Doing the Delegate Math in the Wake of Super Tuesday

With Super Tuesday now behind us and hundreds more delegates awarded to their respective candidates, the path to the end of the primary season seems much more clear.  The big delegate winners of the night were Trump and Clinton, who won seven states each.  However, the endgame of the primaries is not to win the most states but to win the most delegates, so let’s take a look at the number of delegates each candidate has won to date.

The Democratic side only has two candidates competing for the nomination, so it should be the easier side to analyze.  However, giving delegate totals for the Democratic side is actually a little tricky due to the large amount of superdelegates whose votes are not tied to any primary or caucus result.  Many, but not all, of these superdelegates have already expressed preference for one candidate or the other, allowing us to include them in each candidate’s delegate total.  However, it is important to recognize that these superdelegates can change their support at any time leading up to the nomination.

Including superdelegates, Hillary Clinton has 1,052 delegates to Bernie Sanders’ 4271.  2,383 delegates are required to win the nomination.  This means that Clinton still requires 1,331 delegates to clinch the nomination.  Considering that there are 3,284 Democratic delegates not yet allocated, a little bit of division tells us Clinton needs to win 40.5% of the remaining delegates to secure her position as the Democratic nominee.  On the other hand, Sanders would require 59.6% of the remaining delegates to win the nomination.

However, there is a critique to counting superdelegates in the totals at this state of the nomination process.  Since superdelegates are not bound to candidates, they can change their preferences and affect our previous calculations.  Many Sanders supporters argue that if Sanders starts outperforming Clinton later in the primary process, superdelegates that currently support Clinton will be pressured to support Sanders.  Since Clinton currently has an overwhelming lead in superdelegate support, this would make the nomination easier for Sanders.  We can mathematically adjust for this assumption by ignoring the existence of superdelegates and calculating how many regular delegates each candidate would need to clinch the nomination.  This model works under the assumption that superdelegates will ultimately cave in to popular support.  Ignoring superdelegates, Clinton still has a delegate lead of 594 to 405.  In this hypothetical system, winning 2,026 regular delegates ensures a majority, and Clinton would need to win 46.9% of the remaining delegates while Sanders would require 53.1%.  So yes, Sanders supporters are correct in arguing that a late superdelegate shift would help their candidate, but it is important to note the effects of such a shift are minimal.

The Republican side is a little more complex, as there are more than two candidates to consider.  It takes 1,237 delegates to win the Republican nomination.  Of the 695 delegates already awarded, Donald Trump has 319, Ted Cruz has 226, Marco Rubio has 110 and John Kasich has 252. Interestingly, even though Trump has been billed by the media as the presumptive Republican nominee, he has only won a plurality of the delegates so far and not the majority he would need to win the nomination without a brokered convention.  Trump needs to win 51.7% of the remaining delegates to win the nomination, while Cruz needs 56.9%, Rubio needs 63.4% and Kasich needs 68.2%.  Of course, due to the possibility of a contested convention for the Republicans, the candidates know that they do not necessarily need to win a majority of the delegates to have a shot at the nomination.  Instead, they simply need to prevent other candidates from winning a majority.

So, if Hillary only has a slim delegate lead over Sanders and Trump hasn’t even won a majority of delegates so far, why is the media portraying them to be the presumptive nominees?  The answer is less to do with math and more with scheduling.  The early Republican primaries and caucuses tend to allocate delegates more proportionally, while the later ones allocate using a winner take all system.  In most states, Trump has rather safe, steady leads, and instead of having to split delegates proportionally with the losers, he will soon win all delegates from each state.  This is crucial for Trump, who leads many states with a comfortable plurality of voters but not a majority.  That situation has cost him delegates up until now, but starting March 15th when every contest is winner take all, he will be racking up all the available delegates without having to worry about his margins of victory.

Meanwhile, the early primary and caucus states have actually been rather generous to Sanders demographically.  Nationally, he is losing to Clinton 52% to 38%, and his 14 point deficit puts him in an especially dire situation because, unlike the Republicans, Democrats award their delegates more proportionally.  This means that he not only needs to catch up to Clinton in a more diverse slew of states than he has already won, but he also must win by large margins in order to overcome his current delegate deficit.

At the end of the day, can we say for sure that Trump and Clinton have their respective nominations locked up?  The numbers say no.  But perhaps more importantly, the calendar says that unless something drastic happens soon, the numbers won’t be so tenuous for long.


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