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Bernie Sanders Is Even Less Competitive Than He Appears

Bernie Sanders’s supporters are fond of the hypothesis that Democratic superdelegates, the elected leaders and party officials who currently support Hillary Clinton by a lopsided-doesn’t-even-begin-to-describe-it 469 to 31, are going to bow to the “will of the people” if Sanders ends up winning more pledged delegates than Clinton by June.

There’s just one hiccup in this logic: Sanders fans seem to be conflating the pledged delegate count and the “will of the voters,” when in fact the two are far from interchangeable.

Sanders’s reliance on extremely low-turnout caucus states has meant the pledged delegate count overstates his share of votes. To date, Sanders has captured 46 percent of Democrats’ pledged delegates but just 42 percent of raw votes. So even if Sanders were to draw even in pledged delegates by June — which is extremely unlikely — Clinton could be able to persuade superdelegates to stick with her by pointing to her popular vote lead.

Sanders already has a nearly impossible task ahead of him in trying to erase Clinton’s pledged delegate lead. He’s down by 212 delegates, meaning he’d need to win 56 percent of those remaining to nose in front. He has dominated caucus states such as Idaho and Washington, but only two caucus states — Wyoming and North Dakota — remain on the calendar. What’s more, the biggest states left — New York and California — favor Clinton demographically.

Including caucus results, Clinton leads Sanders by almost 2.4 million raw votes, 9.4 million to just more than 7 million, according to The Green Papers. So then, what would it take for Sanders to overtake Clinton in the popular vote by the end of the primaries in June?

To estimate how many votes remain to be counted, I first used data compiled by the handy U.S. Elections Project and The Green Papers to compare Democratic primary turnout in each state that’s voted so far to turnout rates in 2008. From 2008 to 2016, the average turnout in primary states as a share of the Voting Eligible Population has fallen from 20 percent to 14 percent. In caucus states, it’s fallen more modestly, from 4.4 percent to 3.7 percent.1

Then, I applied these average declines to the remaining 17 states and Washington, D.C.2 The result: There may be around 12.1 million votes left to be counted. That means Sanders would need to win about 60 percent of remaining voters and caucus attendees to overtake Clinton in popular votes — a very tall task for someone who’s only captured 42 percent up until now.

The much more likely scenario is that Clinton’s popular vote lead continues to expand until the race’s June 7 grand finale.

At the outset of the race, FiveThirtyEight laid out state-by-state targets estimating how well Sanders and Clinton would need to do in each state to win half of the vote nationally. So far, Sanders has averaged about 8 percent ahead of his targets in caucus states (66 percent actual versus 58 percent predicted), but he’s averaged about 8 percent behind his targets in primary states (41 percent actual versus 49 percent predicted).

If we were to apply that pattern to the state-by-state targets over the rest of the calendar, Clinton’s popular vote lead would grow by 1.5 million votes to over 3.9 million by June.

But instead, let’s adjust these targets to estimate how many votes Sanders would need in each state to finish one pledged delegate ahead of Clinton. Even if he were to turn around his 212-delegate deficit and claim a 2,026-to-2,025 lead, he’d only close the popular vote gap by about 1.7 million votes, leaving Clinton with a 670,000-vote advantage. Here’s a rough estimate of how the remaining votes might break down in this generous-to-Sanders scenario:

4/9 Wyoming 7,966 6,736 1,230
4/19 New York 1,412,388 801,954 610,434
4/26 Connecticut 267,973 154,835 113,138
Delaware 78,351 40,962 37,389
Maryland 682,599 346,624 335,975
Pennsylvannia 1,762,837 1,000,939 761,898
Rhode Island 138,336 82,697 55,639
5/3 Indiana 967,991 568,985 399,006
5/10 West Virginia 264,415 169,966 94,449
5/17 Kentucky 523,479 299,849 223,630
Oregon 508,416 334,436 173,980
6/7 North Dakota 18,278 14,816 3,462
California 4,039,240 2,273,284 1,765,956
Montana 142,410 100,086 42,324
New Jersey 852,395 462,680 389,715
New Mexico 210,977 124,012 86,965
South Dakota 75,404 50,355 25,049
6/14 D.C. 104,874 49,060 55,814
Target totals 12,058,329 6,882,276 5,176,053
Already voted 16,734,424* 7,034,997 9,412,426
Total 28,792,753* 13,917,273 14,588,479
How many votes Bernie Sanders needs to catch up in delegates

*Includes votes for candidates other than Sanders and Clinton

In other words, Sanders may have had a great night in Wisconsin on Tuesday and will probably have an even more terrific day in Wyoming on Saturday. But in the long run, even if he were somehow to win more pledged delegates, he’d probably still wind up short in the popular vote.

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  1. This analysis does not include Utah and Washington, which switched contest types between 2008 and 2016, and Michigan, where Barack Obama was not on the ballot in 2008.

  2. This analysis excludes Puerto Rico.

David Wasserman is the U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report.