and used those results to calculate the new delegate allocation.
Note that in West Virginia, the total number of delegates awarded to Sanders or Clinton is lower under a simpler proportional allocation. West Virginia awards 29 delegates through the primary process. When applying a simpler proportional calculation, however, Sanders and Clinton are only awarded 25 delegates. What happened? West Viginia had four other candidates receiving votes in the Democratic primary. And one of those candidates – Paul Farrell – received 8.9 percent of the vote. That accounts for the loss of the 3 remaining delegates.
These results, I have to admit, are surprising. What do they tell us?
First, it is notable that, in 33 of the 48 primary contests (or 69 percent), a cleaner delegate allocation would result in little change at all. In 17 contests, a cleaner allocation would result in no change; and just 16 contests would require flipping a single delegate to either Clinton or Sanders. Thus, even with the institutional unfairness, the current nominating system produces a result that is very close to a simpler proportional allocation system.
Second, over half of the 87 delegate increase Clinton receives under this system comes from three primaries: Minnesota (+8), Colorado (+10), and Washington (+26). Why is this the case? Minnesota, Colorado, and Washington all conduct caucuses. Sanders fans have claimed that because caucuses have lower turnout, the current primary vote underrates how well Sanders is doing. But the opposite is true. When we switch all caucuses over to primaries, Sanders does much worse. In fact, the switch from caucuses to primaries account for the lion’s share (+76) of Clinton’s delegate increase.
Third, a simpler proportional system produces more favorable results for Clinton, and worse for Sanders. Clinton gains at least one delegate in 18 contests; she loses a total of six delegates in only three contests (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Virginia and Wisconsin). The opposite, of course, is true for Sanders. He gains delegates in only three contest; and his delegate count is either unchanged or decreased in 45 of the 48 primaries.
The end result to this is that Clinton’s delegate lead over Sanders is increased pretty significantly. Rather than being 272 pledged delegates ahead, a more proportional allocation system results in a 450 delegate advantage for Clinton. And, more importantly, this calculation puts Clinton within striking distance of the Democratic nomination relying upon pledged delegates alone. Clinton’s new position at 1,858 delegates places her only 170 from the delegate threshold (remember, after eliminating Superdelegates the new magic number is 2,027 delegates).
To get those delegates, Clinton would only need to perform adequately (not even well) in one upcoming primary: California.
According to the Real Clear Politics polling averages, Clinton holds a +8 percentage point (+18) lead over Sanders in the California primary – 50.0% versus 42.0%. If the primary were conducted today, and the actual primary results tracked those averages, Clinton would be allocated 238 of California’s 475 delegates. That would put her well above the delegate threshold.
But even if these polling averages are demonstrably wrong, under a clean allocation, Clinton could lose to Sanders by 28 percentage points (64.0% to 36.0%) and still secure the necessary 170 delegates to become the Democratic nominee.
So what’s the takeaway? Many aspects of the presidential nominating process appear unfair. Some clearly are unfair; they may even be undemocratic. But we need to understand that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are private clubs, and our traditional notions of fairness as applied to elections do not always apply to them. But here’s an important point: many aspects of the process that are unfair have actually had the effect of benefiting Sanders and disadvantaging Clinton, not the other way around. We’ve demonstrated above that, in a hypothetical example where the nominating process is as “fair” as we can imagine, Sanders’s delegate problems would only be exacerbated.
What happens now? Bernie Sanders will likely get a few symbolic wins over the next few weeks. He will win in North Dakota and South Dakota, and may even surprise Hillary Clinton in California. But don’t let these victories confuse you. Sanders is still running for president, but he is no longer in the running for president.
Featured Image Credit: DonkeyHotey on Flickr (via creative commons)