Another reminder that, although tonight’s debate sort of matters, it doesn’t really matter. I suppose Bernie could say something out of the blue that would instantly ruin his chances, like “Taxes are bad” or “Epstein really did kill himself.”
But barring that, there’s no reason to think any centrist candidate can reverse the trend in this race before it becomes irreversible.
It’s worth noting that Nate Silver’s model still has Sanders on pace to fall short of a majority of delegates, which would trigger a contested convention. But (a) he’ll have a near-majority, far ahead of the second-place candidate, which will guarantee his nomination anyway, and (b) the model also assumes that both Mike Bloomberg and Joe Biden will continue to pile up delegates in primaries for months to come, which seems unlikely. Bloomy has the dough to run all the way to the convention but Biden, barring a revival in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday, does not. Which may be cause for hope for centrists: If all of the delegates projected to go to Biden in Silver’s model went to Bloomberg instead, Bloomy and Bernie would be practically tied by convention time.
That’s far-fetched, though. Here’s the hard reality:
Average projected delegates through Super Tuesday:
Sanders 608 (41% of delegates thru March 3)
Bloomberg 273 (18%)
Biden 270 (18%)
Buttigieg 157 (10%)
Warren 127 (8%)
Klobuchar 55 (4%)https://t.co/JDz2dZ8bqR
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) February 18, 2020
It can’t be stressed enough: Because the Democratic primaries award delegates proportionally rather than via winner-take-all, it will be very hard for the second-place candidate to close a delegate gap like the one Silver’s envisioning after Super Tuesday. The Not Bernie candidate would have to win consistently in state after state, chipping away at the lead over many months as Sanders continues to take some delegates even in defeat. And he’d have to do that despite the fact that a strong Super Tuesday showing would obviously give Bernie even more momentum nationally. You’ve seen what his win in New Hampshire and half-win in Iowa has done to his numbers in national polls over the last 24 hours. Imagine what winning multiple states on March 3 will do.
Meanwhile, the muddle in the middle keeps helping him out. We’ve already seen in new polls of Virginia and North Carolina how Bloomberg, Biden, and Buttigieg are making victories by Sanders plausible simply by splintering the centrist vote between them. The same thing is happening in California, the biggest delegate prize on Super Tuesday. Survey USA has Bernie ahead there with 25 percent followed by the moderates carving up the rest of the electorate — Bloomberg at 21, Biden at 15, Buttigieg at 12. And since Californians are already voting early, many votes for Biden are already banked irrespective of whether he disappoints in South Carolina and ends up dropping out of the race before election day in Cali.
A second poll of California also has Sanders ahead but with a more formidable lead: Bernie 32, Biden 14, Warren 13, Bloomberg 12, Buttigieg 12. If that’s accurate then Sanders’s lead will only balloon by primary day, since Warren is likely to leave the race soon. And the fact that the second-place candidate is stuck below the 15-percent threshold here raises the possibility that Bernie will earn an unexpected windfall of delegates after the votes are in:
If only Bernie hits 15% he’ll net 144 delegates on the field. If a second candidate hits the board, his net advantage on that candidate in CA statewide at-large delegates shrinks to ≈50. 2 other and it shrinks to ≈30. It’s the biggest inflection point in the race.
— Jonathan Chavez (@jschavez) February 19, 2020
For all the hype about Bloomentum, the staggering irony in the race is that Bloomberg, more than any other candidate, is momentarily enabling a Sanders victory. If Bloomy were at one percent in the polls, Biden or Buttigieg or both would be performing better and threatening Sanders. If Bloomy were at 30 percent in the polls, it’d be a two-man race in which the centrist candidate enjoyed unlimited financial resources. But with Bloomy at 15 percent or so, he’s taking enough of the vote to hold back Biden and Buttigieg but not enough to do any damage to Bernie. That needs to change immediately or the race will be effectively over.
The sheer size of California also points to a paradox: As much as Bloomberg is hurting the other moderates now, he’s also the only candidate at this point who seems capable of competing with Sanders. Even if Biden were to win South Carolina, he doesn’t have the dough to advertise extensively in all of California’s many huge, expensive media markets. Neither does Buttigieg or Klobuchar or Warren. Only Mike does. So what’s the play if you’re a centrist Democrat trying to choose?
Maybe tonight’s debate will help clarify things, but I doubt it. I keep thinking that the only encouraging thing about a Trump vs. Sanders election is that one side or the other will treat the outcome as a reason to rethink populism, but since we live in the worst timeline now, that’s probably not how it’ll shake out. It’ll probably end in a 269-269 tie with both parties convinced that the only way to win in 2024 is to double down.