And so the contest for the Democrat presidential nomination enters what is probably its final week. On Sunday, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders will appear in a televised debate, the first since it became a one-on-one concern. Then on Tuesday, primaries will be held in four large states: Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio.
Unless Sanders can pull off something utterly unprecedented, that will remove any remaining doubt and make Biden the presumptive nominee. Sanders may or may not withdraw, but if he stays in the race it will only be for the sake of influencing the narrative, not through any hope of winning.
As Nate Silver put it on Wednesday, “Sanders needs something like a 20-point surge within the next week just to remain competitive for the nomination, and even then it would still be an uphill battle for him.”
This week’s contests gave no sign of the turnaround that Sanders needs. He lost Michigan, the most important of them, by 16 and a half points, 52.9% to 36.4%. That wasn’t quite as big as some polls had suggested, but it was still pretty devastating.
It was made worse by the fact that he lost four of the other five states on offer: Mississippi and Missouri by huge margins, as expected (in Mississippi he even failed to clear the 15% threshold for statewide delegates), Idaho fairly narrowly (his first loss in the west), and Washington only very narrowly.
With 85% counted in Washington, Biden leads by two points, but that margin has been steadily improving as later votes come in (all voting in Washington is by mail). Although the networks haven’t called it yet, I don’t think there’s any doubt about the result. And if Biden can win in Washington, he can win just about anywhere.
Sanders’s only victory was in North Dakota – a small state, and in the west, the one region where he’s been doing well. Even so, FiveThirtyEight’s model only gave him a 7% chance beforehand of winning it. Yet he did so comfortably, 53.3% to 39.8%.
So while from Sanders’s point of view it could have been worse, it was still plenty bad enough. As a result, he now trails Biden in terms of delegates by something like 900 to 737 (that’s the estimate by the Green Papers; other sources give slightly different numbers, but the basic picture is the same).
With 1,990 needed for a majority at the convention, Biden is already almost half way there. And since delegate allocation is proportional, Sanders can’t catch up just by winning more states from here – he would have to win by big margins. It’s not impossible, if he blows Biden out of the water in Sunday’s debate, but you’d bet heavily against it. And many people are.
As Nate Cohn remarked on Wednesday, “The problem for Mr. Sanders is not so much the delegate math. It’s the voters.”
Whatever you think of the relative merits of Biden and Sanders, either as candidates or as potential presidents, it is at least good news for the Democratic Party if it can get its internal contest out of the way quickly and start focusing on November. And the result in Michigan provides some evidence that Biden will be in a strong position in states that the party needs to win.