Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg started with his warning: “If he goes and is the candidate, we will have Donald Trump for another four years.” Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg declared that most Americans don’t “see where they fit” if the choice was between Bloomberg or “a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil.” Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren piled on, saying her fellow progressive candidate “has a good start” but “his campaign relentlessly attacks everyone who asks a question.”
They all were talking about the importance of stopping Sen. Bernie Sanders from winning the Democratic presidential nomination. And yet, from Wednesday’s debate stage in Las Vegas after just two states have voted, they may have missed the point — that it might be already too late to stop him. Because Sanders is running away with Super Tuesday, less than two weeks before the March 3 primaries.
That is the takeaway from the latest edition of The Forecast, our exclusive election prediction model with partners 0ptimus and Decision Desk HQ that looks at polls, demographics, fundraising numbers, media hits and historical trends to determine the likelihood of each candidate winning the nomination. Right now, the political world is focusing on Nevada, where Sanders has opened up a double-digit lead and which votes Saturday. But his real triumph could come on Super Tuesday, when 14 states carrying nearly a third of the overall Democratic delegates will vote.
Sanders is projected by our model to pick up 634 delegates on March 3 — almost 300 more than his next closest opponent.
That would put the Democratic socialist on the inside track to securing an insurmountable delegate lead. Former Vice President Joe Biden finishes second in our Super Tuesday forecast, earning 352 delegates. He’s followed by Bloomberg at 192 — those results could change if his disastrous debate performance leads to a plunge in the polls — with Warren (116), Klobuchar (32) and Buttigieg (13) bringing up the rear in the March 3 states. Given that Democrats allocate delegates on a proportional basis by state and congressional district, rather than winner-take-all, a lead in the hundreds is exceedingly hard to lose.
Sanders is projected to win most of the March 3 states, including narrow triumphs over Biden in Texas and Bloomberg in North Carolina. But his expected bump comes largely on the strength of a huge advantage in California: We show him earning about 28 percent of the vote, with Biden at 16 percent. That would mean potentially a 116-delegate lead from California alone. But 0ptimus data scientist Alex Alduncin points out that even small changes can make a big difference: If some combination of Bloomberg, Warren and Buttigieg add a couple percentage points to jump over the 15 percent mark and start earning Golden State delegates, that eats into Sanders’ lead considerably.
Nothing is set in stone, particularly in this race. This biggest possible shift would be if a candidate (perhaps Biden or Sen. Amy Klobuchar) were to drop out before Super Tuesday. Particularly if Biden dropped out and the African American vote were to swing toward Bloomberg, he could become a real threat to Sanders.
“Who do they go for?” asks Mark Rom, a public policy professor at Georgetown University. “They may not be as liberal as Sanders … Bloomberg, they may think, ‘I’m going to trust him to be a competent leader.’” Adds Rebecca Katz, founder of the progressive firm New Deal Strategies: “The best thing going for Bloomberg would be for Biden to completely fade away.”
Conventional wisdom says it’s over, [but] conventional wisdom has been MIA since the summer of 2015.
Scott Tranter, CEO of 0ptimus
But it’s also worth remembering that early voting has already begun in several March 3 battlegrounds — including California, Texas and North Carolina. That means any momentum shifts to come in the next 10 days would be muted by millions of votes already cast, and the snapshot as of today shows Sanders as the candidate to beat.
“Conventional wisdom says it’s over,” says Scott Tranter, the CEO of 0ptimus and a Republican, although he admits, “conventional wisdom has been MIA since the summer of 2015.”
Still, it won’t be easy for Sanders, despite his strong start. He now has a 24 percent chance of securing the 1,991 delegates he needs to win the nomination outright. And, as we mentioned last week, The Forecast still predicts roughly a 50-50 chance that this election goes to a contested convention, with nobody getting a majority of the delegate. But even if Sanders doesn’t hit the magic number on the first ballot in Milwaukee in July, it’s highly likely that he will enter the convention with some sort of delegate lead.
His opponents know that. Which is why, in a Las Vegas debate where sparks flew seemingly every second, it was the fairly sedated final question of the night that could prove to be the most explosive: Should the person with the most delegates at the end of this primary season be the nominee, even if he or she is short of a majority?
Every candidate other than Sanders said no, that the process should be allowed to play out.
But overturning a likely Sanders lead would be dangerous. Moe Vela — a former senior advisor to Biden who pontificates that “socialism has never been, and never will be, the solution to our nation’s challenges” — nonetheless acknowledges how difficult it would be to stage an insurrection on the convention floor: “The polls show that half of his supporters, today, refuse to acknowledge they will support the Democratic nominee if it’s not him.”
Could another Democrat still build a coalition to beat Trump in November, after alienating die-hard Sanders supporters so dramatically? It seems unlikely. And so Democrats may be Berned if they do, Berned if they don’t.