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The System Isn’t ‘Rigged’ Against Sanders

A week ago, New York Daily News columnist and Bernie Sanders supporter Shaun King tweeted the following about the Democratic caucuses in Washington, which took place in late March:

Whether King intended it or not, he implied that caucuses — which often require hours of participation and mean lower turnout — are representative of what would happen if a larger electorate had its say. Well, a funny thing happened in Washington on Tuesday: The state held a mail-in, beauty-contest primary — so voting was easy, but no delegates were at stake. (The Associated Press has declared Hillary Clinton the winner.) The results are still being finalized, but Clinton leads by about 6 percentage points with more than 700,000 votes counted. Sanders won the Washington caucuses, which had 230,000 participants, by 46 percentage points.

So, turnout was much higher in the Washington primary than in the caucuses, and Clinton did much better. Something similar happened in Nebraska, where Clinton lost the early March caucuses by 14 percentage points and won the early May primary, in which no delegates were awarded, by 7 points.

Nebraska and Washington are part of a pattern. As Sanders fans claim that the Democratic primary system is rigged against their candidate and that Sanders wins when turnout is higher, they fail to point out that Sanders has benefited tremendously from low-turnout caucuses. Indeed, if all the caucuses were primaries, Clinton would be winning the Democratic nomination by an even wider margin than she is now.

Let’s start out with the real-world numbers. Here are the delegate and vote totals by contest, including caucuses and primaries, so far:

POPULAR VOTE (THOUSANDS) PLEDGED DELEGATES
STATE CAUCUS CLOSED WINNER CLINTON SANDERS CLINTON SANDERS
Iowa Clinton +0 85 85 23 21
N.H. Sanders +22 95 152 9 15
Nevada Clinton +5 44 40 20 15
South Carolina Clinton +47 272 96 39 14
Alabama Clinton +59 309 76 44 9
Am. Samoa Clinton +43 <1 <1 4 2
Arkansas Clinton +36 146 66 22 10
Georgia Clinton +43 546 216 73 29
Massachusetts Clinton +1 607 590 46 45
Oklahoma Sanders +10 139 174 17 21
Tennessee Clinton +34 246 121 44 23
Texas Clinton +32 936 477 147 75
Vermont Sanders +72 18 116 0 16
Virginia Clinton +29 505 276 62 33
Colorado Sanders +19 50 73 25 41
Minnesota Sanders +23 78 126 31 46
Louisiana Clinton +48 222 72 37 14
Nebraska Sanders +14 14 19 10 15
Kansas Sanders +35 13 26 10 23
Maine Sanders +29 16 30 8 17
Michigan Sanders +1 582 599 63 67
Mississippi Clinton +66 187 38 31 5
N. Marianas Clinton +20 <1 <1 4 2
Florida Clinton +31 1,101 569 141 73
Illinois Clinton +2 1,040 999 79 77
Missouri Clinton +0 312 311 36 35
North Carolina Clinton +14 623 467 60 47
Ohio Clinton +13 697 535 81 62
Dems abroad Sanders +38 11 24 4 9
Arizona Clinton +15 262 193 42 33
Utah Sanders +59 15 60 6 27
Idaho Sanders +57 5 19 5 18
Hawaii Sanders +40 10 24 8 17
Washington Sanders +46 62 167 27 74
Alaska Sanders +59 2 8 3 13
Wisconsin Sanders +14 434 570 38 48
Wyoming Sanders +11 3 4 7 7
New York Clinton +16 1,134 820 139 108
Pennsylvania Clinton +12 922 722 106 83
Rhode Island Sanders +12 53 67 11 13
Connecticut Clinton +5 170 152 28 27
Delaware Clinton +21 56 37 12 9
Maryland Clinton +29 573 310 61 34
Indiana Sanders +5 303 335 39 44
Guam Clinton +19 1 1 4 3
West Virginia Sanders +16 86 123 11 18
Kentucky Clinton +0 213 211 28 27
Oregon Sanders +13 264 347 26 35
Total Clinton +12 13,463 10,544 1,771 1,499
Democratic votes and delegates based on actual results

Popular vote in Iowa, Nevada, Maine, Washington and Wyoming is estimated based on overall turnout.

