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Bernie Sanders’s Super Tuesday problem

With Sen. Bernie Sanders leading the national polls and running second in the delegate count, some Democrats are concerned that he will continue securing popular vote victories (first in Nevada) and that after netting a large number of delegates in the California primary on Super Tuesday (March 3), he will become “unstoppable.”

While it is true that Sanders (I-Vt.) may net more delegates out of California than his competitors, the broader logic fails to consider the remainder of the Super Tuesday states and the severe weakness of Sanders in the South. Six of the 15 nomination contests slated for Super Tuesday are in the South (Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia). Collectively, they contain more pledged delegates (584) than California (415). 

Sanders’s 2016 Super Tuesday performance suggests that currently he is unlikely to reach the 15 percent threshold in the popular vote in southern states on March 3. Were this to occur, Sanders would not win any southern delegates and likely would be relegated to third (or worse) once all of the Super Tuesday contests are final. Not included in calculations here are the delegates awarded to the “Democrats Abroad” contest because, while it begins on March 3, it does not end until March 10, meaning that those 13 delegates are not likely to be awarded on Super Tuesday.

On Super Tuesday in 2016, six southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia) held primary contests. In those states, Sanders won about 31 percent of the popular vote and garnered about 30 percent of the pledged delegates. The national poll average in late February 2016 showed Sanders with support from about 42 percent of Democrats. Sanders not only underperformed his national poll standing by 11 percent, but Hillary Clinton earned nearly 1.5 million more votes than Sanders in these states.

On Super Tuesday 2020, five of the six southern states are again holding their primaries. Georgia has moved to a slightly later date (March 24), but North Carolina has moved up. Although North Carolina was a better state in 2016 for Sanders than was Georgia, he still lost the state by more than 150,000 votes and netted 13 fewer delegates there than Clinton. By swapping out North Carolina for Georgia, his average vote share rises to about 32 percent and his share of delegates nudges up to 34 percent. He still underperformed his national poll standing by 10 percent. 

Currently, Sanders’s support is at about 23 percent in the national polls. Were he to perform as poorly in 2020 in the six southern states on Super Tuesday as he did in 2016, he likely would earn between 11 and 13 percent of the popular vote and not earn any delegates from the South. 

Assuming that two or three of the more moderate Democratic candidates — former vice president Joe Biden, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, former South Bend, Ind.,  mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — split relatively equally what was Clinton’s average vote share in these states (67 percent), each could come away with an impressive stash of delegates (if the delegates were split between three viable candidates, each would earn about 195 delegates) that could place one or more of them above Sanders, depending on how the other races that day played out. 

While his performance in the South remains uncertain, what is known is that Sanders is also unlikely to do as well in the non-southern states on Super Tuesday as he did in 2016. 

Leaving aside his home state of Vermont, it is important to realize that in 2016, the two states Sanders won by the largest margin that day were Minnesota (about 23 percent) and Colorado (about 19 percent). But in 2016, those states held caucus contests. This year, they are holding primary elections. Similarly, Maine and Utah, two other states where Sanders won by large margins in 2016 and now are slated to hold their contests on Super Tuesday, also will be holding primaries rather than caucuses. 

This format change is likely to be a disadvantage for Sanders. On Super Tuesday in 2016, Sanders’s largest primary win occurred in Oklahoma, where he bested Clinton by about 10 percent of the vote. The other non-southern (non-Vermont) primary that day was Massachusetts, and Clinton topped Sanders 51 to 49 percent. And even though California did not vote until June, Clinton still managed to best Sanders by 7 percent in that primary. 

Landslides and large winning margins seem far less likely on this Super Tuesday than in years past. With at least three, if not four, strong candidates this time around, no one candidate seems likely to amass more than 35 percent of the vote in any state, irrespective of the contest format. 

But let’s imagine that Sanders is able to earn an average of 35 percent of the popular vote in the nine non-southern state contests (American Samoa, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Utah and Vermont), knowing that Sanders likely will win his home state of Vermont, Klobuchar likely will win her home state of Minnesota, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren may well give Sanders a run for his money in her adopted state of Massachusetts and her home state of Oklahoma. Assume the remaining 65 percent of the vote is split relatively equally between three of the other candidates. This means that each of them would win about 152 delegates and that Sanders would have amassed about 304 delegates in these states. Sanders’s delegate lead would be about 152 delegates. 

But once these non-southern delegates are added to those from the southern contests, Sanders likely would be in second, and perhaps as far back as fourth, place in the running. It is possible that the three candidates who earn 195 delegates in the southern states are the same three candidates who earn 152 delegates in the non-southern states. And this math becomes even more foreboding for Sanders should he not win Massachusetts or Minnesota by 13-14 percent margins that are assumed in the above example.

For those looking for an early southern bellwether, keep watch on South Carolina. In 2016, Sanders earned only 26 percent of the vote in the state. If Sanders underperforms his national poll standing by the same 16 percentage points that he did in 2016, he would be fortunate to get into double digits in 2020. Taken together, while Sanders may be looking forward to Nevada’s caucuses on Saturday, it remains hard to imagine him coming away with the plurality of the pledged delegates on Super Tuesday unless he is able to miraculously improve his showing across the South this cycle. 

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.

Tags 2020 presidential election Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign Democratic Party presidential primaries Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Michael Bloomberg Pete Buttigieg Super Tuesday

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