Our primary model is now extremely confident that former Vice President Joe Biden will win a majority of pledged delegates. There are some contingencies that the model doesn’t account for — for instance, Biden unexpectedly dropping out for health reasons (the model assumes the delegate leader never drops out) or the primary calendar being radically restructured because of precautions that states are taking around coronavirus. But our model is saying that so long as anything remotely resembling normal operations continues, Biden is very likely to win.
If that confidence seems misplaced — and keep in mind, our forecasts are usually more conservative than other statistical algorithms — it may be because Biden’s ascent has been so rapid that it’s hard to entirely grasp its scope. Biden’s rise in national polls over the past two weeks — from 15.4 percent on Feb. 24 to 51.7 percent today — has been perhaps the fastest in the history of the primaries. He has massive polling leads in states all over the map that were once expected to be competitive.
But it’s also worth performing a stress test on the model. What if Sen. Bernie Sanders substantially beats our forecasts? Could the race look more competitive then?1
As a baseline, let’s start with what happens if the model’s projections are exactly right in every state and territory up through Georgia, which votes in two weeks from now on March 24. (Note that this scenario will look slightly different from our final forecast, because it’s deterministic — it assumes our projections are exactly right to the decimal place — while the full-fledged model accounts for uncertainty.)
Scenario 1: FiveThirtyEight’s projections are spot-on
Delegate projections for March 10 through 24, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast as of 9:00 a.m. Eastern on March 10
|3/14||Northern Mariana Islands||4||2||0|
|Pre-March 10 total||720||640||139|
|March 10 total||225||140||0|
|3/14 – 3/24 total||457||231||0|
|Grand delegate total through 3/24||1402||1011||139|
Unless something big changes, things will get very out of hand for Sanders very soon. In states that have already voted, he currently trails Biden by around 80 delegates based on results as reported as of this morning. (That deficit that may expand as California continues counting its vote — late-counted ballots have been more favorable for Biden than the ones counted on election night — but leave that aside for now.) Then, if our projections are exactly right tonight, Biden would net another 85 delegates, putting him 165 delegates ahead overall.
But still bigger problems await Sanders in the March 17 states and in Georgia on March 24. These states have huge numbers of delegates and some of them — Florida and Georgia in particular — are projected as big Biden wins. The model currently has Biden gaining a net of 226 delegates on Sanders in the states and territories that vote from March 14 through March 24.
That would give Biden an advantage of 391 delegates — which would be essentially insurmountable barring extraordinary contingencies. Sanders would have to win around 69 percent of the remaining delegates from that point forward to claim a majority of pledged delegates, which would equate to beating Biden by 35 or 40 percentage points in the remaining states. A delegate plurality would be almost-as-daunting, requiring Sanders win 64 percent of the remaining delegate haul.
Unlike the past couple of times we’ve run these scenarios, I’m not going to bother running any upside cases for Biden because the base case is already so good for him.
But it is worth looking at some Sanders upside cases. Suppose that Sanders beats our projections by a net of 10 percentage points in all contests through March 24, including tonight. So, for example, instead of losing Washington by 3 percentage points, as our forecast shows, he wins it by 7 points. Here’s how the delegate math would work out under this scenario:
Scenario 2: Sanders beats our projections by 10 points
Delegate projections with a net of 10 percentage points added to Sanders’s projected vote share in all contests, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast as of 9:00 a.m. Eastern on March 10
|Pre-March 10 total||720||640||139|
|March 10 total||199||166||0|
|3/14 – 3/24 total||422||266||0|
|Grand delegate total through 3/24||1341||1072||139|
That is actually … not all that much better for Sanders. He’d still be 269 delegates behind Biden after Georgia finishes voting, and would need to win 64 percent of delegates in the remaining states to claim a majority, or about 60 percent of them for a plurality. So even if polls and projections are 10 points too high on Biden, Sanders would still be a major underdog in the race.
Sanders wouldn’t necessarily win many more states under this scenario either. A 10-point swing toward Sanders would only be enough to flip Washington and Democrats Abroad and tie the projected delegate count in the Northern Mariana Islands. (As an aside, our model doesn’t really know what to do with the territories and is probably underrating Sanders in Democrats Abroad — I’d bet on him winning it even though our model says otherwise. But other than Puerto Rico, the territories don’t have enough delegates to really make a difference.)
So let’s get more creative in helping Sanders. Let’s say Sanders beats his projections by 10 points tonight … except in Michigan, where he beats the forecast by 24 points and narrowly wins the state! (Hey, it happened in 2016!) As a result, Sanders gets a big bounce in the remaining contests over the next two weeks, beating our projections by 20 percentage points in all of them, except in Florida and Arizona where the presence of a large amount of early voting curbs his gains to 15 points. Here’s what that scenario looks like:
Scenario 3: Sanders wins Michigan (!) and surges (!)
Delegate projections with anywhere from a net of 10 to 24 percentage points* added to Sanders’s projected vote share, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast as of 9:00 a.m. Eastern on March 10
|3/14||Northern Mariana Islands||3||3||0|
|Pre-March 10 total||720||640||139|
|March 10 total||187||178||0|
|3/14 – 3/24 total||391||297||0|
|Grand delegate total through 3/24||1298||1115||139|
Even with this massive overperformance, Sanders would … still be losing ground to Biden! He’d lose a net of nine delegates tonight and then another 94 in the rest of the states through Georgia, putting him 183 delegates behind Biden after March 24.
Sanders would then need to win 61 percent of the remaining delegates after Georgia to eventually claim a majority of pledged delegates, or 57 percent of them for a plurality. Also, note that even in this massive surge scenario, Sanders might not actually win all that many states, because Biden’s lead exceeds 20 points in states like Florida, Georgia and Ohio, which would give him enough of a buffer to withstand a 20-point Sanders surge.
So while such a race would certainly be interesting — especially with a more favorable set of states for Sanders like Wisconsin set to vote in early April — it might not actually be all that competitive. Instead, it might resemble the 2008 nomination race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, with Biden in Obama’s position. In that race, the candidates traded wins throughout the second half of the primary calendar, leading to massive shifts in the media narrative. But Clinton never came especially close to overcoming the delegate advantage that Obama had built up in February.