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Election Update: Sanders Needs Something Extraordinary To Happen

The FiveThirtyEight primary model is back on after incorporating the results from “Triple M Tuesday”, in which Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Washington, Idaho, North Dakota and Democrats Abroad voted. But you may have hardly noticed the change.

That’s because the model was already pretty certain that former Vice President Joe Biden would win a majority of pledged delegates based on his lead so far, as well as polls in those states in addition to states set to vote later this month. Because the results from last night largely matched our forecast, the forecast is essentially unchanged.

But to back up a bit: If Super Tuesday was a good day for Biden, everything since then — including the results from last night — have been great for him. The model expected Biden to get a bounce from Super Tuesday, but the bounce has actually been a bit larger than the model expected, with Biden having claimed a 17-point lead in national polls while also dominating the polls in upcoming states. The results of Tuesday’s contests were largely consistent with the polls, too. As of Wednesday afternoon — with results not yet officially finalized — Biden leads in Michigan by 17 percentage points, in Missouri by 26 points and in Mississippi by a whopping 66 points, where Sanders looks as though he may fall just below the 15 percent threshold required to win statewide delegates.

Biden also won Idaho, although he lost North Dakota, whose party-run primary, with a limited number of voting sites and short voting hours, resulted in very low turnout, which helped Sen. Bernie Sanders as he overperforms in caucuses relative to primaries. So going forward, the model will treat party-run primaries — which are also set to take place in Alaska, Hawaii and Kansas — as being essentially halfway in between primaries and caucuses, boostingSanders’s odds in those states.

In two other states, results are still really incomplete. First, Washington, where Sanders is probably in trouble. He led by a meager 0.2 percentage point margin in the initial vote reported out of Washington on Tuesday night, which consists of ballots that were mailed in some time ago. However, it is likely that Biden will gain ground in Washington from this point forward. That’s because ballots returned later on will more fully reflect Biden’s surge over the past few weeks.

It’s a similar situation in California, another vote-by-mail state, where Sanders’s lead has fallen to 6.7 percentage points after having been 8.7 points in initial returns on election night. But based on the pattern of returns in California, we came up with a formula to estimate what the remaining ballots will look like in Washington. Specifically, the formula is based on the age of each candidate’s voters, and when his voters said they made up their minds, according to the Washington exit poll. Usually, candidates with younger supporters (such as Sanders) tend to see their support grow as additional returns are counted because younger voters are more likely to wait to send in their ballot. However, the exit polls also show Biden having done much better with voters who made up their minds in the last few days, and this consideration will likely outweigh the fact that Biden’s supporters are older.

Based on this formula, our best guess is that Biden will eventually win Washington by around 3 percentage points, which would closely match pre-election polls there. The Washington results used by the model reflect this adjustment, and assume (consistent with betting markets) that there’s an 80 percent chance that Biden eventually wins Washington.

For the Democrats Abroad primary, no results have yet been officially reported, and Democrats Abroad has not promised to release any until March 23, even though the voting window closed yesterday. For the time being, we are relying on scattered reports of precinct-level returns, which show Sanders well ahead, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren actually in second place ahead of Biden. (Keep in mind that some global locations held their primaries before Warren dropped out.) These may or may not be representative of the final results, but since Sanders overwhelmingly won Democrats Abroad in 2016, we think it’s reasonably likely that he does so again.

Overall, based on results as of late Wednesday morning in Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho and North Dakota, our adjusted results in Washington, and the unofficial, partial results in Democrats Abroad, we show Biden having won 215 delegates last night, Sanders 145 delegates and other candidates 5 delegates. That’s very close to our projections before the evening began.

Biden likely gained 70 more delegates than Sanders

Estimated delegate counts based on results as of 11 a.m. on March 11

State Biden Sanders other
Michigan 73 52 0
Washington* 45 42 2
Missouri 44 24 0
Mississippi 34 2 0
Idaho 11 9 0
North Dakota 6 8 0
Democrats Abroad† 2 8 3
Total 215 145 5

* Washington results reflect an adjustment as Biden is expected to gain ground as more ballots are returned.
† Democrats Abroad results are based on a limited sample of partial, unofficial returns.

In all other states, we use results “as is” based on reports through the late morning of March 11.

And when combined with states that voted before Tuesday, Biden has an overall lead of around 150 pledged delegates.

Biden leads by about 150 delegates

Estimated delegate counts based on results as of 11 a.m. on March 11

Candidate Before March 10 After March 10 Current
estimated total
Biden 720 215 935
Sanders 640 145 785
Warren 61 2 63
Bloomberg 53 3 56
Buttigieg 18 0 18
Klobuchar 5 0 5
Gabbard 2 0 2

Washington results reflect an adjustment as Biden is expected to gain ground as more ballots are returned. Democrats Abroad results are based on a limited sample of partial, unofficial returns. In all other states, we use results “as is” based on reports through the late morning of March 11.

One hundred and fifty delegates might not sound like much, but this is a nontrivial lead for Biden. But as Nate Cohn of The New York Times’s The Upshot points out, the delegate math is not actually Sanders’s biggest problem. If the national race were tied going-forward, Sanders would have his work cut out for him, but he would still have a puncher’s chance at the nomination despite trailing in the delegate count so far.

Rather, Sanders’s biggest problem is that he’s down 15 to 20 points nationally, a result reflected not only in the national polls but also in the results from states such as Michigan. That means Sanders tends to lose more ground every time a new set of states votes.

That’s especially likely to be a problem for him over the next two weeks, with Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Arizona set to vote on March 17, and Georgia on the schedule for March 24. Even under the best of circumstances, these would not be a great set of states for Sanders. He’s almost certain to lose badly in Florida and Georgia, as he has elsewhere in the South. Ohio and Illinois look like longshots for Sanders, too, given the results in Michigan. Arizona might theoretically be a good state for Sanders, but he’s well behind in the only recent poll there.

And by the time these states have finished voting, the delegate math will be a major problem for Sanders, and even a massive late surge would probably not be enough to help him win the nomination.

Put another way, Sanders needs something like a 20-point surge within the next week just to remain competitive for the nomination, and even then it would still be an uphill battle for him. And he needs it at a time when Biden potentially stands to gain more ground because of his strong results last night; states such as Michigan could potentially give Biden a further bounce in the polls. Thus, even a strong debate on Sunday for Sanders might not be enough and just merely offset further momentum Biden gained from Tuesday.

The model does not account for any possibility that Biden drops out. (It assumes that candidates will not drop out so long as they remain either the delegate leader or the leader in national polls.) Actuarially speaking, there is some small chance that Biden could have to leave the race because of a scandal, a health problem, and so on; we don’t try to estimate this possibility. And I don’t mean to keep dwelling on these possibilities. But we’re at the point now where if Biden were to lose the nomination, it would likely require something highly out of the ordinary to happen.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.