Nobody cares how well a politician does at the ballot box when he or she is running for an office unopposed. What matters is how a politician performs in contested primaries and general elections, as when it really matters -- like it will, for instance, this November -- you can be certain of a contested election.
With that said, let's make an important observation: Bernie Sanders has tied or beaten Hillary Clinton in a majority of the actively contested votes this election season.
You doubt it? Okay, let me explain.
Bernie Sanders has terrible name recognition in states where he hasn't advertised or campaigned yet; meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has universal name recognition everywhere. Realizing this, the Clinton camp pushed hard to rack up the early vote in every state where early voting was an option. They did this not primarily for the reason we've been told -- because Clinton performs well among older voters, and older voters are more likely to vote early than other age demographics -- but rather because they knew that early votes are almost always cast before the election season actually begins in a given state.
That's right -- in each state, most of the early primary voting occurs before the candidates have aired any commercials or held any campaign events. For Bernie Sanders, this means that early voting happens, pretty much everywhere, before anyone knows who he is. Certainly, early voting occurs in each state before voters have developed a sufficient level of familiarity and comfort with Sanders to vote for him.
But on Election Day -- among voters who've been present and attentive for each candidate's commercials, local news coverage, and live events -- Sanders tends to tie or beat Clinton.
In fact, that's the real reason Sanders does well in caucuses.
It's not because caucuses "require a real time investment," as the media likes to euphemistically say, but because caucuses require that you vote on Election Day rather than well before it.
Consider: in North Carolina, Hillary Clinton only won Election Day voting 52% to 48%. Given the shenanigans in evidence during the live voting there -- thousands of college students were turned away from the polls due to insufficient identification under a new voter-suppression statute in the state -- it wouldn't be unfair to call that 4-point race more like a 2-point one (51% to 49% for Clinton).
Consider: on Super Tuesday 3, because early voting is always reported first, Clinton's margins of victory were originally believed to be 25 points in Missouri, 30 points in Illinois, and 30 points in Ohio. Missouri, which doesn't have conventional early voting, ended up a tie. Illinois ended up with a 1.8% margin for Clinton (after being a 42-point race in Clinton's favor just a week earlier) and Ohio a 13.8% margin.
Any one of us could do the math there. And yet the media never did.
Consider: in Arizona yesterday, the election was called almost immediately by the media, with Clinton appearing to "win" the state by a margin of 61.5% to 36.1%. Of course, this was all early voting. CNN even wrongly reported that these early votes constituted the live vote in 41% of all Arizona precincts -- rather than merely mail-in votes constituting a percentage of the total projected vote in the state -- which allowed most Americans to go to bed believing both that Clinton had won Arizona by more than 25 points and that that margin was the result of nearly half of Arizona's precincts reporting their live-voting results. Neither was true.
In fact, as of the time of that 61.5% to 36.1% "win," not a single precinct in Arizona had reported its Election Day results.
Indeed, more than two and a half hours after polls closed in Arizona, officials there had counted only 54,000 of the estimated 431,000 Election Day ballots.
That's about 12%.
So how did Bernie Sanders do on Election Day in Arizona?
As of the writing of this essay (2:45 AM ET), Sanders was leading Clinton in Election Day voting in Arizona 50.2% to 49.8%, with just under 75,000 votes (about 17.3% of all Election Day votes) counted.
So imagine, for a moment, that early votes were reported to the media last rather than first. Which, of course, they quite easily could be, given that they're less -- rather than more -- reflective of the actual state of opinion on Election Day. Were early votes reported last rather than first, Arizona as of 2:45 AM ET would have been considered not only too close to call but a genuine nail-biter. In fact, only 400 or so Election Day votes were separating the two Democratic candidates at that point -- though the momentum with each new vote counted was quite clearly in Sanders' favor.
So the question becomes, why does any of this matter? Does the point being made here -- that Bernie Sanders is as or more popular than Hillary in both all the states he won and many of the states he didn't -- gain Sanders a single delegate? Does it move him one inch closer to being President?
What it does do is explain why the Clinton-Sanders race is a 5-point race nationally -- just a hair from being a statistical tie, given the margin of error -- despite the media treating Clinton's nomination as a foregone conclusion.
What it does do is explain how Clinton is "beating" Sanders among American voters despite having a -13 favorability rating nationally, as compared to Sanders' +11 rating. That dramatic difference is possible because in favorability polling, pollsters only count voters who say they know enough about a candidate to form an opinion. That eliminates the sort of "early voters" who cast ballots for Hillary Clinton before having much of a handle on who Bernie Sanders is.
And what it does do is explain why Sanders outperforms Clinton against Donald Trump in nearly every state where head-to-head general-election polling data is available. While some of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that Sanders beats Clinton by between 30 and 40 points among Independents -- itself a major warning sign for a Clinton candidacy this fall -- the rest is explained by the fact that when voters come to know Bernie Sanders as well as they already know Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, they tend to prefer him to these two by clear margins.
The Hillary camp, and Hillary supporters, are justly excited about how their candidate is performing in the delegate horse-race. The problem is that that excitement is quickly becoming the sort of arrogance that will in fact endanger Hillary's candidacy for President. Both she and her team -- including all her millions of supporters -- should consider the fact that Hillary does not, outside the deep-red Deep South, do particularly well among voters when they're given any other reasonable alternative. The fact that early voting statutes and media reporting of elections in America favors the maintenance of the illusion that Hillary remains popular when voters become familiar with other credible options does not excuse ignorance of the reality; certainly, it won't help Democrats in November.
And given that a demagogue like Donald Trump is the likely Republican nominee, that's a scary thought for many Americans. Sanders voters should want -- and most do want -- a Clinton campaign that understands its weaknesses sufficiently to ameliorate them in a general election, should Clinton be the Democratic nominee. Right now that's clearly not happening, and the national media is unfortunately enabling the persistence and expansion of these troubling blind-spots.
Finally, we'd be remiss if we didn't talk about super-delegates. These are folks who are supposed to be supporting whichever candidate has the best chance of winning in November. We already know, per head-to-head general-election polling, that the better candidate to run against Donald Trump is Bernie Sanders; however, many super-delegates (and most of the media) dismiss general election polling this early on, even though Sanders' commanding lead over Trump is clearly statistically relevant. (This is especially true given that his name recognition lags well behind Trump's.)
But what about the argument, implicitly being made to super-delegates now, and likely to be made to them explicitly in Philadelphia this summer, that Bernie Sanders has, broadly speaking, out-performed Hillary Clinton in Election Day voting? Given that Election Day voting in the spring is the very same sort of high-information voting that will occur in November, you'd think super-delegates would be quite interested to know that, in live voting, Bernie Sanders beats Hillary Clinton more often than not.
Seth Abramson is the Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University) and the author, most recently, of DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016).