Sources: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, The Green Papers, U.S. Elections Project

Counting only caucuses, Sanders has won 63 percent of the vote, 64 percent of the delegates and 11 of the 16 contests. In doing so, he has earned 341 elected delegates, compared with Clinton’s 195 delegates, for a margin of 146 delegates. These caucuses have had approximately1 1.1 million participants. As a point of comparison, turnout in the caucuses has been only about 13 percent of the total number of votes President Obama got in the 2012 presidential election in these states.2

Sanders has done far worse in the states that have held primaries. Counting just primaries, including Tuesday’s in Washington,3 Sanders has won only 42 percent of the vote, 42 percent of delegates and 10 of the 34 statewide contests.4 Clinton earned 1,576 elected delegates, compared with Sanders’s 1,158, for a margin of 418. The turnout in these contests has been far higher than in the caucuses, with a little more than 24 million votes cast. That’s about 49 percent of the total number of votes Obama got in the 2012 election in these states.5

Now, it is fair to point out that the caucuses have taken place in states that are demographically different than the primary states. Caucus states in 2016 are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly rural compared with primary states. Still, these differences don’t come close to explaining the differences in results between the caucuses and primaries so far. We can look to Nebraska and Washington as two examples of the disparity. Of course, one could argue that because no delegates were up for grabs in those states’ primaries, the campaigns didn’t really compete for residents’ votes and therefore those contests aren’t representative of what a truly competitive primary would look like there. Fortunately, because the vote in the Democratic primary has largely broken down along demographic lines, we can use statistical models to approximate what would happen if states that held caucuses had held primaries instead.

At various times, we’ve tried using demographics to model the vote in the Democratic nomination contest so far. The model considers each 2016 contest and controls for (i) the black and Hispanic share of the Democratic vote in that state in the 2008 general election, (ii) whether that primary or caucus is “open” to independent voters unaffiliated with a political party, and (iii) the margin in national primary polls at the time the contest is held. This model estimates that holding caucuses instead of primaries is a massive advantage for Sanders. In fact, Clinton would do about 20 to 25 percentage points better relative to Sanders if a state changed from a caucus to a primary, the model estimates.

Here’s how we project each caucus would have gone if a primary had been held instead:6

POPULAR VOTE (THOUSANDS) PLEDGED DELEGATES
STATE CLOSED WINNER CLINTON SANDERS CLINTON SANDERS
Iowa Clinton +24 301 182 27 17
Nevada Clinton +29 185 101 23 12
Am. Samoa Clinton +60 4 1 5 1
Colorado Clinton +6 331 295 35 31
Minnesota Clinton +1 402 394 39 38
Nebraska Clinton +7 79 70 13 12
Kansas Sanders +12 91 116 15 18
Maine Sanders +5 92 102 12 13
N. Marianas Clinton +39 3 1 4 2
Utah Sanders +39 52 120 10 23
Idaho Sanders +37 33 72 7 16
Hawaii Sanders +17 63 88 10 15
Washington Clinton +6 471 418 53 48
Alaska Sanders +40 17 40 5 11
Wyoming Clinton +13 19 15 8 6
Guam Clinton +42 10 4 5 2
Current primary states Clinton +14 13,064 9,861 1,576 1,158
Total Clinton +12 15,216 11,880 1,847 1,423
Projected Democratic results if caucus states had held primaries

Sanders fans have claimed that because caucuses have lower turnout the current national caucus and primary vote underrates how well Sanders is doing. In fact, the opposite is true. When we switch all caucuses over to primaries, Sanders actually does worse. Clinton’s lead in the popular vote would grow from 2.9 to 3.3 million votes. Moreover, her edge in elected delegates would expand significantly.7 Instead of her current lead of 272 elected delegates, Clinton would be ahead by 424.8 Some states that were won by Sanders in caucuses, including Colorado and Minnesota, would be won by Clinton in primaries, according to our calculations.

In fact, counting the 537 superdelegates The Associated Press currently gives Clinton, she would likely have 2,384 total delegates if every state had held a primary. That’s one more than necessary to clinch the nomination.

But what would happen if every state held a primary that was open to independent voters? Independent voters, after all, have been among Sanders’s strongest groups, and Sanders supporters have consistently cited closed contests as evidence the game is rigged. We can rerun the same regression as above but estimate what would happen if all the primaries are open to unaffiliated voters.

