Written By: Arnie Olsen
“The Democratic National Committee is committed to taking back the White House in 2020 and electing Democrats at every level — from the school board to the Oval Office. But we can only do that together.”
The above is the stated purpose on the homepage of the DNC. I point that out because something that seems to be lost on more people with each passing day is that their job is NOT to run preference elections and caucuses in every state and bend to the will of the people, as counter-intuitive as that sounds. Their job is simply to win general elections for the Democrat Party, at all levels. Now obviously, there is a LOT of grey area in that statement as winning elections requires the support of the people, so they cannot simply trounce all over the preferences expressed throughout the primary process, and there are rules in place within the DNC that take that into account.
The following article will make the case that the best outcome of the primaries and caucuses that we should all be hoping for is not that a specific candidate “wins” the nomination outright before the Convention, but rather that as many candidates stay in the race and split the Pledged Delegates the rest of the way, forcing a brokered convention per DNC rules, allowing the Super Delegates to come into play, and Pledged Delegates to be released from their obligation on a second ballot. This is the only way to be sure that Democrats ultimately put forth the best candidate to win the Electoral College.
NOTE: I am not advocating for or against any particular candidate, but rather for a process that will give Democrats the best opportunity to win in November.
The purpose of this article is to:
- Show that the “Will of the People” (the accumulation of the most pledged delegates) is not necessarily compatible with the purpose of the DNC, which is exclusively to win the General Election.
- Show that the Primary/Caucus system, and the accumulation of pledged delegates is best geared toward a General Election that is based on a national popular vote, and NOT one that is still driven by the Electoral College.
- Provide an analytical/quantitative method for determining who the best candidate actually is to give Democrats the best chance of taking back the White House and outline an effective Electoral strategy that is focused exclusively on winning.
- Provide suggestions as to what we can all do as voters while we continue on the path toward this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee.
- Provide key data that will indicate the likelihood of Democrats winning in critical states.
- Provide current “standings” based on results known as of this writing, as well as what to keep track of going forward.
- Explain an alternative way to determine the nominee.
Before I get into that, however, I would also like to point out several realities regarding the history behind Presidential elections. First, primaries and caucuses are called specifically to gather public opinion on the candidate preferences of Democrat voters, and each state operates with its own set of rules as to how they achieve that, but they are also a relatively recent creation, and there is no Constitutional requirement that they be held at all. It actually was not until after the chaos that ensued at the 1968 Democratic National Convention that a more formal nominating process began to take shape. With each passing election cycle, the DNC has adopted new rules attempting to reign in more of the chaos, but it must be remembered that at the end of the day, there is no carved in stone process that will take place, and truthfully, none should really be expected because as much as we might clamor for it, the DNC still has their singular purpose of winning general elections at all levels to adhere to, and like it or not, they will hopefully continue to operate toward that end (and not cave in to public pressure or media expectations).
Today, we are facing another potentially chaotic situation the likes of which we have probably not seen since 1968, and certainly not since 1980 when Ted Kennedy mounted a serious challenge to incumbent Jimmy Carter. The GOP had their own near catastrophe in 1976 with a brokered convention between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Today’s dilemma, in my mind is based on three unique situations.
- The current front runner is a populist candidate which tends to lead to a more passionate base of support, and is complicated by his self-proclaimed “socialist” ideology, and that he is not actually a member of the Democratic Party.
- While all elections have consequences, in the face of Trumpism, 2020 feels far more “do or die” than any election in recent memory.
- The recent history of 2016, where many feel that the DNC improperly placed their thumb on the scale in favor of Hillary Clinton, to the detriment of Bernie Sanders, and now, everyone has concerns about Bernie Sanders’ supporters and what their reaction will be if Bernie does not receive the party nomination.
In the most recent Democratic debate held in Las Vegas, you saw this question arise again, with every candidate on stage but one declaring the DNC rules should be followed if the leading candidate does not secure the majority of delegates prior to the convention, while Bernie Sanders proclaimed that he believes the candidate who simply collects the most pledged delegates should be given the nomination, even if they did not secure an actual majority. It’s a legitimate debate, to be sure, as it raises the question of “will of the people versus the rules established by the DNC before the whole process began, and they could very well be in direct conflict. And then, how that conflict is resolved has to be weighed against the singular purpose of the DNC when it comes to winning the general election in November.
