Why Sanders Will Be Able To Hang Around

Clinton won’t be able to choke off his small donors, letting him fight through March.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate in New Hampshire.
AP Photo/David Goldman
S.V. Dáte
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S.V. Dáte
Feb. 8, 2016, 8 p.m.

After months of can­did­ate vis­its to town halls, diners, and in­di­vidu­al voters’ back­yards and liv­ing rooms, New Hamp­shire Demo­crats head to the polls Tues­day—and will de­term­ine al­most noth­ing.

To help un­der­stand why, here’s a brief primer on the Demo­crat­ic race post-New Hamp­shire:

What’s ex­actly at stake in the New Hamp­shire primary?

The primary res­ults will be used this sum­mer to award 24 del­eg­ates to the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion, which will choose the party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee. Iowa, which held caucuses last week, chose 44 del­eg­ates. For per­spect­ive: Win­ning the nom­in­a­tion re­quires 2,382 del­eg­ates, out of 4,763 avail­able. So these two con­tests will de­term­ine 1.4 per­cent of the del­eg­ates needed to se­cure the nom­in­a­tion.

That’s it? Then why all the at­ten­tion on Iowa and New Hamp­shire?

The states’ de­fend­ers ar­gue that mak­ing the can­did­ates spend lots of time in front of en­gaged voters serves as a use­ful first screen. And, in­deed, voters in later states of­ten look to these res­ults when mak­ing up their own minds. A can­did­ate who winds up win­ning the early con­tests of­ten be­comes the con­sensus choice re­l­at­ively quickly.

So why won’t that hap­pen in 2016?

It could—but typ­ic­ally a con­sensus emerges when the lead­ing can­did­ate cre­ates a sense of in­ev­it­ab­il­ity, which dries up money flow­ing to the re­main­ing can­did­ates, prompt­ing them to drop out. The front-run­ner in this case, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton, won’t be able to stop the flow of con­tri­bu­tions to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s cam­paign be­cause so little money is com­ing from the usu­al stable of Demo­crat­ic Party donors. Rather, Sanders has been able to tap in­to an enorm­ous pool of small donors who gave him $73 mil­lion through the end of Decem­ber, with $28 mil­lion in the bank as of Jan. 1. (Clin­ton raised $110 mil­lion in 2015, and had $38 mil­lion to start 2016.) In oth­er words: There is no fin­an­cial reas­on for Sanders not to keep cam­paign­ing through the com­ing weeks and months.

But doesn’t the cal­en­dar start to fa­vor Clin­ton after New Hamp­shire?

Sanders has been able to build a de­voted fol­low­ing with his simple mes­sage that the polit­ic­al sys­tem has been cor­rup­ted by big money. His weak­ness, though, is among non­white voters—who hap­pen to make up a large per­cent­age of the Demo­crat­ic primary elect­or­ate. Most of the states that come after New Hamp­shire have sig­ni­fic­ant black, Latino, and oth­er minor­ity vot­ing pop­u­la­tions.

Does this mean Clin­ton will lock up the needed del­eg­ates in the March con­tests?

She could start build­ing a sub­stan­tial lead, but the party’s del­eg­ate rules will make that a slow pro­cess so long as Sanders can win a reas­on­able share of the vote in each state. Demo­crat­ic del­eg­ates are awar­ded by con­gres­sion­al dis­trict and by the statewide win­ner—but in both cases the del­eg­ates are al­loc­ated in pro­por­tion to the vote share. Even if Clin­ton star­ted win­ning 60 per­cent of the avail­able del­eg­ates in the com­ing six weeks, she would have won few­er than 1,400 del­eg­ates through the end of March.

Mean­ing this could go on through April?

Pos­sibly, par­tic­u­larly if Sanders can do bet­ter than 40 per­cent in the com­ing states. In either case, Sanders is also up against Clin­ton’s over­whelm­ing ad­vant­age among the Demo­crat­ic Party’s 700 so-called “su­per del­eg­ates”—mem­bers of Con­gress, gov­ernors, and Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee mem­bers, whose votes are not based on the res­ult of any primary or caucus, but rather their own dis­cre­tion. Cur­rently, ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­ated Press, Clin­ton has a 362-8 lead over Sanders.

And it is that ad­vant­age, ac­cord­ing to Josh Put­nam, a Uni­versity of Geor­gia polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist who main­tains the pop­u­lar Front­load­ing HQ web­site, that ul­ti­mately might wind things down in Clin­ton’s fa­vor. In fact, by late March, half of the del­eg­ates up for grabs in primar­ies and caucuses will have been al­loc­ated. And if Clin­ton has a lead among those, her large su­per-del­eg­ate lead will make it math­em­at­ic­ally dif­fi­cult for Sanders to come back.

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