POPULAR VOTE (THOUSANDS) PLEDGED DELEGATES
STATE WINNER CLINTON SANDERS CLINTON SANDERS
Iowa Clinton +24 301 182 27 17
Nevada Clinton +18 188 130 21 14
Am. Samoa Clinton +60 4 1 5 1
Colorado Sanders +6 331 373 31 35
Minnesota Clinton +1 402 394 39 38
Louisiana Clinton +39 240 100 36 15
Nebraska Sanders +5 79 88 12 13
Kansas Sanders +23 90 144 13 20
Maine Sanders +16 91 127 10 15
N. Marianas Clinton +30 3 2 4 2
Florida Clinton +20 1,159 760 129 85
Arizona Clinton +4 267 248 39 36
Utah Sanders +39 52 120 10 23
Idaho Sanders +37 33 72 7 16
Hawaii Sanders +17 63 88 10 15
Washington Clinton +6 471 418 53 48
Alaska Sanders +50 16 48 4 12
Wyoming Clinton +2 19 19 7 7
New York Clinton +4 1,146 1,049 129 118
Pennsylvania Clinton +0 915 907 95 94
Connecticut Sanders +6 176 200 26 29
Delaware Clinton +9 58 49 11 10
Maryland Clinton +18 581 399 56 39
Guam Clinton +31 11 6 5 2
Kentucky Sanders +10 205 256 24 31
Oregon Sanders +25 251 418 23 38
Current open primary states Clinton +12 8,146 6,429 956 715
Total Clinton +8 15,298 13,024 1,782 1,488
Projected results if every state had held an open primary

An “open” primary allows the participation of voters not registered with either major political party.

Clinton’s margin in the national popular vote shrinks to about 8 percentage points (from 12). That’s because opening a primary to independent voters shrinks Clinton’s margin in a state by about 10 percentage points on average, according to the model. Sanders would also project to win Connecticut and Kentucky, which he lost in the real world when they held closed primaries.

Still, this wouldn’t make all that much difference. Just 11 states9 held closed primaries, so the national vote is mostly reflective of a process open to unaffiliated voters. Indeed, Clinton has won 14 primaries10 open to independent voters, while Sanders has won nine.

In fact, if all states held primaries open to independents — instead of closed primaries, or caucuses of any kind — Clinton might have a larger lead in elected delegates than she does now. The model indicates that Clinton would have a lead of 294 elected delegates, compared with the 272 she holds now. That’s not a huge difference, but it means that Clinton has been hurt at least as much by caucuses as Sanders has been hurt by closed primaries.


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What would happen if the primary system conformed to each candidate’s best-case scenario? (All closed primaries for Clinton and all caucuses open to independent voters for Sanders.) If every state held a closed primary, Clinton would beat Sanders by 19 percentage points and have a 654 elected delegate advantage, we estimate. If, however, each state held an open caucus, Sanders would beat Clinton by 22 percentage points nationwide and have a 496 elected delegate lead. Of course, neither of those scenarios would happen.

Realistically, if you throw everything together, the math suggests that Sanders doesn’t have much to complain about. If the Democratic nomination were open to as many Democrats as possible — through closed primaries — Clinton would be dominating Sanders. And if the nomination were open to as many voters as possible — through open primaries — she’d still be winning.

Footnotes

  1. Some states, such as Nevada, do not release official turnout totals. In states without official totals, approximations were released. We used these approximations as compiled by Michael McDonald at the United States Elections Project.

  2. We exclude territories from this estimate because they don’t vote in general elections.

  3. The Washington count is as of Thursday morning, Eastern time.

  4. This includes the Nebraska primary for which no delegates were awarded.

  5. We exclude the Democrats Abroad primary because there is no equivalent contest in the general election.

  6. In Washington and Nebraska, which actually held a primary in addition to a caucus, we used the primary results instead of the model to estimate Clinton’s and Sanders’s vote shares, although we used the model to estimate what turnout would have been.

  7. Why does Clinton’s delegate lead expand so significantly while her margin in the popular vote does not? If a state changes from a caucus to a primary, Clinton does better and gains more delegates in these states. But caucuses have such small voter participation that they don’t really contribute much to the national vote total. According to our calculations, turnout typically goes up about three to four times when you move from a caucus to a primary. (This is based on a simple regression in which the dependent variable is turnout as ratio of Obama votes in the 2012 general election. The regression controls for whether independent voters can vote in the primary.) So, Clinton does better in the shift from caucuses to primaries, but we’re still adding a bunch of votes from more Sanders friendly states such as Colorado and Minnesota to the overall popular vote count. As a result, the national primary vote wouldn’t change — Clinton would win by 12 percentage points according to our calculation.

  8. In our projections of how caucus states would vote if they held a primary instead, delegates were allocated strictly proportionally.

  9. Including Nebraska.

  10. Including Washington.

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

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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