As Goes Alabama, So Goes the Nation: Our Broken Primary Calendar

Of the 12 states won by Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump has won 11 of those states. The only exception comes in Iowa, where Hillary Clinton edged out Sanders by 0.3%. If we remove Iowa from the equation due to it essentially being a tie, we see that in all of the 11 states won by Hillary, Trump has also won.

I know what you’re thinking: Trump and Hillary have won the vast majority of the states up for grabs, therefore we’d expect to see a lot of overlap between their victories. But let’s test that theory.

First, it’s not true that Clinton and Trump have won a vast majority of the states. On the Democratic side, Clinton has won 13 states, and Sanders has won 9. Similar story on the Republican side: Trump has won 15 contests, and Cruz and Rubio have combined to win 10. This means that Clinton and Trump have won 59% and 60% of their respective primary contests thus far. So we wouldn’t expect to see complete overlap in their winning states.

In the nine states won by Sanders, only three are shared with Trump (Michigan, New Hampshire, and Vermont).

So Clinton and Trump are winning the same states. Interesting, but who cares?

The important point here is that Clinton’s appeal (and to a lesser degree, Trump’s appeal) is largely regional. Southerners love Trump, and southerners (particularly African American southerners) love Clinton. The Clinton campaign scoffs at the assertion that Clinton is a regional candidate, but look at the numbers. In the South, Clinton is 9-1 (losing only Oklahoma), and everywhere else in the country she has a 3-8 record, with all three of her wins coming by narrow margins. In fact, two of those wins were so close they were virtual ties. If we disregard the two states where Clinton won by a single percentage point or less, she has only a single win in a non-southern state (Nevada). So if Clinton is merely a regional candidate, it begs the question how she has such a large delegate lead over Sanders.

Here’s how: The early primary states are heavily focused on the east, particularly the southeast. By March 15th, 12 of the 13 southern states (the only exception being Kentucky) will have voted in their respective Democratic primaries. That means 95.7% of southern Democrats will have had a chance to vote by March 15. As stated above, the south is Hillary Clinton’s strongest region.

And what about the rest of the country? In the 13 states that make up the west (arguably Bernie’s strongest region of support), only two states will have voted by the 15th of March. These two states make up only 11.5% of Democrats in the west. The other 88.5% of western Democrats have yet to cast a ballot. In the 11 northeast states, only four states will have voted by March 15, representing just 20.4% of Democrats in that region. Midwestern Americans do better in that 67.6% of Democrats will have had a chance to vote by March 15, but nothing comes close to the 95.7% of voter representation seen in the South. When the votes are counted up on March 15th, 2,120 delegates will have been assigned; and despite only making up 27.9% of the Democratic electorate, the south will represent 56.2% of the delegates counted by March 15.

The four regions of the country (West, Midwest, South, and Northeast) have roughly the same populations (between 22-28%). That’s a stark contrast between how the regions are represented in the delegate math. As we can clearly see, the South is way over-represented while the West and the Northeast are profoundly underrepresented.

Chart 1 (nathan)

Chart 2 (nathan)

So why does this matter? It matters because it provides a false narrative about the strength and momentum of Clinton’s campaign. The delegate math on March 15 will clearly give the advantage to Hillary Clinton, but only for the reason that her strength in the South has been overrepresented and her weaknesses in other parts of the country have been underrepresented. This means Clinton can establish herself as a winning brand early in the race, and Sanders is immediately pegged as the guy with a pattern of losing; a candidate who can’t come back from the delegate math; a candidate who has trouble winning states; and a fringe politician who never really had a chance anyway. Sure enough, we’ve been hearing for weeks that Sanders has no chance and that the delegate math is too much for him to overcome.

Data strongly suggests this may be a false narrative and that the race is closer than described. Keep in mind that two of Clinton’s wins have been by razor-thin margins. Her win in Iowa of 0.3% was the closest in the state’s Democratic caucus history; and she won Massachusetts by a single percentage point (50% to 49%). Had these states teetered in the other direction, Clinton and Sanders would be tied at 11 states apiece right now. Clinton also won a close race in Nevada, where she beat Sanders by five points. On the other hand, in all nine of the states where Sanders emerged victorious, only Michigan was close. In every other state, he won by large margins (his smallest victory coming by 10 points in Oklahoma). So it’s not like Sanders is getting lucky and pulling out some close races in small states. He’s winning a lot of states and by large margins. But this isn’t the story being told because Clinton’s large victories in the South have bolstered her status as the frontrunner. So the order that states have their primaries makes a big difference. Candidates who lose states early in the primary process find it more difficult to raise money and constantly have to fight the narrative that they can’t win.

Had the tables been turned, and the primaries started on the West Coast, this election would likely look very different. Bernie could have potentially steamrolled across the west. Then Hillary Clinton would be on the defensive, trying to resuscitate her campaign and trying to prove to the American people that she can actually win some primary states. But that’s not how the calendar worked out.

The inequity of overvaluing the South in 2016 is magnified by the existence of superdelegates—i.e., those delegates that are not assigned democratically through primary or caucuses, but by high ranking party officials. When the media covers the Democratic primary race and gives us the most up to date delegate count, they routinely combine the superdelegates with the democratically won delegates. This provides a skewed representation of the race and makes Clinton’s lead look humongous.

When we combine the actual won delegates with the superdelegates, Clinton leads Sanders 1,223 to 574, more than double the number of Sanders delegates, making it look to the casual observer that the primary race is essentially over and Bernie is simply holding onto a pipe dream. However, when we look only at only the won delegates, the math tells a very different story. Clinton still leads but by a much smaller margin: 748-542. This shows us that the race is much closer than advertised. This is particularly noteworthy when we take into account the fact that over 95% of Clinton’s stronghold in the South has already voted while the majority of Sanders-friendly states have yet to cast a ballot.

Chart 3 (nathan)

Chart 4 (nathan)

But don’t the superdelegates matter? Yes and no. Remember that these superdelegates are not bound by law to vote for Clinton at the convention, even if they have already expressed support for her in the past. If Sanders wins the majority of the votes, the majority of the delegates, and the majority of the states, those superdelegates will be in a position where they more or less have to vote for Sanders at the convention. If they don’t, there will be a revolt in the Party.

Whether by design or not, what we now have is a primary calendar that gives near-total control of the selection of each party’s presidential candidate to the South. While the first two states in the process (Iowa and New Hampshire) are admittedly not in the South, the past few decades have shown us that presidential contests are not decided in New Hampshire and Iowa, but over the next 10 to 20 states. And the current primary calendar is overwhelming southern, conservative, and unreflective of the United States as a whole.

This recent change in the primary calendar appears to have been a quiet and clever coup by conservatives to dramatically push our options for president, and with it, the future of our country, in a rightward direction. Anyone whose values look different from those of Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas had better start demanding that we diversify the order of our primaries, or we will end up with more general election candidates like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. That is, candidates that have little appeal outside of the South.

– Nathan


One Response to “As Goes Alabama, So Goes the Nation: Our Broken Primary Calendar”

  1. Gerrymandering to a different degree…

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