Hillary Clinton may have had a sense of déjà vu. Eight years ago, after being ahead all night in Missouri’s Democratic presidential primary — the Associated Press erroneously called the state for Clinton — she lost after Barack Obama surged ahead with late-reporting votes from St. Louis. This time around, the shoe was on the other foot. Late Tuesday night, Bernie Sanders led Clinton by about 2 percentage points in Missouri. But Clinton pulled ahead after midnight on votes from St. Louis City and St. Louis County.
Clinton has not yet been declared the winner in Missouri, but she leads Sanders 49.6 percent to 49.4 percent in unofficial results. A win there would complete a 5-for-5 evening for her: Clinton won Illinois narrowly and Florida, Ohio and North Carolina emphatically. She was already likely to be the Democratic nominee, but she became more likely after what was perhaps the best evening of her campaign.
It’s not that Sanders had a terrible night. OK, losing Florida and Ohio by such large margins wasn’t good. But because of the Democrats’ proportional delegate rules, losing Missouri by a few thousand votes would make essentially no difference to his delegate count versus winning it by the same margin. Sanders’s narrow loss in Illinois was pretty respectable given that polls had once shown Clinton with a giant lead there. And Sanders lost North Carolina by only 14 percentage points. I’m not being sarcastic or damning with faint praise: If Sanders had lost the rest of the South by 14 points instead of margins that were sometimes 40 points or more, his path to the nomination would be considerably more viable. Sanders seems to be making progress with African-American voters.
But a night that wasn’t quite as bad as it seems wasn’t what Sanders needed. Even a pretty good night wouldn’t have mattered for him all that much. Instead, he needed a stupendous night that redefined the campaign. Big wins in Missouri, Illinois or Ohio might have done that; so might have making Clinton sweat in North Carolina or Florida. Sanders didn’t come close to passing that admittedly high bar.
I’m intrigued by the parallels to the 2008 campaign perhaps because it’s where FiveThirtyEight cut its teeth. I spent a lot of time in the spring of 2008 arguing that Obama’s lead in elected delegates would be hard for Clinton to overcome. But Clinton’s lead over Sanders is much larger than Obama’s was over Clinton at a comparable stage of the race. At the end of February 2008, after a favorable run of states for Obama, he led Clinton by approximately 100 elected delegates. Clinton’s lead is much larger this year.1 Clinton entered Tuesday’s contests ahead of Sanders by approximately 220 elected delegates. But she’ll net approximately 70 delegates from Florida, 20 from Ohio, 15 from North Carolina and a handful from Illinois and Missouri. That will expand her advantage to something like 325 elected delegates.
Sanders will need to win about 58 percent of the remaining 2,000 or so elected delegates to tie Clinton. Since the Democrats allot delegates proportionally, that means he’d need to win about 58 percent of the vote in the average remaining state to Clinton’s 42 percent, meaning he’d need to beat Clinton by around 16 points the rest of the way. Sanders would also have to overcome Clinton’s huge lead in superdelegates, although that’s probably the least of his worries. (If Clinton goes from winning the average state by double digits to losing it by the same margin, something cataclysmic will have had to have happened, likely sending her superdelegates scurrying for the exits.)
The second half of the calendar appears more favorable to Sanders than the states that have voted so far. Pretty much all of the South has voted, other than Maryland (if you consider it a Southern state), so Clinton doesn’t have many more delegates to rack up there. Not very much of the West has voted, and it will probably be a good region for Sanders. New York has lots of delegates, and could be interesting for Sanders, as could California. Pennsylvania could theoretically be a good state for Sanders, although it appears less promising for him after Clinton’s big win in Ohio.
Sanders can’t afford to merely come close in these states, as he did on Tuesday. Nor would narrow wins suffice. He needs to win these states going away to make up for his delegate disadvantage.
There’s no particular reason to expect he will do so. Instead, the Democratic race appears fairly static and fairly predictable along demographic lines. Even after Sanders’s dramatic, poll-defying win in Michigan last week, few Democratic voters decided upon or changed their vote this week, according to exit polls, and those who did broke about evenly between Clinton and Sanders. Polling averages quite accurately predicted the outcomes in the Democratic race on Tuesday, allaying the concern (one which worried us a lot!) that Democrats were experiencing some sort of existential polling crisis.
We’re fond of sports metaphors here at FiveThirtyEight. If the Republican race is Calvinball, with everyone making up the rules as they go along, the Democratic race is more like — zzzzzzz — golf. Clinton entered Tuesday night with the equivalent of a four-stroke lead with four holes to play. Then on the 15th hole, when Sanders already needed a minor miracle, she birdied while Sanders bogied. It’s not that it’s mathematically impossible for Sanders to win; Clinton could have some sort of epic meltdown. But she controls her own fate while Sanders doesn’t really control his, and she has quite a lot of tolerance for error.
Sanders has run a good campaign, and the fact that he ran competitively with Clinton in diverse states such as Michigan, Missouri and Illinois is more impressive in many ways than his early successes in Iowa and New Hampshire. But around 15 million Democrats have voted and, simply put, more of them seem to want Clinton as their nominee.
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