South Carolina has yet to vote, but there’s an even bigger prize lurking right around the corner. On March 3 — Super Tuesday — roughly one-third of Democrats nationwide will weigh in on the 2020 presidential race as 15 states and territories1 cast their ballots. We last checked in on who led polls of Super Tuesday states back in December; suffice it to say that things have changed. According to our primary forecast,2 Sen. Bernie Sanders is now favored to win a majority of Super Tuesday contests. But many of these races are still relatively wide open.
First things first: You can take it to the bank that Sanders will carry his home state of Vermont, where he has more than a 99 in 100 chance. He is also looking pretty solid in the three Western states that will vote on Super Tuesday: Colorado, Utah and, most importantly, California, which awards the most delegates of any state on the calendar. (More about delegates in a moment.) His chances in all three of these states are in the 5-in-6 to 8-in-9 range (or about 83 to 89 percent).
In the seven Southern states that will vote on Tuesday, however, Sanders is in for more of a fight. This is where former Vice President Joe Biden or former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg could notch some wins. In fact, Alabama is one of the few states where our model does not see Sanders as the front-runner; instead, Biden has a 3 in 5 chance to carry it. And Tennessee is a pure toss-up, as our model gives Sanders and Biden each a 2 in 5 chance. Oklahoma is also a tight three-way race: Our model says Sanders has a 1 in 3 chance, while Biden and Bloomberg each has a 3 in 10 chance. In Arkansas, North Carolina and Virginia, Sanders is a bit further ahead, but his chances are still less than 50 percent — meaning our model thinks it’s more likely that someone other than Sanders wins these states than that Sanders does. In Arkansas, Bloomberg is the most likely to be that “someone,” while in North Carolina and Virginia it’s Biden.
The Southern state where Sanders has the best odds (though they’re still just a smidge better than 1 in 2) is Texas — perhaps fittingly, since it arguably has more in common with the West than the South. Most notably, Texas is the only Southern Super Tuesday state with a sizable number of Latino voters, who overwhelmingly supported Sanders in Nevada. Most other Southern Super Tuesday states have bigger black populations, and black voters are generally split between Biden, Sanders and Bloomberg. (Note: black and Latino voters in different parts of the country didn’t all vote in lockstep in the 2016 Democratic primary — we’ll see on Tuesday whether similar patterns emerge.)
Elsewhere, Sanders is a solid favorite (2 in 3) in Maine and a weak one (2 in 5) in American Samoa, whose lack of polls and general uniqueness (it’s the only territory voting on Super Tuesday, it’s the only caucus, it’s culturally and demographically distinct from the mainland U.S., turnout is likely to be super low) make it hard to forecast. And he probably would have no trouble carrying Massachusetts or Minnesota … were they not the home states of two of his rivals. Sanders still has a solid shot (3 in 5) of carrying Massachusetts, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren is threatening with a 1 in 4 chance as well. Minnesota, meanwhile, is a toss-up between Sanders and Sen. Amy Klobuchar; each has nearly a 1 in 2 shot.
According to our model, it could be a long night for Warren and Klobuchar. If they don’t win their home states, they are unlikely to carry any others either. And things are even worse for former South Bend, Mayor, Pete Buttigieg, whose best chance at winning any state is his 1 in 12 chance in Arkansas.
But Super Tuesday isn’t only about wins. For the first time this year, a substantial number of pledged delegates will be at stake — 1,357 of them. And because Democrats allocate delegates in proportion with each candidate’s share of the vote, non-Sanders candidates can rack up plenty of delegates with strong second- or third-place showings. Here is the average number of delegates our forecast thinks each candidate will net from Super Tuesday.
It should be a good night for Sanders delegate-wise just as it should be in terms of votes; we’re forecasting him to take home 587 delegates. (But remember that’s just in the average model run: In some runs, he gets more; others, fewer.) But Biden and Bloomberg are also forecasted to get 305 and 211 delegates, respectively, especially from Southern states, since they are likely to perform strongly there even if they don’t win. However, Warren, Buttigieg and Klobuchar are further behind. Buttigieg nets a significant number of delegates only out of California, Klobuchar from Minnesota and Warren from three states (California, Texas and Massachusetts).
But these numbers could, and likely will, change. There is still just under a week before Super Tuesday — plenty of time for the race to shift, as we had a debate on Tuesday night and South Carolina votes on Saturday. And even small fluctuations in vote share can greatly affect the number of delegates each of these candidates gets. That’s because, in order to be eligible for any delegates from a state or district, a candidate must get at least 15 percent of the vote there, and many non-Sanders candidates are hovering right around 15 percent in many states. California is the perfect example. On average, we’re currently forecasting Biden to win 17 percent of the vote there statewide, Warren to win 14 percent of the vote, Bloomberg to win 13 percent of the vote and Buttigieg to win 10 percent of the vote. And because California is worth so many delegates, who gets 15 percent is really important! If those numbers turn out to be exactly right, only Biden and Sanders (whom we are forecasting to get 34 percent of the vote) would get a share of California’s 144 statewide delegates.3 However, even a minor deviation from our forecast (which would not be surprising at all) would be enough to scramble the picture, which is why, in the average FiveThirtyEight model run, Warren, Bloomberg and Buttigieg still get a fair number of delegates.4 That average is drawn from simulations where they get far more delegates, as well as ones where they get barely any.
Basically, anyone who is consistently topping 15 percent on Super Tuesday should get enough delegates out of the day to keep them in the race — even if they win few (or zero) states outright. How good the night truly is for Sanders actually probably rests more on the performance of the other candidates. If several collect hundreds of delegates, it could set us on a collision course for a contested convention. But on the other hand, if the non-Sanders vote is diffused among enough other candidates, it is also possible that Sanders is the only candidate who consistently clears 15 percent everywhere. In that case, Sanders could grab the lion’s share of Super Tuesday delegates — thus putting himself in a dominating position to claim the nomination.