Bernie Sanders Could Be The Nominee, But This Is What He'd Have To Overcome

There's a path to victory in the Democratic primary, but it's a tough one.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) heads into the New Hampshire primary Tuesday with a large polli
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) heads into the New Hampshire primary Tuesday with a large polling lead. 

There is a radical theory among a fringe group of political scientists that Bernie Sanders' candidacy may be putting to the test. Known as the John Madden rule, it goes like this: If a candidate gets more votes than his or her opponent in a primary contest, that person wins.

For months, it has been assumed as an article of faith that for a variety of reasons, the independent senator from Vermont simply can't get the Democratic presidential nomination. He is, after all, an out-of-the-closet democratic socialist. In the wake of a potential Sanders win in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday evening, he still faces a major challenge: how to win in states that aren't overwhelmingly white and liberal-leaning. 

His rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has suggested that a Sanders win in New Hampshire shouldn't come as a surprise because he represents a neighboring state. Still, winning in New Hampshire could give Sanders' campaign momentum and change how racial minorities perceive his viability. That's what happened in 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) low standing in South Carolina rapidly improved after his Iowa caucus victory and demonstrated to skeptical voters that he could actually win. 

Caucus-goers in Iowa and primary voters in New Hampshire aren't demographically or ideologically reflective of the states and territories that lie beyond them on the election calendar. Ninety-five percent of those who voted in the New Hampshire primary in 2008 were white.

In South Carolina, a January Marist poll found that 74 percent of African-Americans back Clinton, while just 17 percent support Sanders. Those trends are echoed nationally. Just 29 percent of black voters view Sanders favorably, while 77 percent of black voters have a positive view of the former first lady, according to Gallup. That gap is slightly narrower among Hispanics: 33 percent have a favorable view of Sanders, while 47 percent view Clinton favorably. Gallup found that he did six points better than Clinton among white voters. If those numbers hold, it makes the Sanders path to the nomination extraordinarily narrow, if not non-existent.

He also performs better among independents who lean Democratic than with registered Democrats, meaning he's likely to fare better in states with open primaries, where independents can vote, rather than closed one. 

But if a win in New Hampshire chips away at that Clinton lead among minorities, new possibilities for Sanders open up. 

Here's How Sanders Could Win

To see how his campaign could gain the nomination, The Huffington Post examined which states he'd likely have to win, with a New Hampshire victory behind him.   

Sanders' big challenge is that states packed with the type of Democratic voters he has performed well with -- white and liberal, like those in Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa -- don't send as many delegates to the party's July convention in Philadelphia as states with fewer liberals and whites. Since Democratic primaries and caucuses are awarded proportionally, Sanders' campaign must minimize losses in the less white, less liberal and delegate-rich states while winning in as many smaller, more white and more liberal states as possible. 

With that said, here's some rough estimates that illustrate how Sanders needs to do in the primaries and caucuses after New Hampshire to get to 2,382 delegates, or the magic simple majority of the 4,763 delegates at the convention. (Here's HuffPost's handy election calendar and delegate counter so you can follow along.) 

Clinton starts this exercise with 23 delegates from the Iowa caucus on Feb. 1; Sanders got 21. If we use HuffPost Pollster's polling average of New Hampshire as a prediction, Sanders could get beat Clinton by 10 points or more. 

Nevada and South Carolina 

Given that he's consistently trailed in polls of these two states, an optimistic result for Sanders would be to get 40 percent of the vote in both the Nevada caucus (Feb. 20) and South Carolina primary (Feb. 27). 

Super Tuesday 

For Sanders to emerge ahead of Clinton after the symbolism-laden "Super Tuesday" on March 1, he'd have to win the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses and the Massachusetts and Vermont primaries, as well as votes from Democrats abroad. He would finish with slightly more delegates than Clinton even if she won the Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia primaries and the American Samoa caucus, as long as he minimized his losses in those states, where his trailing polling numbers among Hispanics and African-Americans could hurt him.

If he loses in Texas, he'd have to lose by not too big a margin (The same goes for big, delegate-heavy states like Florida, California, Illinois and New York later on). 


In the rest of March, Sanders could build on his lead by winning the Nebraska caucus and primaries in Maine, Utah, Alaska, Hawaii and Washington

Sanders could do his campaign a huge favor and try to win Ohio, even by a percentage point, to take advantage of the 159 delegates that state sends to the convention. (The same goes for Pennsylvania, another delegate-rich state that that is also relatively more white than the other delegate heavy-hitters.)

He'd have to stay a close to Clinton as possible in the Kansas caucus and primaries in Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, the Northern Mariana Islands, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Arizona and Idaho


Sanders' campaign would probably have to win the Wisconsin, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island primaries and Wyoming caucus. That month Clinton would win New York and have an edge in Maryland


Sanders' campaign could pick up delegates by winning in Indiana, West Virginia and Oregon, while he could lose in Guam and Kentucky


As the convention nears, Sanders would probably have to pick up Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. He could lose to Clinton in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, California, New Jersey, New Mexico and Washington, D.C.

How He Could Win And Still Lose

One major caveat to this exercise is that Clinton is already significantly ahead of Sanders with super delegates, or the 712 Democratic National Committee members, party officials and office-holders who aren't committed to choosing whichever candidate wins their state primary or caucus before the convention. Bloomberg reported last August that Clinton allies were telling her supporters that she had locked up as many as 440 super delegates, while The Associated Press found in a November survey that Clinton already had 359 super delegates publicly behind her. The Clinton campaign has said that they intend to invest in the caucus states in order to not make the same mistake they made in 2008, when they ceded many of those to Obama.

The Sanders campaign's philosophy is that if it can dominate among voters, super delegates will be obliged to honor their wishes. We will see if enough victories in the upcoming primaries and caucuses prove that theory correct. 

UPDATE: Sanders won the New Hampshire primary by a large margin, as expected. He earned the support of 49 percent of nonwhite voters, according to early exit poll results, although those nonwhite voters were just 7 percent of the sample. Still, the result may be encouraging to Sanders' campaign as he attempts to win over nonwhite voters in upcoming primaries.  

Bernie Sanders On The Campaign Trail