Sanders needs a 30-point swing in New York

A lot has been written over the past week about Bernie Sanders’ chances of getting a majority of unplugged delegates.  Nate Sanders has a good writeup, but doesn’t show a lot of his work. would be a better tool if it defaulted to current polling.  Here’s our contribution to this theme:

Bernie Sanders' unlikely path to pledged delegate majority.
Bernie Sanders’ unlikely path to pledged delegate majority.

A few assumptions at the top:

  • Our model has Sanders winning Wisconsin 54.6-45.4, giving him +8 delegates.  We’re keeping that assumption.
  • Few states have state-level polling (though the states that do account for 70% of outstanding delegates).  Our model uses national polls there, which would give Clinton a 53.2-46.8 edge.  We’ll ignore that in every state, with most states going 60-40 for Sanders, which means he needs to over perform his polls by 15 points.
  • For a few states (Wyoming, Oregon, Montana, New Mexico, DC), we’ve assigned Sanders Alaska-level blowouts.
  • We’re putting Clinton’s delegate lead at 229 through April 1.

Our rough estimate is that Sanders would need to take 15 points off of Clinton in New York to have a chance of breaking even, even with the generous spot our assumptions give him.  The latest polling average has Clinton up there 57-37.  For this exercise, we have Sanders winning 58-42.  Here’s how this scenario plays out, and look closely at what a polling shift would need to happen to get there:

An incredible change of fortune for Sanders gets him an edge over Clinton, but both would need super delegates to decide.
An incredible change of fortune for Sanders gets him an edge over Clinton, but both would need super delegates to decide.

We left Maryland and Pennsylvania within the reasonable bounds of change, and assigned Sanders a 10-point victory in California (our model shows Clinton actually just squeaking by there by one point).

Here’s a more-likely scenario:

A more-realistic Bernie surge leaves him about 90 delegates short.
A more-realistic Bernie surge leaves him about 90 delegates short.

For this chart, we leave in place most of the favorable projections from the last run, but instead leave Clinton winning New York 52-48 and giving her the 1-point victory in California, a conservative estimate on the latest polls. This still represents Sanders taking away 5 points of Clinton’s support in New York, which a 10-point win in Wisconsin might reasonably do (despite Clinton’s heavy campaigning in the Empire State).  The final tally in this scenario would be Clinton 2,061 delegates, Sanders 1,979.

The key here is that each percent of the vote in New York is worth about 2.5 delegates.  If Clinton nets more than about 10 delegates there, it’s very difficult to see how Sanders can break even.

Trump needs New York, California, and Unbound Delegates

Our model takes into account the state-specific delegate selection rules and the state-specific poll averages (if they’re available).  In roughly half of the plausible scenarios we run, Donald Trump comes up around 100 delegates short of the 1,237 he needs to win on the first ballot. In real life, this probably requires more strategy than #NeverTrump actors have heretofore realized, but makes Cook Political/FiveThirtyEight’s “two-front war” look like what the electorate is already planning.

If Trump fails to exceed his poll numbers and Kasich wins districts in which a Democratic representative won by more than 10 points in 2014, Trump gets 1,147 pledged delegates.
If Trump fails to exceed his poll numbers and Kasich wins districts in which a Democratic representative won by more than 10 points in 2014, Trump gets 1,147 pledged delegates.

The chart above is a reasonably likely outcome:  Trump fails to exceed his poll averages and John Kasich wins congressional districts in which the House member won by over 10 percentage points in 2014.


Above is the math behind that projection.  A couple of notes:  Colorado is just a guess for delegate outcomes, the state will be a black box.  The model has Trump winning 100% of the Congressional districts, in New York’s district winner-take-all contests based on the strength of his state-wide polling (he’s a good 35 points ahead of Kasich), but it’s hard to imagine Ted Cruz and Kasich failing to pick up. That’s probably balanced by Katich’s stronger showing in California, where the model shows him picking up 3 delegates in 30 of the 53 House districts.

Closer examination shows a big gap in Pennsylvania’s delegates.  That’s because voters select unbound delegates on the district basis.  West Virginia follows a somewhat similar model, where delegates may or may not declare their intention on the ballot.  There are already 75 unbound delegates heading to Cleveland, and another 174 bound to candidates who have “suspended” their campaigns.  That’s a big wildcard:  enough to push Trump over the edge if a majority break for him.

This outcome actually requires Kasich to stick around and remain viable through June.  Kasich can’t win the 1,237 needed on the first ballot; there just aren’t enough points left on the board, so a vote for Kasich is just a “none of the above” vote.  Sure, he beat Trump in Utah, but he lost to Rubio – who had dropped out a week earlier – in Arizona due to the prevalence of early voting.  It isn’t too big of a stretch to see the “mathematically unviable” argument swaying enough voters in Pennsylvania, New York, and California to make his spoiler status not that big of a deal.

It’s also not a sure thing that this is the direction late-deciders break.  The  models above show Trump picking up 0% of undecided voters.  If Cruz picks up 60% and Trump picks up just 20%, the race looks a lot different:


In that projection, Trump falls just 3 delegates short, and it’s easy to imagine him picking those up among the unbound delegates.

If, based on that slightly weaker projection for Kasich, he loses more of the Democrat-heavy congressional districts in California, with Trump and Cruz picking up a proportional share, Trump wins outright:

Cruz Momentum with no Kasich CD bonus

None of this takes into account the political realities that govern the later elections and a brokered convention itself.  As Trump has picked up some endorsements (and Cruz only some half-hearted ones), GOP leaders could fear the “riots in the streets” outcome, or fear that by suppressing Trump the party could permanently lose the voters he’s won. It also assumes that almost no delegates jump on the Trump bandwagon in subsequent ballots.  Nevertheless, it shows there’s still a reasonable set of outcomes in which Trump fails to secure 1,237 delegates before Cleveland, if the GOP plays its cards right.

Model updates

We’ve completely overhauled the projections spreadsheet on the Republican side to narrow in on the variables that are likely to matter in the 18 contests before the convention.  The updates also allow for more-granular control to adjust the remaining states on both sides, which will be especially useful due to the lack of state-level polling data for the upcoming states.  That granular control is not user-editable (yet), but we’ll be using the scenarios to help make predictions in the coming weeks.

We’ll have a series of posts in the coming days, but the updated model suggests that Donald Trump’s path to 1,237 delegates requires strong shows in California, New York, and Indiana.  Our projection still shows him falling short, needing to pick up a significant portion of the unbound delegates (and Marco Rubio’s soon-to-be unbound delegates) to avoid a second ballot.