math without mercy

First things first. Let’s just admit that Bernie Sanders got thumped last Tuesday. Well and truly thumped. So yesterday morning I contributed another US$20 to his campaign.

Why? Because I support most of his positions. Because he represents the direction I’d like to see this nation take in the future. Because it’s important to continue to support Bernie’s campaign all the way to the convention. Because that’s how we impress on the Democratic National Committee the simple fact that eventually Democratic voters won’t be satisfied with incremental changes to a system that’s largely broken.

But I’m not donating money in the belief that Bernie can still win the nomination. It’s still mathematically possible for him to win, but it’s highly improbable. I don’t say that because I’ve lost faith in Bernie; I say it because math is an unflinching, heartless, unforgiving bastard. And I’m saying it because I’m seeing a lot of this:

bernie chart

This chart and the one below are accurate for the dates given. But they’re also misleading. Here’s why: they suggest that because Bernie is only a few hundred delegates shy of Hillary, and because there are still a couple thousand delegates left, that all Bernie needs to do to catch her is win a few large states. But that’s just not true.

The Democratic primaries operate on proportional delegate allocation rules. That means the candidates win delegates in proportion to their vote share in a given state’s primary or caucus. So it’s not just a matter of winning a primary; it’s the size of the win that matters. If a candidate wins by a large margin, the winner gets proportionately more delegates than the loser. If a candidate wins a primary in a close race, the winner may only get one or two more delegates than the loser.

bernie pie chart

Take Bernie’s big win in Michigan — and make no mistake, it was a big win for Bernie. But more in terms of emotion and enthusiasm than in terms of delegates. Because it was a fairly narrow win, Bernie only earned seven more delegates than Hillary.

Another example: next Tuesday is the Arizona primary. Arizona will allocate 85 delegates. Let’s say Bernie wins the primary with 60% of the vote. That means he’ll gain 60% of the 85 delegates. That’s 51 delegates. But Hillary will win 34. That’s only a difference of 17 delegates. Using the chart above, Bernie would then have 869 delegates; Hillary would have 1166. That’s still a sizable lead.

What this means in practice is this: in order for Bernie to catch or surpass Hillary in the delegate count, he not only has to win primaries, but he has to win them in a big way. He has to win by a large enough margin to gain significantly more delegates than she gets. In order to gain the nomination, Bernie will have to win almost every single remaining primary by nearly a 60-40 margin. Those are landslide margins.

Is that possible? Yes, it is. Is it very likely? Sadly, no.

When the news media refers to Hillary as the presumptive nominee, they’re not lying; they’re just looking at the math. And math has no mercy.

That said, I’m still supporting Bernie. I’m still giving him money. I’m still telling people to vote for him and caucus for him. Because the effort itself has value. Because even if Bernie doesn’t win the nomination I want him to show up with a large number of delegates, because he can help shape the party platform. I’m still supporting Bernie because this nation needs his movement and the passion he’s inspired. We need it to shape the 2018 Congressional elections.

bernie not me us

There is — or should be — more to this movement than Bernie Sanders. If we seriously want the profound systemic change he offers, then we can’t stop working until that change takes place. We can’t quit. Even if the math is against us.



4 thoughts on “math without mercy

  1. Every time I see a news story (especially from the NYT) that is pushing Hillary and dissing Bernie, I’m donating more money to Sanders’ campaign. That is at least twice a week. Today the NYT “leaked” a talk from the President to donors with the quote “it’s time for the party to unite behind Hillary”. Really? How is this a fair shake for the states whose primary votes have not been cast? It smells bad, worse all the time. I agree that the odds are not in Sanders’ favor but he will be in this all the way to the convention. Of that I’m sure. Thanks for the clarity. I am a little disappointed that he didn’t do better in the last four states but we are only halfway through. it’s too soon to call it.


    • Yeah, I read that NY Times article, although I interpreted a little differently. Here’s the actual quote: President Obama privately told a group of Democratic donors last Friday that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont was nearing the point at which his campaign against Hillary Clinton would end, and that the party must soon come together to back her.

      I didn’t read that as dissing Bernie; I read it as Obama — as the leader of the Democratic party — looking at the delegate math. I suppose the way we interpret that comment depends on what we believe Obama would have said if Bernie had the same delegate lead that Hillary has now. Would he have said the time is nearing the point where donors must come together to back Bernie? I think he would have. My guess is you think he wouldn’t.

      And you’d have a strong basis for that argument. I can see that Obama would favor Hillary because she wants to build in what Obama has accomplished, whereas Bernie wants to create something new — or at least new to the U.S.


  2. I caucused in his behalf in Iowa. I will be voting for change, not corporate control, even if I have to write Bernie’s name on the ballot and vote for him that way. I am an independent, not a Democrat or Republican. The parties have both failed and betrayed the people by placing more importance on those who are part of the smallest minority instead of the majority who are supposed to rule.


    • I can understand that stance, though I can’t entirely respect it. As a point of principle, you should definitely vote for the person you want to be president.

      As a point of practicality, though, a refusal to vote for either of the two party candidates is effectively a passive vote for whoever ends up winning. It’s essentially a ‘spoiler’ vote. We saw what happened in 2000 when Al Gore lost the Florida vote (and thereby the US presidency) to George W. Bush by about 500 votes — largely because more than 90,000 Floridians voted for Ralph Nader. We’ve seen it more recently — in both 2010 and 2014 — in the governor’s race in Maine, where a 3rd party candidate siphoned off enough votes to keep Republican Gov. LePage in office.

      That’s how democracy works, though. You should vote your conscience. But be prepared to accept the possible consequence.


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