Why Clinton is the likely Democratic nominee

I haven’t been shy lately in saying in public forums that Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee for President. That said, the standard-issue “barring extraordinary circumstances” disclaimer applies, in an election year seemingly cram-packed with extraordinary circumstances so far.

Still, I should explain.

At some point in a Presidential primary election process, it’s no longer fundamentally about the spin, momentum, rally attendance, or enthusiasm. As time goes on, it’s more and more about the math. And the math can be cruel.

To date, Democrats in 15 states have weighed in. In raw votes cast, Clinton is ahead of Sanders by almost 1.4 million votes. Ignoring superdelegates, she has an estimated 596 delegates, to Sanders’ 407. It takes 2,382 to win the nomination. While this win number does include superdelegates, it is a safe assumption that superdelegates will do this year what they’ve done in previous years – ultimately vote for the candidate who has the lions share of electorally-earned delegates, regardless of who they endorsed earlier in the process.

Yes, most of the superdelegates are currently for Clinton, but if Sanders suddenly took a commanding delegate lead, they would feel free to switch, and they would. So, for the purposes of the current delegate score, I didn’t count them. But do keep in mind that their votes do count toward that 2,382 win number.

The delegate count is key, and so is the delegate selection process Democrats use. While some states after March 15 will be “winner take all” in the Republican process, the Democrats remain proportional to the end. That means that the underdog in a state continues to earn delegates, and it means that it takes a frontrunner much longer to reach their win number. But it also means that once a candidate falls behind, it is much more difficult to catch up, even with some big wins elsewhere. Eventually, an underdog will fall so far behind that the nomination is a virtual impossibility.

Meanwhile, to the extent polling has been off anywhere lately, it has usually been in underestimating the strength of the leader, not usually that of the challenger. With that in mind, let’s look at the upcoming primary calendar.

sanders_clintonThe next 2 weeks, delegates at stake, and most recent polling

This weekend, Democrats go to the polls in Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Maine. Next Tuesday comes Michigan and Mississippi. The Northern Mariana Islands (which, apparently, is a place) are in there somewhere, followed on March 15 by powerhouses Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio.

In the Kansas caucus, with 33 delegates at stake, Clinton leads by 10%.

In Louisiana, with 59 delegates at stake, Clinton leads by 39%.

In Michigan, with 147 delegates at stake, Clinton leads by 18%.

In Mississippi, with 36 delegates at stake, Clinton leads by 44%.

In Florida, with 246 delegates at stake, Clinton leads by 24%.

In Illinois, with 156 delegates at stake, Clinton leads by 19%.

In North Carolina, with 121 delegates at stake, Clinton leads by 19%.

in Ohio, with 143 delegates at stake, Clinton leads by 15%.

I can find no polling for Nebraska, Maine, Missouri, or the Northern Mariana Islands, and in all these places combined, 155 delegates are at stake.

In all the Democratic primaries and caucuses between now and March 15, with more than a thousand delegates up for grabs, I can find no reputable recent polling showing Senator Sanders leading Secretary Clinton anywhere. It would surprise me, however, if Sanders didn’t prevail in the Maine caucuses. But with only 30 delegates at stake there, that’s no game-changer.

In a proportional delegate selection process that makes it critical that Sanders catch up with Clinton, there are precious few places he can. While he will almost certainly pick up delegates at every step of the way, Clinton will pick up significantly more at each step. And with each of those steps, the delegate count stacking up for Clinton will make it harder and harder to see how Sanders makes up his shortfall.