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“Bernie’s ‘Momentum’ Is A Farce”: Sanders Owes His Recent Winning Streak To Demographics, Not Momentum

If the prevailing media narrative is to be believed, as we head into next Tuesday’s crucial New York state primary, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – by virtue of winning seven of the last eight Democratic nominating contests – has gained crucial momentum, while Hillary Clinton has seen her earlier momentum slip away.

But is that true?

It’s certainly a narrative that Sanders and his supporters have tried to popularize in their recent public comments. As Sanders told George Stephanopoulos this past Sunday on “This Week“: “In the last three and a half weeks, we have reduced [Clinton’s] margin by a third. … We believe that we have the momentum. We believe that the polling is showing that we’re closing the gap. Actually, as you may have noticed, of the last three national polls out there, we have defeated Secretary Clinton in two of them. So there’s no question I think the momentum is with us.”

In truth, the answer depends in part on what one means by momentum, which turns out to be a much-touted but often poorly defined concept. When pundits talk about momentum, they usually refer to one of two possibilities. The first refers to the winnowing of candidates, as typically happens early in the nominating process. When this occurs, it can appear that the remaining candidates gain “momentum” by virtue of picking up some of the departed candidates’ support. There is evidence indicating this type of momentum does occur. However, that’s not the type of momentum that pundits are referencing now, more than halfway through the fight for the Democratic nomination. Bernie’s recent victories haven’t driven anyone from the race.

There is a second type of momentum, however, one more consistent with how the term is being used in the current media narrative. It is the belief that a succession of electoral victories can increase the probability that the winning candidate will do better in subsequent contests simply by virtue of those previous wins. Under this scenario, winning begets more winning – the more wins, the greater the subsequent momentum – and losing has the opposite effect. When pressed to clarify how this type of momentum operates, proponents explain that winning leads to increased campaign contributions and more volunteers – resources that ultimately translate into more votes, and thus more wins. For those making this momentum-as-bandwagon argument, Bernie’s current winning streak is clear proof that his momentum is very real – each victory during the last three-and-a-half weeks made it more likely that he would win the next contest. For this reason, Sanders and his supporters believe he is poised to do very well in next Tuesday’s New York primary.

There’s only one problem with this scenario. There’s just not much evidence that momentum of this type exists, at least not in the recent context of Sanders’ victories. Instead, the likelier explanation for Sanders’ recent success (as I noted in my recent Professor Pundits contribution) is that the Democrats have held a string of contests on terrain that was particularly favorable to Sanders. Demographics, and not momentum, has been the key to his success.

It’s no secret that Sanders does best in caucus states dominated by more ideologically motivated participants and in states with low minority populations. As it turns out, six of Sanders’ last seven victories came in largely white caucus states. (Hawaii, a caucus state, was a demographic exception.) In fact, 11 of his 15 victories to date have come in caucus states. (He almost gained a 12th victory in the Iowa caucus, where he finished a close second to Clinton.) On the other hand, she has won 16 of the 21 primaries held so far. Indeed, if one constructs a regression equation to explain Sanders’ vote share, the two biggest predictors are whether it is a caucus state and whether it had a large proportion of white, liberal voters. By this standard, one might argue he actually underperformed expectations in Wyoming, a largely white, caucus state, where he won “only” about 56 percent of the vote, less than he earned in several similar nearby states. More importantly, he split the 14 Wyoming delegates evenly with Clinton. That’s not exactly the “momentum” he needs.

This is not to say that momentum is a completely meaningless concept. There is some evidence that voters’ choices in the primaries are influenced in part by perceptions regarding how likely it is that the candidate is going to be elected. If a candidate can clear a certain threshold of perceived electoral viability, her chances of gaining additional votes increase.

But this is precisely where the Sanders’ momentum argument works against itself. Because Sanders’ recent victories have come predominantly in smaller caucus states and because of the Democratic Party’s proportional delegate allocation rules, Sanders’ winning streak hasn’t substantially cut into Clinton’s delegate lead, at least not nearly enough to alter the perception that she remains the clear favorite to win the nomination. Since March 22, when Sanders’ current win streak began, he has gained a net of only 70 pledged delegates on Clinton and still trails her by more than 250 pledged delegates. Her lead expands to more than 700 if one includes superdelegates. Moreover, Clinton can more than wipe out Sanders’ recent gains with a strong showing in her home state of New York next Tuesday, where there are 247 pledged delegates at stake.

