Ignore him at your own peril: Why Bernie Sanders may defy all predictions to win the Democratic nomination

By Madhav Krishnan V

In the US Democratic presidential primaries so far, 21 out of 50 states have cast their votes to choose their presidential nominee. Hillary Clinton has won 12 states and Bernie Sanders has won nine. Sounds like a close race? Not according the to the US mainstream media.

According to major TV news outlets, the race is over and it is just a question of when Sanders will drop out. News room pundits have followed this up with subtle hints that he should stop hurting the presumptive nominee in the general election by continuing to stay in the race. The claim is that Clinton has such a big lead among delegates that Sanders can never hope to catch up. With super delegates included they say, Clinton leads Sanders 1,217 delegates to 564 delegates, with 2,383 delegates needed to win the nomination.

Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders. AP

Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders. AP

To undestand the media narrative, one has to first know how the US party nominations work. The candidate is not selected by direct voting. Instead, each state has a certain number of delegates awarded to it by the Democratic party based on the size of the state. These delegates are the ones who will elect a nominee. Delegates are of two types: Pledged delegates who are awarded based on vote share during the primaries and unpledged delegates or the so called super delegates. These delegates are basically party insiders, elected representatives as well as members of the Democratic National Committee. The super delegates are free to vote for anyone they wish regardless of who the public votes for.

The system of super delegates, which has often been criticised as being undemocratic, was set up by the Democratic party in 1984 to give the party more say in who the nominee will be. But here comes the catch, these super delegates only cast their vote at the Democratic convention in July after all the primaries are done.

Right now their support of Clinton is not binding. So, if Sanders does well among the pledged delegates the super delegates can easily change their minds and vote for him instead. In fact, this is precisely what happened to Clinton in 2008 against Obama. She had a big lead over Obama among super delegates, which vanished by the time the primaries were over.

But to be fair, over 450 of the 709 super delegates have publicly declared their support for Clinton in the convention, far more than in 2008, so Sanders will have to convert a significantly larger number.

So will the super delegates want to vote for Sanders in July? Highly unlikely as the democratic party establishment is completely behind Clinton, but they might not have a choice. If Sanders wins the pledged delegate count by any margin that cannot be considered a tie, it will be political suicide for the democratic party to overturn the people's decision and alienate their own base before the general election. They simply cannot do it without risking losing the Presidential race.

So, if we strip away the super delegates who probably won't matter that much, Clinton leads sanders 757 to 543. A significant lead but not an insurmountable one. And while Clinton looks good on paper, her position might not be as strong as these numbers indicate. Look at the trajectory of the contest so far.

When Sanders announced his candidacy, no one outside of Vermont even knew who he was. He was polling at 10 per cent nationally to Clinton's 60 per cent. He was a 74-year-old, self-declared Democratic socialist Jew. The media immediately dismmised him as a threat to Clinton, who looked set to sweep the nomination.

But, the more people are exposed to Bernie Sanders, the better he seems to do. In every demographic he keeps improving his popularity as time passes. His supporters have far more energy that Clinton's and he is winning younger voters overwhelmingly. He has drawn bigger crowds than Obama did in 2008, he has had more campaign contributions at this point than any presidential candidate. He outraised Clinton by 10 million dollars in February and is likely to continue outraising her. Right now, some polls have shown him ahead nationally even though a majority of pollsters still favour Clinton — but by smaller margins than before.

There are two main reasons for Sanders' success. He has better favourability ratings of the two candidates. Polls show Sanders beats Clinton by miles when it comes to being seen as honest and trustworthy and authentic. He is one of the few politicians whose favourability rating is higher than his unfavourability rating.

Secondly, his policy positions have wide public support, be it on public health care, getting money out of politics or a broken criminal justice system. He offers change while Clinton represents the status quo. Clinton has been forced to move to the Left on many issues by Sanders, including having to renouce the TPP, a trade deal which she herself championed at one time. Whether this will help her or not remains to be seen.

But when it comes to electability, even people who vote for Sanders actually believe Clinton will be the nominee. This is her biggest advantage. Many voters like Sanders's positions, but do not believe he can win, so they will vote for Clinton. If she can slow down the votes she is bleeding to Sanders long enough, she will win the nomination. But this is by no means a sure thing. Her strongest ally is the clearly biased media, which is itching to write Sanders off and to project Clinton as the eventual nominee.

A study after four months of Sanders's campaign showed that he got eight minutes of evening news coverage to Clinton's 80. The print media has not been much better. Fair.org, a media watchdog recently reported that the Washington Post ran 16 negative articles about Sanders in 16 hours after his acrimonious debate with Clinton in Flint. The Wall Street Journal ran a piece in September titled 'Price tag of Sanders's proposals: 18 trillion'. The article goes on to say that this will be over a 10 year period with $15 trillion being spent on health care, leaving the majority of of readers who just see the headlines misinformed. The article cited from a study by economist Gerald Friedman, but conveniently left out the conclusion of his study. Friedman concluded that under the current system the spending will be $20 trillion and Sanders's plan will actually save $5 trillion dollars over a decade.

Now, there are economists on both sides of Friedman's study, but the reporting bias is evident.

Despite all this though, Sanders has done remarkably well, mostly owing to social media campaigning, which circumvents mainstream media. But will he be able to make up the advantage Clinton has and in time to win the nomination?

To answer that, one has to look at the states that Clinton has and the demographics in which she is doing well. Her lead comes from the delegate-rich big southern states where she beat Sanders by huge margins largely due to the African-American vote which have voted in her favour at almost 80 per cent. It is no accident that these are the states where primaries are held first. These traditionally conservative states were put early on the calendar to stop insurgent non-establishment candidates from winning the nomination.

But there are not many southern states left. Clinton will not have such a favourable demographic for the rest of the race and many big liberal states such as New York and California offer Sanders a chance to significantly close the gap if he can hang on long enough.

For that to work he has to look like a viable candidate and win a few states and not lose too badly in others. He has to convince people that he is indeed electable, even more electable that Clinton. There is definitely an argument to be made for that. The majority of general election head-to-head polling show Sanders beating Republicans by larger margins than Clinton.

The reason for this is that Sanders does far better than Clinton among independents. A case in point is the stunning upset in Michigan. Polls had Clinton far ahead, some as much as 30 points. The average lead was around 20 points from various polls going in, causing a reputed pollster to claim that Sanders's chances of losing were 99 per cent. He won by two points. Michigan has open primaries where independent voters are allowed to vote, and Sanders won two-thirds of the independent vote.

Moreover, Clinton's big wins are in states where the Democrats will not win the general election, but Sanders is by and large winning the swing states. In some states such as Maine, voter turn out was unprecedented and he won by a huge margin. A high voter turn out will be essential for the Democrats in the general elections and first time voters seem to love Bernie.

The Michigan win comes at just at the right time for Sanders because the next big challange on the calendar is March 15, when five big states are going to the polls: Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri and Illinois, and he is trailing by double digits in the polls. A big loss here could seriously dent his campaign, but he has just demonstrated that he can outperform the polls. Of the five, only Florida is a closed primary where independents cannot vote. If he can survive March 15, the calendar will be filled with states he is expected to do well in and he can begin to seriously chip away at Clinton's lead.

Another area he has to do better in is the African-American vote. There are some positive signs from Michigan, where he won 30 per cent of the African-American vote. This is still losing badly, but it's better than he has done before. Clinton has been heavly propped up by her huge margins in this group. If he manages to make headway here, Clinton will be in serious trouble.

Updated Date: Mar 10, 2016 10:38 AM

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