So, for starters, let’s go over what the actual rules are so there is no confusion:
- During the primary and caucus process, pledged delegates are allocated to the various candidates in accordance with the rules established in each state. In the Democratic Party, in general, these allocation are proportional depending on the number of votes (or preference cards in caucuses) a candidate receives. In other words, they are generally not “winner take all” within any state race, though I have not studied the rules of each state to determine if that is 100% true in all cases. It is certainly true in the vast majority, however, if not all.
- Also, there are preference races held in areas that do not actually carry any electoral votes when the general election rolls around, including U.S. Territories like Puerto Rico. All told, these areas include nearly 4 million U.S. citizens, so they do have some influence over the eventual winner of the nomination.
- As we progress through the primary season, these pledged delegates are accumulated by each candidate, and once awarded, they stay with the candidate (even in situations where someone suspends their campaign before the National Convention in July).
- Once at the Convention, there will be 3,979 total pledged delegates present, and they will be required to vote for the candidate they are bound to on the first ballot.
- In order to win the nomination outright on the first ballot, a candidate must have secured a majority of these pledged delegates, meaning 50% plus 1. They are also required to win the majority by at least one full delegate, and not a fraction of one. Because of the odd number of delegates, that means 1,991 pledged delegates are required to win on the first ballot.
- In the event there is no candidate receiving 1,991 delegates, the Convention will go to a second ballot, and this is where it all gets very interesting. Welcome to a contested convention, and all bets are off. First, because all pledged delegates are unbound at this point, so they are now technically free to vote for any candidate they choose, including ones that may not have even run in any of the primaries or caucuses. In addition, there are also 771 “Super Delegates” that enter the fray. These are people that are either party officials in the various states, or are Democrats various such as Governor, Lt. Governor, Senators and Congressional seats. These Super Delegates are also unbound to any one candidate and are allowed to vote their preference.
- NOTE: A big change from 2016 is that Super Delegates are not allowed to factor in the outcome until the second ballot and beyond, whereas in 2016, they were a part of the first ballot voting, yet still unbound to any candidate regardless of how their state voted in the primaries and caucuses.
- The total number of delegates on a second ballot and beyond is 4,750, and the rules still state that a majority must still be obtained, so this year, the required number of delegates required to win the nomination will be 2,376 if we get to a second ballot.
- The Convention will continue to call additional votes, as required, until a single candidate receives the required majority, and between each round of voting, there are backroom deals, trading of votes for favors like getting agenda items added or changed on the platform, exchanging votes for committee positions, you name it. It literally is a free for all and negotiations like you will see nowhere else.
- And finally, one thing I should add is that in one way or another, all of these delegates were elected within their own states by the people to represent them. These elections do not receive much attention, nor huge levels of voter participation, but I think it is important to note that they are in fact elected by the people of their states in one way or another, so it’s not as if they are just random people that decided to be an elector or bought their way into the process.
So, that is where we stand as of right now…facing the distinct possibility due to the size of the field and a number of candidates seeming to have the desire, and more importantly, money to continue on through the primary process, splitting up the pledged delegates, preventing any one candidate from receiving the majority required for the nomination and ultimately leading to a contested convention.
This is where it will all get very interesting and very heated. I already explained the stated positions of the candidates on how to handle this situation, and they are split (though the majority want to adhere to the rules as I am outlined them), but the public opinion on the subject is going to be very hotly debated. Face it, people do not want to feel like their vote meant nothing, and there is no telling how they will react if it is disregarded after the first ballot. They could decide to not vote at all in the general, when turnout is the single biggest key to winning in 2020. They could decide to go along with the Convention’s final decision, even if it was not their first choice. Or, they could decide to turn out for another candidate all together, either Trump or some third party candidate, casting a “protest vote”.
One additional thing that is VERY important to point out about the above rules is that they are actually far more favorable to an more outsider candidate like Bernie Sanders than anything we have seen since 1972. The fact that they were changed to eliminate the involvement of Super Delegates on the first ballot eliminates the chance that party insiders will sway the outcome over the “will of the people”…PROVIDED that the outsider candidate actually has enough support from the people to obtain a majority. I know that anything that leads to Bernie Sanders not being awarded the nomination will be met with fury by both the candidate and his supporters if he has the most delegates heading into the convention, but hopefully everyone will keep in mind that the rules have already been changed in his favor.
