It feels as if the Democratic primary has been going on forever. Ten debates. Twenty-eight campaigns launched, 23 folded. Hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising. And yet, despite all that, only 149 pledged delegates—of an eventual 3,979—have been awarded so far. Nothing has actually been decided.
With strong showings in the first three states, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders (58 delegates) is the person to beat. But former vice president Joe Biden (50 delegates) revived his moribund campaign with a landslide victory in South Carolina over the weekend. That result prompted former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar to end their campaigns, which will likely push more moderate voters toward Biden. (But not necessarily! Voters are unpredictable.) Biden and Sanders now look like the clear front-runners, with Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg jockeying for third. But with so few votes locked in, everything remains highly speculative.
That could all change on Super Tuesday.
Voters in 14 states, plus American Samoa, are about to cast their ballots. (Democrats living abroad will cast theirs over the course of the next week.) That includes big states like Texas and, joining Super Tuesday for the first time, California—which as the most populous state in the union is by far the biggest prize in the primary. The electoral math is about to change. Here are some of the key numbers that help explain how.
This is the number of delegates won in South Carolina by anyone not named Biden or Sanders. That was a particularly tough blow for billionaire Tom Steyer, who had focused his campaign strategy (and lavish spending) on winning the state. Following the loss, he promptly ended his campaign, with Buttigieg following suit shortly thereafter. Klobuchar waited till Monday before packing it in.
Zero is also the number of delegates won so far by Bloomberg (more on that later) and Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (who apparently is still in the race).
The share of votes a candidate needs to win to pick up any delegates from either the statewide pool or a given congressional district, per the Democratic National Committee’s rules. The threshold is supposed to weed out weaker candidates who don’t have a realistic shot at winning the nomination, and so far it seems to be working. It also helps explain why the departure of Buttigieg and Klobuchar from the race will likely hurt Sanders. Having fewer candidates to split the vote makes it much less likely that Sanders could walk away with a state’s entire delegate haul without even cracking a majority of the votes. In California, for instance, he’s currently polling at around 35 percent, while Biden and Warren hover just north of 15 percent, according to RealClearPolitics. If they failed to hit that threshold in the primary, Sanders would get all 415 of California’s delegates.
The number of delegates up for grabs tomorrow, just over a third of the total. That’s why Super Tuesday is a potentially make-or-break moment for the remaining candidates. Bloomberg didn’t even bother getting on the ballot in the first four states. Like a Scrabble player going all out for the triple word score, he seems to be banking everything on a strong Tuesday showing.
Still, don’t expect anyone to lock up the nomination just yet. Past primary campaigns have dragged on long past Super Tuesday, and with so many candidates still in the race this year, that’s all but a certainty this time around. Because …
That’s how many delegates a candidate needs to clinch the nomination on the first ballot, under the DNC rules. (Fifty percent of the total pledged delegates, plus one, then round the decimal.) If no candidate hits that total come July 13, when the party holds its national convention, then all 3,979 pledged delegates become free agents, able to vote for whichever candidate they want in the next round of voting—and each subsequent round, until a majority emerges. In those rounds, they will be joined by 771 superdelegates, various party big shots who can vote for whomever they want.
This scenario, known as a brokered or contested convention, hasn’t happened since 1952. FiveThirtyEight currently puts the likelihood of a contested convention at a staggering 65 percent, giving Sanders only a 20 percent chance of crossing the 1,991 threshold.
To see why, consider what would happen if Sanders reproduced his showing in Nevada—his best so far, where he picked up two-thirds of the available delegates—across the country tomorrow. In that case, he would add 905 delegates for a total of 963. Even then, to claim the nomination on the first ballot, he would need to earn 42 percent of the delegates in the remaining contests between tomorrow and June—hardly impossible, but far from guaranteed, especially if the opposition continues to consolidate around Biden.
The amount of his own money Bloomberg had spent on his campaign as of the January federal filing deadline. Since jumping into the race in November, he has easily outspent the entire rest of the field. As of February 14, according to Advertising Analytics, $223 million of that money had gone into advertising.
If that sounds like a lot of money to you, you’ve obviously never been a billionaire. Forbes recently pegged Bloomberg’s net worth at $64.2 billion. That means he has spent less than 1 percent of his fortune on the campaign. He could literally do this every year for the rest of his life and never stop being one of the richest people in the world.
But we still have no idea whether that cash translates into primary votes. After Super Tuesday, the first time Bloomberg is actually on the ballot, we’ll be much closer to answering that question—among many others.
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