The Econoclast: Clinton vs. Sanders
The story of the 2016 Democratic Primary campaign has been Hillary Clinton’s inevitability. As of today, Clinton has 12 primary (or caucus) wins to Sanders’ nine. And Hillary’s beaten Sanders in some more populous states, so it looks as if she’s got a moderately strong lead in total delegates heading into the convention (even without assigning her all the Superdelegates, as the media is wont to do.)
At this stage in the campaign, many voters are casting their vote for the candidate they think is most likely to win in November, not voting for the candidate they think would be the best President. The distinction is subtle but significant. And one of the key measures voters use to estimate “electability” is delegate totals so far.
Here’s why delegate totals so far are the wrong measure of electability: Six of the 10 ‘Super Tuesday’ states are certain to support the GOP nominee in the general election. So the relative popularity of either Democratic candidate in those states will have no impact come November.
There’s clearly a lot more enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton among Democratic voters in Texas, because she beat Sanders 2:1 in the Texas primary. She left Texas with 147 delegates, compared to Sanders’ 74.
But come November, in the general election, Texas Democrats’ love affair with Hillary won’t matter at all, because Texas’ 38 electoral college votes will go to the Republican candidate.
Sanders did much better in Minnesota, winning 46 delegates to Clinton’s 31. More to the point, Sanders’ popularity in Minnesota is meaningful in the general election because Minnesota leans Democratic. He’s the candidate most certain to deliver Minnesota’s 10 electoral college votes in November.
So far, Hillary Clinton has won in these states…
- South Carolina
Clinton’s relative popularity across the south is completely wasted. Sure she dominated in South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, but all of those states’ electoral college votes will go to whatever Republican emerges from the GOP fray.
By contrast, here are Bernie Sanders’ wins…
- New Hampshire
Sure, Bernie’s won fewer states in total, but most of his wins came in states that are in play for the Democratic party. (His relative popularity is wasted in only three states: Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska which will all vote GOP.)
As of right now, if you look at all the states that have held a Democratic primary (or caucus) and can be counted on to vote for the Democratic candidate in November, and assign those states’ electoral college votes (not delegates) to each candidate, you’ll find that both candidates popularity equates to 52 electoral college votes* come November.
Is this just a wonky statistical exercise? I don’t think so. Here’s why: Enthusiasm for a Democratic candidate—as measured by Democratic voters in the primaries—is a significant factor in states that lean towards the Dems in the general election — and way, way more important in swing states like Ohio. But thanks to America’s arcane Electoral College/first-past-the-post rules, it doesn’t matter what Democratic voters think in most ‘Super Tuesday’ states.
Much has been made, so far, of Hillary Clinton’s great support among African-American voters. Thanks to African-American turnout, she earned four times as many votes as Sanders in Alabama, for example. But that won’t do her or any other Democrat any good in November, because even when Obama was running in ’08 and ’12, Alabama was a slam dunk for the GOP.
For either Democratic candidate to win in the general election, primary voters need to select the one that will generate the most enthusiasm in the states that are actually in play for the Democrats.
After Tuesday night, I’ll recalculate and repost this analysis. In the second half of the primaries, Democratic voters would be well advised to vote strategically.
We’ll be talking about electability for another month. This method of analysis is relevant, because while Clinton and Bernie are quite evenly matched overall, there are big differences in their popularity on a state-by-state basis.
It would be a serious strategic error for the Democratic Party to field a candidate whose popularity is centered on states that the GOP is sure to carry on election night.
*To come up with that number, I gave both candidates the votes of the states where they were essentially tied.