It’s ALL uncertain what will happen if it comes to this, and as a result many pundits are declaring now that a contested convention is the worst possible outcome, tearing the party apart, and the DNC has no choice but to respect the will of the people by awarding the nomination to the candidate who secured the most delegates, even if not the required majority. I would agree that this is probably the least controversial decision the DNC could make…the “safest”, if you will.
That said, I am not convinced it is the best choice however, in spite of the chaos that will surely ensue if the DNC goes to a second ballot. In fact, I would argue that a contested convention is the best possible thing that could happen if the top priority remains to simply WIN, and here is why:
If 2016 taught us all anything, the “will of the people” means absolutely nothing when it comes to the general election for the Presidency. I have an entire article written about why the Electoral College is a unmitigated disaster that has long outlived its shelf life, and I would encourage you to read that article as well, but the fact remains, it exists…with all of its flaws, it still exists and there is nothing that will change that in the short term, so approaching the general election in any way other than with our full focus on those rules is malpractice at best and most likely electoral suicide. Don’t get me wrong, I am as big a proponent of “the will of the people” carrying the loudest voice as anyone, BUT, I am a much bigger proponent of winning, and in any contest, you win by understanding the rules, and shaping your strategy accordingly. It’s always your best chance to win, and in this instance, it very well could be our ONLY chance to win.
What is the “electoral math” that I am referring to? Simple…it takes 270 electoral votes to win, and all but two states are winner take all. So, with that in mind, we can make two basic assumptions to start with.
- No one is going to receive all 538 of the electoral votes.
- To get the win, you need to figure out how to cobble together the 270 needed.
In order to get a handle on what that road map looks like I started with reviewing the results of the 2016 election. While many things have changed, it is the most recent Presidential election we can draw upon experience from, and one thing has not changed…Donald Trump is still the candidate running on the Republican side, and his polling has really not changed in 3 years so that seems to indicate modeling 2016 is not the worst place to start. Of course, there are a number of things that have changed as well. First and foremost, Hillary Clinton is not running, and while she was one of the most qualified candidates in history, she was also one of the most divisive politically, both in general and within the Democratic Party, after a pretty ugly primary campaign against Bernie Sanders. The other thing that has changed is that Donald Trump has a three year history to be judged upon instead of a bunch of promises from someone with no track record whatsoever, so he is not really a wildcard at this point. For better or worse, everyone knows exactly who he is and what he stands for.
In looking back at 2016, I started with compiling all of the state by state electoral data, including the 2 Congressional Districts in Maine and 3 Congressional Districts in Nebraska that allocate single electoral votes according to the popular vote within that district, as opposed to the statewide popular vote driving all the other electoral votes, and then I classified each into one of 7 categories based on that data.
The seven categories include:
- Dark Red or Dark Blue, where the margin of victory was greater than 10%.
- Solid Red or Solid Blue, where the margin of victory was between 5 and 10%
- Leaning Red or Leaning Blue, where the margin of victory was between 2 and 5%.
- Toss Up, where the margin of victory was less than 2%.
These are just arbitrary, of course, but based on historical precedent, we can at least make some general assumptions about what the future holds for states and districts based on the 2016 margin of victory observed in each. Generally speaking, I am making the assumption that there is no changing the outcome of a deep red or blue state, virtually no chance of changing the outcome in a solid red or blue state, some chance of changing the outcome of a leaning red or blue state (and deeper analysis will be required on a case by case basis), and that in a toss up state, anything can happen, and trends, statewide election history, demographics, and a variety of other things need to be assessed. So, let’s start with what we can be pretty certain about.
