It’s an emblematically annoying ending to the Democratic campaign, one that reflects both the acrimony between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and the fact that Clinton, in the end, is winning her party’s nomination by every available measure.
At 8:20 p.m. EDT on Monday night, The Associated Press declared Clinton to be the presumptive Democratic nominee based on her having accumulated 1,812 elected (pledged) delegates and 571 superdelegates, for 2,383 total delegates, exactly the number needed to win the nomination. In the overwhelming likelihood that Clinton’s nomination is confirmed at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia next month, she will officially become the first woman nominated for president by a major American political party.
In a statement released after the AP’s call, the Sanders campaign argued that the media is wrong to declare Clinton the presumptive nominee by including superdelegates, correctly pointing out that superdelegates can change their vote up until the convention, as several dozen superdelegates did in flipping from Clinton to Barack Obama in 2008. FiveThirtyEight’s pledged delegate count, which does not include superdelegates, has Clinton with 1,8111 pledged delegates to 1,526 for Sanders. The Sanders campaign said its “job from now until the convention is to convince superdelegates that Bernie is by far the strongest candidate against Donald Trump.”
But Sanders’s statement — and the AP’s call — distract from the larger point. Clinton will be the Democratic nominee because substantially more Democrats have voted for her. In addition to her elected delegate majority, she’s received approximately 13.5 million votes so far in primaries and caucuses, compared with 10.5 million for Sanders.
There also isn’t much sign of forward momentum for Sanders, after a strong run of contests in late March and early April. Over the past seven weeks, from the New York primary on April 19 through Puerto Rico on Sunday, Clinton has won 505 pledged delegates compared with 428 for Sanders. Her current lead in our national polling average, 14.4 percentage points, is the widest it has been since mid-February.
On Tuesday, Clinton will almost certainly clinch majorities of elected delegates and the popular vote. Suppose that Sanders, who currently trails Clinton by a narrow 5 percentage points in our California polling average, were to win the state by 20 percentage points instead. Even in that case, Sanders would still trail Clinton nationally by almost 200 elected delegates and about 2 million votes, depending on turnout in California.
In fact, Clinton can still win an elected delegate majority provided that she wins just 215 of the remaining 714 pledged delegates available Tuesday and in the District of Columbia’s primary next week, or 30 percent. Because Democratic delegate allocations are highly proportional to the vote share in each state, that means she’d need only about 30 percent of the vote. Thus, even if Sanders won every remaining contest 70-30 — by 40 percentage points — he’d still only roughly tie Clinton in pledged delegates and even then would very probably still trail her in the popular vote.
There are not many plausible arrangements under which Sanders would have become the Democratic nominee. He’s been aided by caucuses, which have much lower voter participation. He’d trail even if all states had open primaries, which are generally favorable to Sanders. If the Democratic race were contested under Republican rules, with no superdelegates but winner-take-all delegate allocations in states such as Florida and Ohio, Clinton would have clinched the nomination long ago. Clinton has won in those states where the turnout demographics most closely resemble those of the Democratic Party as a whole.
So it’s not just that Sanders can win only if a huge number of superdelegates flip their vote to him.2 He can win only if a huge number of superdelegates who have committed to Clinton flip their vote against her, despite her having won a clear majority of votes and elected delegates, thereby overturning the popular will.
But the AP’s “call” of the race, which has been confirmed by several other news organizations, means that superdelegates, rather than elected delegates, will have put Clinton over the top, removing some of the theatrics from Tuesday night’s elections. Clinton had scheduled a “victory rally” in Brooklyn in New York on Tuesday night, on the assumption that the networks would call the race for her on the basis of elected delegates in New Jersey, where Clinton is heavily favored and where polls close at 8 p.m. EDT. (Clinton will almost certainly clinch a pledged delegate majority once the first batch of votes is reported in California late Tuesday night, but that may not be an event that the networks commemorate or that viewers stay awake for.)
The early call could also have somewhat unpredictable effects on Tuesday’s turnout and results. It probably won’t matter much in California, where many or most votes are cast by mail and cast early, but it could matter in New Jersey and in smaller contests such as South Dakota and New Mexico.
In the end, none of this will be enough to affect the outcome of the Democratic nomination, which has been fairly obvious since March. But Clinton needs support from Sanders voters or she could face a close call in the general election against Donald Trump. Any sense from Sanders or his voters that the system was “rigged” in her favor or that she won the nomination illegitimately — however ill-informed — could be harmful to her at the margin.
Still, even if the final 36 hours of the campaign don’t quite go as Clinton would have scripted them, she’s going to win the nomination and is the betting favorite to become the next president. Neither she nor Sanders, who has run a good campaign, has much to complain about.