Hillary Clinton’s delegate guru said he believes the former secretary of state can effectively secure the Democratic presidential nomination over Bernie Sanders as soon as the results from Super Tuesday are in, if she does well enough, and certainly by no later than by mid-March.
It's a bold prediction by Jeff Berman, the Clinton campaign’s consultant for delegate strategy. But as the man who helped Barack Obama outwit the Clinton campaign in 2008 on delegate math, he's in a position to know.
“A realist could well feel after Super Tuesday that Sanders won't be able to catch up,” Berman said in an interview. “More may feel that way after the contests in Mississippi and Michigan the following Tuesday, and the writing truly could be on the wall by March 15, after several Midwest and border states have voted.”
Berman spoke as Clinton and Sanders head into a packed day of Democratic primaries in caucuses in 11 states that are expected, on balance, to favor Clinton, and that add up to 884 pledged delegates.
Those delegates dwarf the 156 pledged delegates that Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina awarded so far combined. The number at stake in the March 1 contests also comprise more than one-third of the number of total delegates needed to secure the nomination.
Sanders would beg to differ. He believes Super Tuesday wins in a variety of states, such as Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Colorado, combined with upwards to $40 million in fundraising in February give him the ability to fight on.
Even if Berman is right, Sanders could keep the race alive through June, as Clinton herself did in 2008 against then-Senator Obama. Sanders can campaign through the last states on the calendar as long as fundraising remains strong so he can travel and pay his staff. Sanders also can go on as long as he can keep drawing large and often young crowds to hear his anti-establishment message.
But Clinton could build up a wide-enough delegate margin over Sanders to make it statistically impossible for him to catch up, giving her the freedom to turn more of her attention to a general-election fight.
While most people think about which candidate won what state, the process of securing the party’s nomination is far more complicated.
The eventual nominee must get 2,382 out of 4,763 total delegates. That larger number includes 4,051 pledged delegates, who are allocated proportionally based on the primary or caucus results, and 712 so-called super-delegates, a mix of elected officials and party leaders, who are free to back who they like and change their loyalties, though they rarely switch.
Because the Democratic contest involves proportional assignment of delegates rather than winner-take-all contests, it matters by how much, and where, candidates win in each state.
After the South Carolina primary, Clinton had 91 pledged delegates to Sanders’ 65. That may not sound like much, but consider that when Obama secured enough backing in June 2008 to take the nomination over Clinton, he did it with a margin of only a little more than 100 pledged delegates, Berman recalled. Berman declined to say what number Clinton is seeking in terms of a pledged delegate lead in order to feel she has secured the nomination.
Meanwhile, independent attempts to counts super-delegate support by the Associated Press so far greatly favor Clinton over Sanders.
Berman, who directed Obama’s delegate operations for against Clinton in 2008, said Super Tuesday is “a huge day” again this time, but different. Eight years ago, Super Tuesday had twice as many contests and about twice as many delegates, and a more nationalized feel because of states including California, New York, and New Jersey that are later on the calendar this time.
This year, it’s a more Southern-focused contest with a greater concentration of African-American voters. That’s good for Clinton if her major win in South Carolina last weekend foreshadows the vote in those states. Super Tuesday 2008 had seven caucus states; this year, two caucus states vote on the Super Tuesday Democratic ballot. That’s a disadvantage of Sanders, who has had greater success in caucus states with more white, liberal activist voters.
“In 2008 Obama was able to hold Clinton to a draw on Super Tuesday,” partly because his defeat of Clinton in South Carolina gave him momentum going into those states, Berman said. This time, however, “Super Tuesday almost certainly won't be a tie” because “it is Clinton who is coming out of South Carolina with strength, and she can use it on Super Tuesday to achieve not just a draw, but a real national lead over Sanders."
Polling shows Clinton is poised to dominate many of those Super Tuesday states with the most delegates at stake.
States in which Clinton is expected to do well—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—are worth 571 delegates combined. By comparison, Colorado and Minnesota, two caucus states where Sanders could dominate, are worth 143 combined. Massachusetts, where Sanders has a chance to defeat Clinton, is worth 91. But another such possible Sanders state, Oklahoma, is worth only 38 and Sanders’ home state of Vermont is worth 16. And though delegates are awarded proportionally, big wins yield more delegates. That could make it difficult for Sanders to catch up. “Super Tuesday gives us the opportunity for significant delegate gains, leaving Sanders struggling to find opportunities to reverse our lead,” Berman said.
If Sanders has such a strong Super Tuesday that Clinton can’t comfortably count on the nomination, the reason Berman has looked to March 15 as an outside date is because that date includes big states where Clinton has been expected to do well—including Florida and Ohio. At some point, she would have so many delegates, under Berman's view of the race, that Sanders' simply couldn't catch up.
That's how Clinton lost to Obama in 2008. It's how she might win against Sanders in 2016.