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Doing the delegate math

For about a week, I've been begging for somebody to post a data-driven look at how the race will play out moving forward. I'm geeky enough that I can eyeball the states and see that Clinton would have a fairly large lead by mid-March. But how big? What states lean towards Sanders, are tossups, and which ones lean Clinton? I finally got my answer from a great political map-maker who posted the voter data through March 15 yesterday. Thank you!

Of course, it wasn't a delegate count so I still had to do my own approximations of how voter data translates into proportional delegates. In the Democratic primary system, it doesn't really help to "just win." You only rack up larger delegate totals if you win big. And, as we saw with Sanders winning New Hampshire by 20 points, even if you win big it's nothing without support from superdelegates...they can quickly turn your proportional, pledged delegate total into a tie as it did there.

My first time through the delegate math, I used a fairly conservative 60-40 split to the winner. I gave Hillary states to Hillary and all tossup/Bernie states to Bernie. Still very rough "back of the napkin" math, but better than generically saying, "Hillary will win Super Tuesday states." My calculations put her at about two-thirds of the delegate total she needs after the March 15 primaries. Somewhere between 1,500-1,600 delegates. She could split some of "her" states more like 70-30 or if she wins tossup states or Bernie only narrowly wins that could add to her total. But that leaves her with about one-third of the delegates needed after March 15. So it becomes a race of attrition. Does Bernie lose bigger than we think and the race is over by mid-April? Does Bernie stay competitive and the race slogs on until the CA or NJ primaries so we're edge of our seats on June 7? My best guest in keeping with my formula is towards the end of April. Maybe the 19th? The exact date is a mystery to the math.

As time goes on it will become a two-fold victory issue: 1) does it become obvious at some point that Hillary will win despite not mathematically eliminating Sanders yet? 2) Or does there come a point where Sanders, literally, can no longer put together enough delegates to reach the threshold.

So my first pass at the numbers was what I'd call a conservative-but-probable outcome. Hillary could do better than I've calculated. She could do worse. But what I'd expect to see is something in this neighborhood. Now, I wanted to try again only this time assigning delegates based on what we've seen in the first two states...close, evenly split races. Who comes out best there? The common wisdom is that Sanders has to be much better than even New Hampshire to win. What if they just keep plugging along evenly splitting the delegates?

Starting with what we know after two states plus superdelegates, Clinton leads 394-44. If you evenly split all remaining available delegates in each contest from here forward, Clinton goes over the top on April 26th with 2,392...10 more than she needs.

For what it's worth, that's actually about the same time I would estimate she'd win by splitting up the states into "likely" her and "likely" Bernie. I can see the contest going into May. But I can also see the contest in Wisconsin or NY putting her over the top. Interestingly, Wisconsin is a tossup* state. It would be amusing if she loses on the night where she clinches, etc..

But the conclusion is the same...without serious advancement by Bernie it will be hard to cut into Hillary's advantages. The system in some ways is setup to purposefully work against a popular rebel outsider like Sanders. In a scenario like 2016, we want the party mainstream to send a viable candidate forward. As the saying goes, "not a malfunction, a feature." Then again, Sanders supporters aren't the type to really care what the Democratic Party forefathers idealized for future party squabbles. Sanders is running against the system.

The math begs the question what the end game is though. Sanders should start thinking about what he wants to achieve in a likely loss.

*Corrected to show that Wisconsin is expected to be a tossup state, not a Bernie-leaning state.