6 May 2016

Decoding the Democratic race

4:29 pm on 6 May 2016

ANALYSIS: Donald Trump's last opponent for the Republican nomination has capitulated, but the Democratic race grinds on with Senator Bernie Sanders confident he will prevail against the odds. Phil Smith looks at the Democratic state of affairs.

Hilary Clinton is on top of Bernie Sanders in all the major results, but Sanders is refusing to back down.

Hilary Clinton is on top of Bernie Sanders in all the major results, but Sanders is refusing to back down. Photo: AFP

So it's Trump for the Republicans. Who'd have thought it possible last June when he arrived for his grand candidate announcement cruising down a Trump Towers escalator?

He has proved that in the crazy world of American politics anything is possible. And that's only barely figurative.

But does this change anything for the other side of the race?

Firstly, will it be Clinton?

Yes. That was easy.

No ifs, no buts - the Democratic candidate will be Hillary Clinton. Ms Clinton is much closer to victory than Mr Trump was when his opponents fell on their swords. Maybe Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich are just better at maths than Bernie Sanders.

Ms Clinton is 163 delegates short of the Democratic nomination target of 2383 and there are 1159 still up for grabs. So she needs only 14 percent of the remaining delegates to win. Or, to put it another way, Mr Sanders is 934 delegates short and requires 80 percent of the remaining delegates.

He could repeatedly thrash Ms Clinton from now on and he still wouldn't get there. As the Democratic delegates are allocated proportionally those thrashings would need to be historical.

By comparison Mr Trump is only 178 delegates short of the Republican nomination target of 1237 with 445 delegates still available in the races to come. He requires 41 percent of the remaining delegates. Of course, with no opponents left, he won't find that hard.

Wouldn't Sanders be ahead if the Democratic contest was fairer?

Gee, that's a loaded question. But no. He wouldn't.

What if all the state contests were open to independent candidates?

The answer is still no. Mr Sanders does better in semi-open states than Democratic-only ones, but not so much better that it would make a difference. Political Scientist Alan Abramowitz has done the numbers.

This issue needs some background. (If your head hurts you can skip this bit.)

In the US when you register to vote you register a party preference; for most people this is Republican, Democratic or Independent (i.e. none of the above). Each party and every state has its own rules for choosing a presidential candidate. In some states only those registered as Democratic can vote for the Democratic party candidate. In some those registered as Independent can also vote. And in some states anybody can (including Republicans), which is laudably participatory but very odd. Imagine the New Zealand Labour Party asking National Party members to help them choose a new leader.

Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Photo: AFP

Traditionally, Independent voters' sensibilities lie in the middle of the political spectrum, between the major 'right' and 'left' wing parties. But increasingly, younger voters choose to be unaffiliated and they are mostly very liberal. So unusually this year the Independent bloc is actually to the left of the Democratic one and favours Mr Sanders over the slightly more centrist Ms Clinton.

Senator Sanders has been decrying Democrats-only (closed) primaries as undemocratic, playing the Trump card of a rigged contest. But in reality he also loses the open ones. He only bests Ms Clinton when the primaries are semi-open (Democrats and Independents can vote but Republicans cannot). So full participation isn't to his advantage, just enough democracy to be useful.

So far the score sheet looks like this:

Closed Primaries: Clinton 10 states and 657 delegates. Sanders 7 states and 521 delegates.

Open Primaries: Clinton 10 states and 762 delegates. Sanders 7 states and 574 delegates.

Semi-Open Primaries: Clinton 4 states and 260 delegates. Sanders 5 states and 266 delegates.

Mr Sanders' appeal amongst independents makes even more sense when you remember that the Senator is an Independent himself.

Sorry? Bernie Sanders is an Interloper?

Yes, brace yourself. Senator Sanders is not actually a member of the Democratic Party. He is an Independent. He officially caucuses with the Dems in the Senate but isn't one.

And yes, that is odd. Apparently inclusivity is taken very seriously by the Democrats. They might change that. Allowing just anyone to participate can backfire, as the Republicans may be learning. After all Mr Trump has more history as a Democrat than Senator Sanders does.

What about the Super Delegates?

Super Delegates are the party leaders and congress members who can also vote for the candidate. It makes sense that they would vote for someone who is actually a member of their own party. And Ms Clinton is ahead even without their votes.

So it's Hillary then?

Basically Ms Clinton is winning any way you look at it. So far she has 12,438,491 votes and Mr Sanders has 9,302,657. That's a lead of more than three million. There's not much way of calling that rigged.

So why is Bernie Sanders still there?

That is a reasonable question. If the Senator was part of the Democratic establishment he would step aside now that Mr Trump is unopposed and let Ms Clinton focus on the main event. Strategically speaking this is the only reasonable action because Mr Trump can now concentrate his energies attacking Miss Clinton but she must continue to fight on two fronts.

If she focusses entirely on the general election she runs the risk of alienating voters in the final nine primary states. The next few she is likely to lose regardless. And she will also not want to alienate Mr Sanders supporters by treating him as irrelevant. It's a tricky path to tread and so far she is partly fighting on the Trump front by using surrogates like Senator Elizabeth Warren who Sanders supporters respect hugely, nigh-on worship. Which kills two birds...

The Democrats are surely making offers to Mr Sanders in a trade-off for quitting: input into the party platform, suggestions for the vice presidential nominee, or promises to revive banking legislation. In the meantime Senator Sanders has a message to deliver and a bigger, louder platform than he ever dreamed was possible. It will take a lot to get him to step away from this gold-plated megaphone.

*Phil Smith is an RNZ journalist who has wasted his adult life revelling in the entertaining minutiae of American politics and culture. He once shared a lunch of rare bison steaks with Jimmy Carter.

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