Why Tonight’s Primary Results Are So Important for Bernie Sanders

Why Tonight’s Primary Results Are So Important for Bernie Sanders

Credit…Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The primary contests today could be the best and even last chance for Bernie Sanders to preserve his hope of winning the Democratic nomination.

This might be his best chance for a simple reason: The states are relatively favorable for him, compared with the country over all. It might be his last chance because the polls show him trailing in those states nonetheless, and he’s running out of time.

If the polls are right, Joe Biden is on track to double his delegate lead tonight, claim an irreversible delegate lead next week, and possibly clinch the nomination with an outright majority of delegates by the end of April.

Technically, it’s not too late for Mr. Sanders to mount a comeback. Heading into tonight, he trails Mr. Biden by only around five percentage points in the pledged delegate count, according to our estimates. With 62 percent of delegates yet to be awarded, he would need to beat Mr. Biden by only three points the rest of the way to retake the delegate lead. On paper, it’s not a daunting deficit.

The problem for Mr. Sanders is that it’s a daunting deficit when you add in post-Super Tuesday national polls showing Mr. Biden ahead by around 20 percentage points. The polls are consistent with the Super Tuesday results, which showed Mr. Biden winning by a wide margin among voters who cast ballots after the South Carolina primary. It would take a big change in the race for Mr. Sanders to beat Mr. Biden by three points the rest of the way.

Mr. Sanders has few natural opportunities to fundamentally change the race, and realistically he has only until next Tuesday. Before then, there’s the next debate, on Sunday, and the contests tonight. In 2016, he carried four of the six states voting today. That includes Washington and Idaho — which tend to have liberal Democratic electorates — and North Dakota. These would seem to be some of the very best states that remain for him. And then there’s Michigan, the state where he posted the signature win of his 2016 bid.

But these states are not as favorable to Mr. Sanders as they were then. Washington and Idaho are no longer caucuses, a format that tends to favor him. North Dakota is now a firehouse caucus, which is essentially a primary run by the Democratic Party, rather than by the state, but with fewer polling places than usual. So Mr. Sanders may not have the same caucus edge that he had in 2016 there either.

And Mr. Sanders has generally underperformed his 2016 standing in white working-class areas like those that powered his win in Michigan four years earlier.

Without these advantages and at such a wide deficit in national polls, he is no longer an obvious favorite to win North Dakota, Idaho and even Washington, where polls show a tight race or even a Biden lead. In Michigan, where Mr. Sanders might still be expected to fare a bit better than he would nationwide, most polls show him down by double digits.

Mr. Biden seems likely to post even wider victories in Missouri and especially Mississippi, which could be his best state in the country.

Of course, pre-election polls in Michigan badly underestimated Mr. Sanders in 2016. But if the polls are about right this time, this year’s results will add to Mr. Biden’s momentum and deprive Mr. Sanders of an opportunity to turn the race around. He would have only one more official chance to do so, in the debate Sunday, before votes are cast in the big contests next Tuesday — Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Arizona — and in Georgia on March 24.

Mr. Sanders could then face the hard reality of the delegate math.

By March 24, 64 percent of delegates to the national convention will have been awarded. If Mr. Biden wins the coming contests by wide margins, as expected, Mr. Sanders will need to win the remaining one-third of the country by nearly 20 points to win a plurality of pledged delegates.

In this case, it wouldn’t be mathematically impossible for Mr. Sanders to win the nomination, but he would not have a realistic path.

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