A Contested Democratic Convention Is Now a Near Statistical Certainty

The question is not what percentage Sanders or Clinton will win by in upcoming states, but rather how strong a case each candidate will be able to make to super-delegates.
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TOPSHOT - Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a 'Meeting Discussion on Gun Violence Prevention' at Landmark Theater in Port Washington, New York on April 11, 2016. / AFP / KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a 'Meeting Discussion on Gun Violence Prevention' at Landmark Theater in Port Washington, New York on April 11, 2016. / AFP / KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton needs to win 65.3 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to avoid a contested Democratic convention at which she and Bernie Sanders separately plead their cases to the Party's 714 unpledged "super-delegates."

Democratic candidates in 2016 need 2,383 pledged delegates to win the Party's nomination via pledged delegates alone. Barring Senator Sanders dropping out of the Democratic race prior to the New York primary, it is virtually impossible for Secretary Clinton to hit that mark.

Here are Clinton's current percentages of the total vote in upcoming primary states, according to the most recent polling available in each state:

  • California: 47
  • Maryland: 55
  • New York: 53
  • Pennsylvania: 49

Recent polling isn't available in any of the other upcoming primaries and caucuses.

FiveThirtyEight.com has routinely referred to Maryland -- where Secretary Clinton is presently capturing 55 percent of the prospective vote -- as her best remaining state.

Because the Democrats award their delegates proportionally in each state -- roughly if not perfectly matching the popular vote in individual primary and caucus votes -- the numbers above suggest Clinton's only hope to receive 65.3 percent of the remaining Democratic delegates is for Bernie Sanders to end his presidential bid immediately.

Nationally, the three most recent polls give Clinton the following positioning relative to Sanders: behind by 1 point; ahead by 1 point; and behind by two points.

Senator Sanders is unlikely to drop out of a primary race he is currently winning according to the most recent national polling.

The question, given the above data, is not what percentage Sanders or Clinton will win by in upcoming states, but rather how strong a case each candidate will be able to make to super-delegates, who don't cast any votes until the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia -- the media's decision to pretend that they do, against the express direction of the Democratic National Committee, notwithstanding.

Right now here's Senator Sanders' case to super-delegates, which the media has routinely described as weak:

  • He beats every remaining GOP candidate by more than Clinton, per head-to-head national polling.

  • He beats every remaining GOP candidate by either more or the same amount as Clinton in head-to-head battleground-state polling (and much more commonly by far more). According to studies, we're right in the middle of a spike in general-election polling accuracy -- right now, as in this minute. As Vox notes, "By the time we get to mid-April of an election year, polls explain about half the variance in the eventual vote split. And mid-April polls have correctly 'called' the winner in about two-thirds of the cases since 1952." In simpler terms, mid-April political polling is historically as accurate as polling taken 90 days before a contested general election.
  • His +5.3 national favorable/unfavorable ratings are approximately twenty points better than Clinton's (-14).
  • He currently beats Clinton in national polls of Democrats.
  • Counting Arizona, where Sanders won Election Day voting 50.0 percent to 46.5 percent, Sanders has won eight elections in a row. The most losses in a row President Obama ever suffered in 2008 was two.
  • He is not under federal investigation. While the current FBI investigation into Clinton's private email server is unlikely to result in an indictment, it could damage her standing among independent voters in the general election. Thus far this election cycle, Sanders has generally beaten Clinton among the independent voters who often decide general elections by between 25 and 35 points.
  • National and battleground-state polling show that Sanders would win the nonwhite vote by almost exactly the same margin as Clinton -- and in many cases an identical margin -- were he the Democratic nominee instead of her.
  • Clinton won 60% of the delegates in February, 51% in March, and so far 45% in April, suggesting a campaign that is (and dramatically) losing steam rather than gaining it. Clinton is on pace to either win her home state's primary by much less than she did in 2008 -- when she beat President Obama in New York by 17.1 percent -- or even lose the state outright.
  • Sanders is a "movement" candidate in the mold of the last two successful Democratic campaigns for President (Obama, Bill Clinton) whereas Clinton is a policy wonk for whom few Democrats have personal affection, much like Al Gore and John Kerry were. Both men lost elections that all national indicators said they should have won.
  • Because Trump (-35) and Cruz (-21) have favorability ratings so historically underwater the Republican establishment can't let either of them be the GOP nominee, looking at how the Democratic candidates match up against John Kasich -- the most popular politician, by far, now running for President in either party -- is worthwhile. Clinton has never beaten Kasich in a head-to-head poll in 2016; Sanders has beaten Kasich in five of the nine head-to-head polls taken in 2016, and averages a 2.7 percent victory over Kasich across all 2016 head-to-head polling.
  • Clinton's favorability rating among Republicans (7 percent) is so low that if she is nominated she will re-unify the Republican Party following a divisive and possibly self-destructive Republican National Convention. Sanders' favorability among Republicans is twice as high, with ten times as many Republicans saying they don't know enough about him to form an opinion (suggesting his favorability among registered Republicans could rise to more than twice Clinton's total). There is no indication of an institutionalized hatred among Republicans for Bernie Sanders, whereas GOP hatred for Clinton -- justified or not -- goes back twenty-five years.
  • Sanders is consistently rated by voters as being more "honest and trustworthy" than Secretary Clinton, almost always by double-digit margins, and this is a critical measure of a candidate's viability.
  • Clinton's case to super-delegates can be summed up as follows:

    • She is exceedingly well-qualified for the position, though Senator Sanders is also qualified.

  • She has raised substantially more money for individual super-delegates and state Democratic parties than has Senator Sanders, suggesting that she is owed loyalty and electoral fealty by these individuals and Party institutions.
  • She would be the first female President, whereas Sanders would only be the first non-Christian, political Independent, or social democrat elected President.
  • She will win the popular vote this primary cycle, though much of this popular-vote lead came in non-competitive general-election states (so-called "deep red states"), and in the last primary season super-delegates voted against the popular vote winner -- as it turned out, her.
  • She is likely (if not certain) to win a majority of pledged delegates, though not enough to clinch the nomination. In blue and battleground states, she will be tied with Sanders in delegates or 1 to 2 percent ahead.
  • She's a neo-liberal rather than a social democrat.
  • She's from a known brand ("Clinton") in the Democratic Party.
  • There are likely other arguments for both candidates, but these appear to be the predominant ones.

    Few can doubt that, from a practical standpoint, the stronger case at a contested Democratic Convention lies with Sanders -- given that the purpose of any Party-sponsored primary race is to find the candidate most likely to win in a general election -- but nearly 100 percent of mainstream media pundits predict that not only will Sanders not win a majority of super-delegates, but also that his case to them (above) is unlikely to sway more than fifty of the 714 total super-delegates (7 percent).

    If the two competing arguments above look like a 93 percent-to-7 percent Clinton win to you, congratulations -- you don't struggle with cognitive dissonance and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this July is likely to make perfect sense to you.

    Seth Abramson is the Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University) and the author, most recently, of DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016).

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