The Arena: Bern after reading

In explaining the Electoral College to non-Americans (and occasionally Americans), I like to use the “points” approach. Every state is worth a certain number of points, and a candidate needs to win a majority to win it all. And yeah, it really doesn’t matter what the overall population thinks. Points. It’s all about points. Bernie Sanders is starting to figure this out in his efforts to become the Democratic nominee.

Of course the system is actually a bit different for primaries. Democratic delegates are distributed proportionally based on candidate performance and minimum thresholds, so the popular vote is much more indicative of delegate numbers than on the Republican side, where some states are winner-take-all. This is why Donald Trump can boast almost 50 percent of delegates despite far less than 50 percent of the popular vote. Sanders has gotten 43 percent of the popular vote and just about 45 percent of pledged delegates.

That word “pledged” is crucial. The Democratic Party has 714 “superdelegates,” consisting of Democratic members of Congress, governors and other party elites. These delegates make up more than 15 percent of the total slate and can support any candidate at the convention. It’s a pretty convenient way to make sure the party can maintain a hold on its choice of nominee. It’s questionably undemocratic, but that’s beside the point.

As you could imagine, party-favorite Hillary Clinton is doing well amongst this cohort of delegates. Just among the Senate, she has 40 votes compared to Sanders’ one. Oh, and Sanders’ vote is himself. It’s like being the guy that wants Boston Burger Company when the whole group chat wants Chipotle. Even Vermont’s governor is a Clinton superdelegate. Sanders took 86 percent of the state, yet the governor, house representative and one senator are supporting Clinton.

So not only does Sanders have to start making up a big delegate deficit from elections, he needs to find a way to overcome the 400-superdelegate lead Clinton has built. That’s the equivalent of every delegate in New York, plus every delegate in Massachusetts. This is why winning in Wisconsin doesn’t really change anything for me. Sanders shrunk the delegate gap by about 15. Sure, superdelegates could switch sides if Sanders starts to dominate the popular vote, but that is looking exceedingly unlikely.

I don’t want to trivialize what Bernie Sanders has done. He’s brought important issues to the forefront of the Democratic Party and has run a pretty clean campaign. His debates with Clinton have been fun to watch. But the structure of the party and its primary process makes an already-unlikely win even more unlikely.

So yes, Bernie fans should enjoy the win in Wisconsin. And the probable win in Wyoming this weekend. It’s important, however, to keep things in perspective. There are still a lot of delegates left out there, but Sanders will struggle in upcoming primaries like New York and Connecticut. These should cue a return in form for the Clinton campaign.


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  1. toto
    Apr 07, 2016 - 12:54 PM

    Most Americans are not content that for the presidential general election it really doesn’t matter what the overall population thinks.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided).

    Most Americans don’t ultimately care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state or district . . . they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans think it is wrong that the candidate with the most popular votes can lose. We don’t allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

  2. toto
    Apr 07, 2016 - 12:56 PM

    Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in every state surveyed recently. In the 41 red, blue, and purple states surveyed, overall support has been in the 67-81% range – in rural states, in small states, in Southern and border states, in big states, and in other states polled.

    Massachusetts has enacted the National Popular Vote bill to guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, when the bill goes into effect.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states, like Massachusetts, that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The National Popular Vote bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.


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