Dark Red States (2016):
- 20 States + 3 Congressional Districts
- Total Population: 64,782,931
- 126 Total Electoral Votes
- Each Electoral Vote represents an average of 514,150 people
- Combined Margin of Victory over Democrats was 23.94% in 2016
Solid Red States (2016):
- 4 States
- Total Population: 53,104,685
- 78 Total Electoral Votes
- Each Electoral Vote represents an average of 693,650 people
- Combined Margin of Victory over Democrats was 8.01% in 2016
Dark Blue States (2016):
- 13 States, District of Columbia and One Congressional District
- Total Population: 115,205,983
- 183 Total Electoral Votes
- Each Electoral Vote represents an average of 629,535 people
- Combined Margin of Victory over Republicans was 23.16% in 2016
Solid Blue States (2016):
- 2 States
- Total Population: 10,616,368
- 18 Total Electoral Votes
- Each Electoral Vote represents an average of 589,798 people
- Combined Margin of Victory over Republicans was 5.81% in 2016
At this point, we have accounted for 39 of 50 States, the District of Columbia and 4 of the 5 Congressional Districts that each carry one electoral vote. These areas account for:
- 244,708,967 million Americans (73.8% of our total population)
- 405 Electoral Votes or the 538 Total
- Each Electoral Vote Represents 604,220 People
- 204 Republican Electoral Votes
- 201 Democrat Electoral Votes
These are all predetermined before the first ballot is cast, and it leaves us with a situation where 11 States and 1 Congressional District (with their one electoral vote) will decide who the next President is.
The Republicans need to find a way to secure 66 more electoral votes and the Democrats need to find 69 more out the remaining 133.
Requisite Electoral College Rant
I never skip an opportunity to remind people how awful for our democracy the Electoral College is, so I will point out a few things about these 4 groupings of states.
First, is that among these states, the District of Columbia and the 4 Congressional Districts, you see the full range of disparity, between Texas and Wyoming specifically. In Wyoming, each Electoral Vote represents an average of 191,240 people. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Texas, where each Electoral Vote represents 755,377 people. Now, they are both “red states”, so you my ask why that matters. Well, the Electoral College’s flaws are not a red or blue problem. They are a democracy problem! And, before you start repeating the typical talking points you may have learned from Prager U or some other organization that like the slaveholders in the 1700’s, use the Electoral College to impose the will of the minority on the majority, and do so by claiming we are a Republic, no a Democracy…yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re correct, but applying your factual accurate belief in entirely the wrong way. The “rights of the little states” are preserved just fine by equal representation in the Senate, where there are far more little states than big ones, which means that collectively, they already have the final say over every law, every Executive Branch appointment, and every Federal Judiciary appointment. Small states are NOT lacking in representation. The Presidency, on the other hand, is an office, with greater power, but exactly like every other elected office in America…it represents EVERY one of its constituents equally (or at least is is supposed to), but unlike every other elected office in America, the occupant is not chosen by the constituents on a equal basis. “One person, one vote” does not apply, and ultimately someone living in Wyoming has 4 times the impact of someone living in Texas.
Second, aside from opening us up to a tyranny of the minority, as you can see by the margins of victory in each of these areas, either red or blue, 75% of electoral votes are not even contested in reality. They are just a rubber stamp every four years, and while yes, over extended periods of time, demographics change and party loyalty may shift in a few of them, but practically speaking, nearly 75% of our population has no effective say in the outcome of Presidential elections. Getting an extra 100,000 Republican votes, much less one extra Republican vote in Texas means nothing to the outcome, just like picking up a couple hundred extra Democrat votes in California means nothing…and that’s where we are talking about the majority party, because margin of victory means nothing. It’s even worse for the minority party. In 2016, a hotly contested Presidential race, we had only 41.1% of Americans show up to vote in the general election. I wonder why we had that many, actually given that 75% of our population have no influence over the outcome.
And for the record, that represents over 45 million Republicans, 48 million Democrats, and nearly 10 million Third Party voters (don’t even get me started on the futility of voting Third Party).
Pennant Race (2016 Data)
I am also a fan of sports metaphors, especially baseball, so I will explain the above results so far with a baseball analogy. In baseball, teams all play 162 games in the regular season, with the most successful teams (5 in each league) continuing on to the playoffs. Something that you may not realize about baseball is that one of the most reliable statements you can make about the game is that every single team…EVERY TEAM…no matter how talented or how awful they may be will win 50 games and lose 50 games each year. Now, there is value in those games in spite of them having no real bearing on the standings, or who goes to the playoffs, because baseball is a game, played for the enjoyment of the players and the fans, so in all of those 50-50 records, there is a lot to see and do. With the Presidential election, not so much.
So, now where we are at is the getting into the pennant race part of the season, every team has won 50 and lost 50, and now we see what everyone can do with the remaining 62 games to see who goes to the playoffs. Combined, the two parties need 135 more electoral votes, but there are only 133 to go around, so let’s “play ball”.
