2016 Elections

Clinton Keeps Winning Even When She Loses

Sanders piles up money and victories, and he'll still fall short.

No sweat.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders had a great weekend. He won caucuses in Kansas, Nebraska and Maine on Saturday, cutting into Hillary Clinton’s delegate lead slightly (even though she handily won the Louisiana primary). Sanders also performed well in Sunday night’s debate, especially at the start. He is still raising a lot of money. 

But the Democratic race is over, as far as determining who gets the nomination. 1

I’ve been saying this all along, but will back up a bit and explain. 2  Why is it that Clinton’s path looks clear, while the Republican race still faces twists and turns? After all, both contests are changing week to week and from state to state as we move through the election calendar. Here are five factors that affect these changes.

  1. State context. This one seems obvious, but it is still underappreciated. If candidates draw their support from different groups, the election results may shift because of the demographic makeup of individual states, even if the overall national support for the candidates remains exactly the same. Rules may matter, too: Candidates may do better or worse in primaries compared with caucuses, or they have an easier time in open primaries (where anyone can vote) rather than in closed primaries (where only the party’s registered voters are eligible).
  2. Momentum. Winning one week may increase a candidate’s support in the next week’s contests; losing may hurt.
  3. Events. A good or bad debate performance, a scandal or a campaign trail gaffe might move one candidate up or another down. So might external events, such as news abroad that might strengthen (or weaken) the case of a candidate with extensive foreign-policy experience. 
  4. Winnowing. As losers drop out, their supporters are redistributed unevenly to the remaining contenders.
  5. Strategy. Campaigns have limited resources, so they target some states rather than others. These decisions not only affect one candidate’s results, but they can affect his or her rivals’ results as well. That’s because the voters he or she is hoping to attract aren’t deserting their rivals’ camps in equal numbers.   

In the Democratic race so far, not only is winnowing irrelevant in a contest with only two candidates. In addition, momentum and events do not appear to be having an impact on the Clinton-Sanders contest, and their campaign strategies have had only minimal effects. The only thing that seems to matter is the state context. Sanders does better with Democrats who are white, young and liberal, so he runs well in states where they predominate among the party’s voters. He gets clobbered in states where they are less numerous as a proportion of the Democratic electorate. 

What makes the Republican side so confusing is that events, in particular, have been important. Marco Rubio’s support collapsed before the New Hampshire primary after his disastrous Feb. 6 debate performance. And the Florida senator appears to have cratered again over the last several days, perhaps because of his attacks on Donald Trump in last Thursday’s debate. Or it might be traced partly to his disappointing results in the Super Tuesday voting -- momentum.

Multicandidate races are less stable. Rubio may have hurt both Trump but also himself when he spent a week between elections mocking the reality-TV star personally, a tactic that appears to have benefited Cruz and John Kasich.

Winnowing has mattered too. Rubio probably picked up some of Chris Christie’s and Jeb Bush’s supporters after they dropped out, helping him beat Cruz for second place in South Carolina and Nevada and to move ahead of the Texas senator in national polls in late February. But Cruz was probably aided in Saturday’s Republican caucuses because Ben Carson’s social-conservative voters were newly available after he exited.

Voter opinions on the Democratic side are far more set in stone about Clinton than they have been on the Republican side about their candidates, who are newcomers to national politics. Yes, the Democratic contest could still be affected by events or momentum. There’s just no sign of that now, either in the election results, including in those states where Sanders has done well, or in polling in states where the contests lie ahead. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Debates matter for reasons other than their immediate impact on voters' decisions. They are a way of pushing candidates to make promises to voters, especially on issues they may prefer to avoid. 

  2. Hillary Clinton also has the advantage of support from Democratic party actors, while Republican front-runner Donald Trump faces a disadvantage in the antagonism of Republican party actors.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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