By Jim Ellis
May 24, 2019 — As the Democratic presidential field swells to 24 candidates — with the first Democratic presidential forum on tap for late June in Miami, and the first votes being cast in Iowa now just over eight full months away — it’s a good time to review how different this presidential nomination contest will be from the 2016 version.
To review, Hillary Clinton won 34 primaries and caucuses in 2016 as compared to 23 for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). There are 57 sanctioned delegate voting entities in the Democratic nomination universe. The 57 are comprised of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the five territories, and a Democrats Abroad category that combines all US citizens living in foreign countries who will still have voting privileges in US elections.
Clinton won 55.2 percent of the 2016 national Democratic popular vote versus Sen. Sanders’ 43.1 percent when combining the totals from all the primaries and caucuses. Though the Sanders Campaign called foul over the Super Delegate voting inflating Clinton’s delegate total, and actually turning six states’ first-ballot roll call from Sanders to Clinton and sending one more state into a tie, Clinton still carried the pledged, or elected delegate, count 2,205 to 1,846, translating to a 54.4 percent margin. When adding the Super Delegate and uncommitted delegate votes, she captured 58.3 percent of the convention total.
The seven states where the Super Delegate vote changed the state outcome occurred in Indiana, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Sen. Sanders won the popular vote in all of these states, but the inclusion of the Super Delegates – those members of the Democratic National Committee, the US senators, US representatives, governors, and distinguished party leaders (former presidents, vice presidents, congressional leaders, and past DNC chairs) – turned their first-ballot delegate count toward Clinton.
In New Hampshire, though Sen. Sanders won the primary 60-38 percent, the final delegate count split 16-16 because the state’s Super Delegates broke 7-1 for Clinton.
At this point in the last presidential cycle, Clinton enjoyed large polling leads over a much smaller Democratic field but was consistently seeing her Iowa Caucus vote as one of her weakest entities. Her problem was that Iowa voted first and the fact that the Hawkeye State election came down to a series of coin flips to resolve tie votes in various precincts clearly diminished her early sense of inevitability.
We may be seeing a similar pattern develop for 2020. While former Vice President Joe Biden is now opening substantial polling leads nationally and in most states, a new Change Research Iowa poll (May 15-19; 615 likely Iowa Democratic Caucus participants) casts a different outcome. According to Change, the Hawkeye State Democratic race has already lapsed into a 24-24 percent tie between Biden and Sanders.
In the past election, Sanders capitalized on his strong Iowa showing to score a big win in New Hampshire, but Clinton then righted her ship with a win at the Nevada Caucus, which led to a raucous meeting event, followed by a strong 73-26 percent win in South Carolina. Clinton would later go onto sweep the southern states and clinch the nomination with a 53-46 percent popular vote and elected delegate win over Sanders in California’s June primary.
This time, however, much has changed. The Super Delegates can no longer vote on the first ballot. Therefore, it will be more difficult for any one candidate, including Biden, to cobble together a majority coalition to score a first-ballot win with so many candidates competing for the nomination.
Additionally, the schedule has drastically changed. In particular, California, by moving its primary from June to March 3, means the delegate vote determination will be much earlier this year, and even the candidates’ campaign time will be much different. Since California allows early voting to begin 29 days before the election date, and more than 80 percent of the populace voting by mail, we can expect to see the group of candidates spending much more early time there than in the traditional First Four states.
Combined, the First Four has 155 first ballot delegate votes (Iowa: 41, New Hampshire: 24, Nevada: 36, South Carolina: 54) while California alone has 416. Since all states are divided proportionally, it makes much more sense to make delegate-rich California, Texas (228), North Carolina (110), Georgia (105), Virginia (99), and Massachusetts (91) – three of which have favorite-son candidates – higher priorities than the First Four. All of these latter states will vote on March 3.
Looking at the total voting schedule, individual state law will lock 70 percent of the first ballot into place as voting concludes on March 17. Therefore, the different rules, voting schedule, and political landscape will alter the campaign flow from what we saw in 2016 and could help create an unexpected conclusion.