Red and Blue Leaning States (2016):
- 2 States and One Congressional District
- Total Population: 18,166,917
- 27 Total Electoral Votes
- Each Electoral Vote represents an average of 672,849 people
- Combined Margin of Victory over Democrats was 3.56% in 2016
- 3 States
- Total Population: 10,077,175
- 17 Total Electoral Votes
- Each Electoral Vote represents an average of 592,775 people
- Combined Margin of Victory over Republicans was 3.99% in 2016
For now, we should assume that these states will stay with the party that won them in 2016, though we will look a little deeper into each because they were certainly close enough to believe that flipping any of them is a distinct possibility. If they all hold, our updated standings will look like this:
- Republicans – 231 Electoral Votes and 39 to go.
- Democrats – 218 Electoral Votes and 52 to go.
This is what it all comes down to right here. 6 States to go, anyone’s game at this point. In 2016, the whole race was decided here, and 77,000 votes out of over 136 million cast in three states decided the future of America. I suppose my baseball analogy here would be perfect if it was seven states, but even with only 6, this is the World Series right here.
- 6 States
- Total Population: 56,924,163
- 89 Total Electoral Votes
- Each Electoral Vote represents an average of 639,597 people
- Combined Margin of Victory over Democrats was 0.53% in 2016
Additionally, here we had a net difference in votes between Democrats and Republicans of 143,154 across all 6 states, with Democrats winning two states and Republicans winning four, and all four states won by Republicans in 2016 were flipped Blue to Red from 2012’s results. Because of the electoral math, there is no one state on this list that is an absolute “must win”, though obviously Florida and Pennsylvania carry the most weight because of the number of electoral votes each offers. Republicans can win by taking Florida, in conjunction with just one other state not named New Hampshire. Democrats can win by taking Florida and 2 other states that equal at least 23 electoral votes (Michigan and Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, Michigan and Minnesota, etc.) or they can lose Florida and either Minnesota or Wisconsin and still win by taking the remaining four. I think you get the point.
In looking more closely at 2016, you can see exactly how close things were to breaking in a totally different way. Florida and Minnesota were the two biggest spreads and even in those case, the difference was less than 2% of the total ballots cast, with the others being far less than 1%. In all cases, even a fraction of the 3rd Party voting in each state could have flipped the state.
More Recent Trends
While analyzing the data from the most recent Presidential election is certainly one component of developing an effective electoral strategy for 2020, it is also very useful to look at what transpired in the 2018 mid-term elections. Now, mid-term elections do not reflect the same level of voter turn out as a Presidential election, they actually serve the purpose of a referendum on the sitting President in nearly every case, especially when the sitting President had absolutely no actual track record prior to being sworn in. By 2018, America had witnessed nearly two years of Presidential actions and could form some real opinions on something more than campaign promises and stump speeches.
The other thing that was unique about 2018 was that we witnessed an extremely high voter turnout compared to other recent mid-term elections. For the purposes of this analysis, I will focus entirely on the 2018 House races as they provide full coverage across every part of every state, whereas Senate elections are staggered and do not provide a full snapshot of data for any one election cycle.
In total, there were 114,695,088 million ballots cast in the House races of 2018, which was more than 84% of the total votes recorded in 2016 for President. Nationally, there were 61,416,120 (53.55%) Democrat votes recorded, 51,303,085 (44.73%) Republican votes recorded and 1,975,883 (1.72%) 3rd Party votes.
Comparing those numbers nationally to 2016:
- 2016 – 48.29%
- 2018 – 53.55%
- 2016 – 46.18%
- 2018 – 44.73%
Because of the change from 2016 to 2018 being so dramatic by historical standards, I think it is important to overlay the 2018 data with the 2016 numbers and see on a state by state basis what the impact was. We will find that several states may need to be reclassified and considered to be “in play” for the 2020 election.
