As we begin primary voting in Minnesota (early voting here starts Friday, January 17th) we are reminded that the actual election season, not just the never ending campaigning season, is upon us.
One thing you should know before discussing the primary process, there are new rules for how delegates are to be awarded.
The total number of delegates in play on the first vote will be 3,768. To gain the nomination, a candidate will have to get a majority of this this number, or 1884 plus one or more, on the first vote. There are the usual “pledged” delegate vs. “unpledged” (the latter sometimes called “superdelegates”) but with fewer of the latter than in previous years, and they will not be voting on the first ballot. If no candidate meets the 1884+ threshold on the first ballot, all the delegates are released from prior pledges, and superdelegates are thrown into the mix. Then, 4,532 delegates are in play, and a majority, or over 2266, will be required to win.
That is something of an oversimplification. If a single candidate goes into the convention with something like 2,267 pledged delegates, then superdelegates will be allowed to vote. Notice how close the supermajority of pledged and the 50% threshold of all, are. It feels like astrology, but I digress.
Among the pledged delegates, there is a 15% threshold rule per state in allocating delegates. If a candidate gets 15% or more of the vote/caucus delegates, they are in the running for allotted delegates. Then, among those who pass 15%, the delegates are allotted proportionately. If no one gets 15%, then the threshold shifts to one half of whatever the front runner got. So, if the leading candidates gets 12%, then the new threshold is 6%.
Here are two of many possible examples of what could happen in a given state.
The Iowa Caucuses are on February 3rd. In polls, Biden and Sanders are about even, with Buttigieg and Warren competing for third place and all seem to be at or above the threshold. However, the difference between public opinion polls and outcomes is potentially large in a caucus state, because the variation affected by “ground game” is directly reflected in polls when there is a primary, but not in a caucus. In Iowa, keep an eye on Klobuchar, who claims to have a wining or at least result-surprising ground game in the Corn State. That is not a false claim. In other words, anything can happen in Iowa. Iowa will be deciding the commitments for some 41 pledged delegates.
I currently predict, and this is a pure thumb suck estimate, that the four current front runners (Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren) will roughly split Iowa’s 41 pledged delegates, with Sanders taking the largest share, and Warren the smallest share.
Then comes the famous New Hampshire Primary, on February 11th. New Hampshire has 24 pledged delegates, a very small number, but the Granite State is famous for being a tail wagging the giant sausage making political dog of democracy. There is a good chance that New Hampshire will break in a very similar way as Iowa, with Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg all reaching the threshold and sharing delegates with Biden and Sanders getting equal numbers at the top, Warren third, and Buttigieg fourth. But, either Warren or Buttigieg, or both, could fail to meet the 15% threshold. The latest Boston Herald poll has Buttigieg way below that number and Warren near it. Other recent polls have both below it. New Hampshire may well be the make or break moment for Buttigieg.
Then comes the Nevada Caucus on February 22nd. As usual, Nevada has less polling than other states, but there is enough to identify Biden, Sanders and Warren as, once again, the top tier, but with Warren repeatedly polling at just below the threshold. Buttigieg hovers just below them, and not looking like he’d get the 15% threshold. There is a good chance Biden and Sanders will split Nevada’s 36 pledged delegates roughly evenly. This could be a make or break caucus for Warren. But, maybe not.
Then, on Feb 29th, we have the South Carolina primary. The first two events are mainly white semi-rural or rural people deciding who should be president. Nevada Democrats have significant diversity but mainly Hispanic, and a strong labor component. But elections are won or lost on the basis of African American support in this country, and South Carolina is the first event with significant African American participation. Here, Biden is way ahead of everyone else, with Sanders and Warren sharing a distant second place, and hugging that 15% threshold a little too closely for comfort. It is possible that Biden will walk away with all of South Carolina’s 54 pledged delegates. Recent polling has shown Steyer as a factor in this state, and if that is correct, it could be Biden and Steyer splitting those delegates at about a 2:1 ratio. That all depends on if we believe Steyer is for real. I, personally, am not sure.
At this point, what we know now will still be true: Biden and Sanders are front runners. Warren is a factor, likely Butigieg is a factor. If nothing unusual happens, we will be entering Super Tuesday with a Biden-Sanders fight. However, Warren could outperform and pop, or Butigieg could take the threshold in three of these four states, or Steyer could buy his way in, er, I mean, well, whatever, you know what I mean. The point is this: We are watching a horse race with two odds-on horses, both old white guys but one progressive and one centrist, and one of them likely to win. But, there are these two or three other horses in the race that could woosh by either or both of them in these first four furlongs.
But then, Super Tuesday comes along. Sixteen entities, mostly states, vote on Super Tuesday, for a total of 1357 pledged delegates. Using information from polling, or if no polling exists, the thumb-suck-estimate method, assuming that no candidate has an unexpected break-through event in early states (or otherwise), and assuming that Biden, Warren, and Sanders are the only candidates likely to be viable for most of the primaries (Klobuchar will take a good number of Minnesota votes), the following shows a reasonable estimate of the outcome of Super Tuesday. Remember, this is based only on polls (this is not a predictive model) and polls are sparse in many of these states.
This is, in my view, the “null model” of what is going to happen between now and the day after Super Tuesday. It is a model to be defied by individual candidates, broken by the voters, altered by circumstances, manipulated by the Russians, etc. There is more uncertainty in this season’s Democratic primary than seen in the recent past, especially with a couple of billionaires showing up at the last second to buy the presidency, and according to the polling, making a dent.