This failure to clear the viability threshold has two unfortunate consequences for Sanders. First, despite his claims to the contrary, his recent victories provide little reason for Clinton’s superdelegate supporters to change their minds and back Bernie. Second, to the extent that perceptions of electoral viability matter to prospective voters in upcoming states, it is Clinton and not Sanders who is most likely to benefit. She is the perceived front-runner, and thus she is more likely to gain the support of voters who want to back the race favorite. And those perceptions of viability are not likely to change in the foreseeable future, as the Democratic race returns to terrain, in the form of larger, more demographically diverse primary states, likely more favorable to Clinton, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and California. On the other hand, and unfortunately for Sanders, only one of the remaining 16 Democratic contests is a caucus state.

Does momentum exist? Yes, if one means the added benefit a candidate receives by virtue of being perceived as the most viable candidate, electorally speaking. Based on that definition, at this point in the Democratic race, it is Clinton and not Sanders who has the better claim to possessing the “Big Mo.” And that’s not likely to change in the immediate future.

 

By: Matthew Dickinson, Professor, Middlebury College; Thomas Jefferson Street Blog, U. S. News and World Report, April 14, 2016

April 15, 2016 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Momentum, New York Primaries | , , , , , , | 6 Comments

“The Calendar Is Unforgiving”: Following Bernie Sanders’ Latest Landslides, What’s Next?

A couple of weeks ago, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, laid out his short-term expectations for the Democratic presidential race, which now appears rather prescient. As Mook saw it, Bernie Sanders would win the next five caucus states with relative ease – Idaho, Utah, Alaska, Hawaii, and the state of Washington – while coming within striking distance in Arizona.

After Clinton’s bigger-than-expected win in Arizona, one of Mook’s predictions looked a little off, but the rest of the assessment was quite sound. Last week, Sanders cruised to easy wins in Idaho and Utah, and over the weekend, the independent senator did it again.

Bernie Sanders swept all three Democratic caucuses on Saturday, with decisive victories over front-runner Hillary Clinton in Washington state, Alaska and Hawaii, according to NBC News analysis.

Speaking to a rapturous crowd in Madison, Wisconsin, after his victory in Alaska, Sanders declared his campaign was making “significant inroads” into Clinton’s big delegate lead.

Sanders was supposed to do well in Saturday’s caucuses, but let’s be clear: he did extremely well, winning by margins ranging from 40 to 70 points. As for “significant inroads,” the final numbers are still coming together, but it looks like Sanders will end up with a net gain of 60 to 70 pledged delegates.

By most measures, Saturday was Sanders’ single best day of the entire presidential race: three lopsided landslides, which, when combined, gave the Vermonter his biggest net delegate gain of 2016.

That’s the good news for Sanders and his supporters. The bad news is, well, just about everything else.

The delegate math is so brutal for the senator that narrowing the gap in earnest remains incredibly daunting. Clinton’s recent victory in the Florida primary, for example, netted her about 70 delegates. Sanders’ wins on Saturday night were worth roughly as much.

Or put another way, Clinton appeared likely to win the Democratic nomination on March 15, when she led by about 215 pledged delegates, and as things stand, her advantage is even larger now, even including Sanders’ weekend wins. (Adding Democratic superdelegates to the equation makes Clinton’s advantage even larger.)

The argument from the Sanders campaign is that these results don’t happen in a vacuum: big wins get noticed, and this leads to improved fundraising, positive press, increased enthusiasm, and a sense of momentum as the race enters the next round of contests.

And while that may yet happen, the calendar is unforgiving. Sanders is excelling – winning by enormous margins, making sizable net delegate gains – in caucus states with low turnout among African-American and Latino voters. There are a few more of these contests remaining – Wyoming and North Dakota stand out – but there aren’t many, and the number of delegates at stake is quite modest.

Saturday’s caucuses were practically custom made for Sanders, and he took full advantage, winning by enormous margins. But what he needs is a calendar full of caucus states like these, and they don’t exist in a quantity that would make a real difference. The alternative is racking up big wins in competitive primaries, which could happen, but which recent history suggests is unlikely.

I’m not saying his nomination is impossible – it’s been an election cycle full of unexpected developments – but even after the weekend, the Democratic race doesn’t look much different than it did a couple of weeks ago. Sanders was a long shot before his latest round of caucus wins, and he’s still a long shot now.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 28, 2016

March 28, 2016 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Democratic Presidential Primaries, Hillary Clinton | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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