In the far right column, you will see states (or Congressional Districts) highlighted that have been reclassified based on 2018 results. In general, even in the most dark red states, you can see by comparing the 2016 and 2018 margins of victory/defeat that in all but two, Democrats either cut into the Republican lead from 2016, or increased their own lead within the state. Interestingly, the average change in margin (all in favor of Democrats) breaks down as follows:
- Dark Red States: +7.23%
- Solid Red States: +5.74%
- Lean Red States: +2.32%
- Toss-Up States: +8.13%
- Lean Blue States: +6.85%
- Solid Blue States: +10.20%
- Dark Blue States: +12.63%
Now, the next step is to recalculate our electoral math formula:
If the goal is to win as a Democrat, the 2018 results certainly paint a rosy picture, with simply winning the Dark Blue and Solid Blue states as they were won in 2018, and you have 275 votes in your pocket and hence, the Presidency. The Republicans, on the other hand, could win every Dark Red, Solid Red, and Lean Red electoral vote and still only have 212 total electoral votes, far from the 270 required, so they would also need to win all of the Toss-Up states, as well as all the Lean Blue states and still need to pick up 7 more electoral votes from Solid Blue states.
Given the consequences, including very likely, at least one more Supreme Court Justice, and another busload or 7 of Federal Judges at the lower levels of the Judiciary, I don’t think any of us should fall for such a pleasant outlook and think this is in the bag. It will be a hard fought election, no matter what, 2018 turnout and results cannot be assumed, and we still need to make sure we have the best possible candidate to face off with Trump. We also need to keep the same eye on down ballot races that we had in 2018, because without Congress, the new President will get nothing done. Scary times.
While there will certainly be some voters that will maintain their “Ride or Die” philosophy when it comes to casting their ballot (and either not voting or casting a protest vote of some kind) if they do not get their candidate of choice as the nominee. I wish there was a reasonable way short of a lobotomy to change their view, but it is a free country (for now) and we will all do what we believe is right for us and our beliefs. As for me, I tend to be more analytical and less emotional, so I want to find the best candidate to achieve the number one goal…defeating Donald Trump before he either gets us killed or simply leaves us bankrupt as a nation (morally and financially). So, I think the data and coming primary/caucus results can tell us who that candidate is. Then, all we need to do is not let popular theory and “will of the people” screw it up.
One approach is to look at all of the states again that are not in either the Dark Red or Dark Blue category based on 2018 data, and assume that to at least some degree, they are all in play for either party. Sadly, due to the Electoral College, that still means that the people of 38 states or Congressional Districts have literally no impact on the outcome of the Presidential election, but we need to play the hand we are dealt and can think about changing rules after winning some elections.
That gives us a starting point of Republicans – 98 and Democrats – 243.
As happy as that outcome would make many people, we ca be sure it will not be that easy. Now, given what we know about the state of mind of the American people, after 3+ years of Trump, I think logic would dictate that we will likely see turnout and passion more in line with 2018 than what we saw in 2016 when the fear of Trump was not fully realized, the completely subservient nature of the GOP was not known and we had a candidate in Hillary Clinton that was both the presumptive nominee and winner, as well as extremely divisive to many. Nonetheless, I think a more conservative approach is needed as we reclassify all of these states, and to do that, I took an average of the 2016 Presidential election results and cumulative results of 2018. In this way, even if Democrats regress as a party, it has been accounted for.
With this new calculation, and assuming that the Dark Red ad Blue states and Congressional districts remain untouchable at a +10% or greater, we will have a starting point of Republicans – 125 and Democrats – 188. We should be able to consider those electoral votes effectively in the bag for each party.
If you add in the Solid Red and Blue states to each total, you move to Republicans – 181 and Democrats – 226. On the Republican side, that addition included Texas (+6.22% 2016/2018 Average Margin) and Ohio (+6.43% 2016/2018 Average Margin). For the Democrats, we are counting New Hampshire (+5.49%), Minnesota (+6.49%), Colorado (+7.69%), Maine – At Large (+8.98%) and Virginia (9.58%) in the total.
In the above graphic, you will see all of the States, Congressional Districts, and t District of Columbia ranked in order from Darkest Red to Darkest Blue, based on the 2016/2018 average margin of victory in each. From a color standpoint, the grayed out states on each end of the spectrum are for all practical purposes, meaningless when it comes to deciding who will win this election.
In the two columns to the far right, you will see running totals of for each party as they accumulate electoral votes on each of their paths to 270 and a win (Republicans run from the top down and Democrats run from the bottom up in my chart). If the world were this predictable, the whole thing would come down to Wisconsin as that is the only state that is overlapped by both paths to victory. Now, in reality, I think we know elections are not nearly that predictable, so you will see where I expanded the path of each party to include the states that lean toward the other party. Basically, that means any state that had less than a 5% margin of victory for either party, which makes victory by either party theoretically attainable, even if it may be an uphill battle.
