These are the newspaper headlines that barraged readers in the wake of Super Tuesday, all proclaiming the “massive” triumphs of Drumpf and Clinton the night before, and the inevitability of the two facing off this November. In fact, no matter how hard one sifts through the multitude of Super Tuesday reports, there appears to be no major media outlet that has even considered the possibility that this win might not be so significant for Clinton. To the recreational reader, the resounding conclusion is that Clinton is unstoppable.
It is true that Clinton held some definitive defeats in a largely Southern-dominated Super Tuesday contest – she won states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Georgia bymargins of over two-thirds. This is not insignificant, as the outcomes represent Clinton’s most essential electorate demographic for defeating Sanders: black voters. With exit polls from Super Tuesday reporting almost an 8-to-1 ratio of black voters favoring Clinton, it is no surprise that her wins in heavily black Southern states were of large margins. Clinton’s “firewall” held its ground, and newspapers readily jumped to the conclusion that her“insurmountable” momentum is concrete proof of her electability in the primaries. But it’s perplexing that newspapers have placed so much faith in her electability because of the Super Tuesday outcome that everyone had already predicted. In essence, nothing extraordinary occurred for the Clinton campaign on Super Tuesday.
But a different argument can be made for Sanders. Sanders was always the underdog going into Super Tuesday, as only his home state of Vermont was a guaranteed win. There were two other states, however, whose margins in the polls were close enough to be classified as tossups: Massachusetts and Oklahoma. Between these states, Sanders wonOklahoma handily, and lost Massachusetts narrowly by a margin of less than 1.5%. But more significantly, Sanders also won Minnesota and Colorado, which were largely favored to go to Clinton. And herein lies the conundrum: if Sanders had exceeded expectations by clinching almost every state up in the air (and those that were not), how is it that the media is defining the outcome as a crippling loss for his campaign?
To arrive at the most objective outcome, it seems reasonable to look at the numbers: how many delegates have the two amassed after Super Tuesday, and just how insurmountable is Clinton’s lead? When one looks towards the numbers following Super Tuesday, the media tends to report the following figures: Clinton 1052, Sanders 427. The difference looks massive, definitive, and even more daunting for Sanders supporters when compared to the 2383 delegate threshold needed to win the nomination. Statistics, for all its merits of objectivity, however, can still be presented in a subjective manner – and in most matters, subjective interpretation trumps objective facts.
The first caveat of these reports is that they include a variable that many would deem premature and invalid at this point in time—superdelegates. At this point in the race, superdelegates are nothing more than publicity figures to help bolster votes – a “pledged” superdelegate holds no true commitment to a candidate and can switch endorsements at any time. Furthermore, superdelegates have never swayed the outcome of a popular vote to favor the unpopular candidate. Therefore, if historic precedent holds, a win in the popular vote for Sanders renders super delegates irrelevant – Sanders will gain the support of superdelegates that currently endorse Hillary. After removing this precipitous variable from the data, the following numbers emerge: 595 Clinton, 405 Sanders.
The delegate gap does not look so daunting now, and though the numbers still lean heavily Clinton, the difference is palatable for Bernie supporters in the short-run. Nevertheless, securing 2382 delegates still does not seem so far away for Clinton. But because of our own cognitive shortcomings, this too, is somewhat misleading. Humans are inherently poor interpreters of absolute or objective measures because we have an innate preference for relative measurement to derive value. To contextualize this shortcoming, consider the following example: a drop in the price of gas from $3.11 to $2.94 in isolation looks very promising for your wallet, yet in relative terms, this only represents a 5% decrease in price – a result probably a bit less satisfying than you originally thought. The same shortcomings plague our interpretations of delegate counts, which are always presented in absolute (rather than relative) terms. When one looks at the delegates amassed per candidate in relative terms to each other, Clinton holds 60% and Sanders 40%. Yes, Clinton’s lead is still sizable, but the contest is far from a blowout, especially considering that these past states were anticipated to yield some of Clinton’sstrongest victories. For now, Sanders supporters can breathe a sigh of relief, as these numbers are not indicative of a losing candidate. In fact, they are not even indicative of the race at large – when one compares the relative delegates amassed between Clinton and Sanders after Super Tuesday to the total delegates available in the primary (4051, excluding super delegates), Clinton holds a measly lead of 14.7% over Sanders’ 10.0%. But analysts are still calling it for Clinton.
Analysts also claim that Sanders’ inability to clinch the nominee stems from the fact that the democratic primary awards its delegates proportionately during each primary and caucus (i.e. no states are winner-takes-all). They claim that such a system effectively prevents Sanders from winning because no single win will provide him enough delegates needed to reduce his “large” deficit. In other words, there is no silver bullet for a Sanders comeback. This argument looks logical when comparing the absolute number of delegates the two have won, but what happens when we examine a possible Sanders nomination in the context of the total delegates available? Given that after Super Tuesday, 76.23% of the total delegates available are still undecided, a simple calculation shows that if Sanders wins by an average margin of 6% (53-47) in the remaining primaries and caucuses, he would be effectively tied with Clinton in total delegates. Based on this result, is this system as bad for Sanders as analysts claim? I would argue, no.
The fact is that time helps Sanders and hurts Clinton. Clinton enjoyed the massive advantage in household name recognition compared to an almost unheard of senator early in the primaries. In the context of New Hampshire, polls had Clinton at a 52% advantage in 2015; a year later, Clinton lost by a margin of 22%. Although the marginal returns to time are decreasing for Sanders, large demographics of minority voters are stillinsufficiently familiar with his policies. And this unawareness costs votes. Taking the time effect into account, a proportional allocation of delegates has, and will continue to, actually benefit Sanders. It has benefited him in earlier primaries from avoiding massive delegate losses in closely called states (think Massachusetts) and will continue to benefit him as he slowly cuts into Clinton’s lead in upcoming states (think Florida, where Clinton’s margin in the polls has been reduced by 13% since January 1st). An eventual nomination all depends on how quickly the marginal returns to time fade for Sanders. But for the moment, these returns are positive, and they will continue to edge Clinton’s advantage.
Now fast forward to the past weekend, which held the contests of “Super Saturday” and Maine’s Democratic Caucus on Sunday. In sum 134 pledge delegates (3.3% of delegate total excluding superdelegates) were up for grabs. Did Clinton’s momentum hold? No, not really. Out of the four primaries and caucuses that voted this weekend, Sanders clinchedthree decisive victories – Kansas, Nebraska, and Maine – while Clinton maintained her Southern strength and won by large margins in Louisiana. Although the 3-to-1 victory for Sanders is symbolic, we know that it is all about delegates. So which of the two really won the past few states? When comparing amassed delegates this weekend, Sanders claimed67 to Clinton’s 64 (three delegates are still unassigned from Maine). This is no blow-out, but as previously mentioned, there is no silver bullet for Sanders – his game is slow and steady. This becomes more apparent when we compare the relative number of wins for Sanders versus Clinton, which results in 51% to 49%, respectively. That is not too far off from the winning average of 53% to 47%, which Sanders needs to tie Clinton. And time is still on Sanders’ side.
So what does this mean? Well, it means we still have a race. The numbers above are by no way claiming a Sanders’ advantage in the nomination – they are simply rebuking reports of a “insurmountable” Clinton lead. So do not be misled or dismayed by the headlines you read on your morning bus commute, because at the end of the day, it’s all relative.