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Bernie Sanders May Win Big In West Virginia

Hillary Clinton supporters repeatedly ask me why Bernie Sanders is still running for president. It’s true: The delegate math is squarely against him, and Clinton is almost certain to win the Democratic nomination by a fairly wide margin. But Sanders still has a lot of supporters, and he has a message that happens to be resonating. Case in point: West Virginia, which votes today and where Sanders is likely to win.

Just two West Virginia polls have been released in the last month, but both showed Sanders with a modest edge. The FiveThirtyEight polls-only model forecasts a 7-percentage-point Sanders win, while the polls-plus model gives him a 3-point edge.

West Virginia also looks like a strong state for Sanders demographically, with few nonwhite voters. A demographic model my colleague Nate Silver released in late April projected Sanders to carry the state by 15 percentage points. That would be his biggest win in a primary outside his home state of Vermont and its neighbor New Hampshire. (He’s had bigger wins in caucuses.)

Sanders’s West Virginia strength rests in large part on the state’s lack of racial diversity. It is 93 percent non-Hispanic white, the third-highest share of any state. The only other states where at least 90 percent of the population identifies as non-Hispanic white are Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Sanders won each of those by at least 20 percentage points. Meanwhile, Clinton’s strongest supporters have been black voters, and just 3 percent of West Virginia’s population is non-Hispanic black.

The other key pro-Sanders factor in West Virginia: It holds a semiclosed primary, meaning that unaffiliated voters can take part in either party’s primary. Sanders has done exceedingly well among voters who identify as independent,1 according to exit polls. Just last week in Indiana, for example, he lost among self-identified Democrats by 6 percentage points and won self-identified independents by 44 points.


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All in all, a lot of signs point to a Sanders win in West Virginia.2 Unfortunately for Sanders, even the best projections won’t allow him to cut too deeply into Clinton’s lead of 285 elected delegates. Delegates are allocated proportionally in all Democratic primaries, and just 29 are up for grabs in West Virginia. So even if Sanders wins by 15 percentage points, he’ll close the gap with Clinton by only four delegates.

Footnotes

  1. Party identification (what you call yourself) is not the same thing as party registration (your official party status), though the two are related.

  2. Here’s one complicating factor, though: Paul Farrell Jr., a Huntington lawyer, will also be on the ballot. In 2016, minor candidates have done well in areas, like West Virginia, with large numbers of conservative Democrats. I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that Farrell could pick up some anti-Clinton votes that might otherwise go to Sanders. He could even pick up some delegates.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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