I should also point out, this does not take into consideration the many unique factors within each of these states that will impact the outcome, I will get into that in more detail later, but for now, this is my starting point.
With that said, what I will propose at this point is that in order of importance to the Democrats, they will need to perform well in the following types of states to win:
- Defend the Lean Blue States (Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania)
- Win the Toss-Up States (Arizona and Florida)
- Attack the Lean Red States (Georgia, North Carolina and Iowa, along with the 2nd Congressional Districts of both Nebraska and Maine as they each have one electoral vote.)
If they sweep the first priority and stop there, Democrats win the presidency with 278 electoral votes.
If they complete the sweep of both priorities 1 and 2, Democrats win the presidency with 318 electoral votes.
And finally, if the Democrats really dominate, and take care of all three priorities, it is a landslide victory with 357 electoral votes.
Now, the reason for not simply stopping at priority 1 is because of the unpredictability we see in elections, and as insurance against losing one or more of those states, Democrats need to be prepared to offset the loss with a win somewhere else. For example, winning Arizona would offset a loss in Wisconsin and Democrats still win. A loss in Pennsylvania means 20 electoral votes need to be made up somewhere. North Carolina and Iowa together, or Florida alone would achieve that. You get the point.
Choosing the Right Candidate
That is the million dollar question (or billion dollar question, I suppose, since that is about what it will cost to win the presidency in 2020), and this is where I will argue that our nominating process is absolutely broken. The DNC (and the GOP when they do not have an incumbent) run their primaries and caucuses as if the Electoral College did not exist and we chose the President based on a national popular vote. If that were the case AS IT SHOULD BE, then going state by state and accumulating delegates from all corners of the United States would be the perfect approach. The reality is that 38 states and congressional districts will have no impact on the outcome of this election, and in all likelihood, you can throw away 7 others as well. As such, the primaries in these states and the associated delegate haul of each candidate mean nothing in the grand scheme of things when it comes to winning the White House, as it would take something close to Armageddon for those state to flip.
The focus needs to be on the 11 States and Congressional Districts listed in Priorities 1, 2 and 3…period. In this case, the mantra “Defense Wins Championships” holds true. Defend the states that are already leaning Blue, and the you can schedule the movers for January 20th. And, since even a great defense will give up a touchdown sometimes, your offense needs to score a little extra just to provide insurance.
Let me repeat the most important takeaway to this point:
The DNC nominating process is NOT aligned with how the General Election will be decided, and as such, may NOT lead to the right candidate being nominated if the goal is to actually win.
Earlier in this article I talked about the process for choosing a nominee as defined by the DNC rules, with the key points being that 1,991 Delegates being needed to win on the first ballot of the 3,979 total, and if no one arrives at the Convention with that many pledged delegates, it will go to a second ballot (or more in necessary) until one candidate can secure a majority. Also, after the first ballot, 771 Super Delegates enter the mix, bringing the total to 4,750 total and after the first ballot, ALL are unbound and free to vote for the candidate of their choice.
In looking at the upcoming primary calendar, there is obviously a big day coming up on March 3rd, with roughly a third of all delegates in play, and if you listen to the media, including left leaning outlets, nearly all are talking about two things:
- Bernie Sanders is on the verge of running away with the whole thing, and could be the presumptive nominee after Super Tuesday.
- Questioning how much longer the other candidates should stay in the race, or if they should start to drop out so that voters may coalesce around the front runner(s).
Here’s the problem with that narrative: After March 3rd, while more than a third of all delegates will have been awarded, only 3 of the priority states (plus one Congressional District) will have been heard from, and THIS is where the traditional DNC approach is clearly all wrong for determining the best candidate to win a general election in which the only thing that matters is winning the Electoral College.
The other things to look at with the above graphic are:
- These states account for a total of 131 electoral votes when it comes to the general election, and Democrats need to win some combination of these states to gain at least 44 of them to win the election (assuming the expected wins in all Dark Blue and Solid Blue States come to fruition, anyway).
- These states account for only 1,026 Pledged Delegates that will be bound to a candidate at the National Convention in July, and they are awarded proportionally in each, so there is no chance that any one candidate is going to sweep them, but even if there was that possibility, they only represent 51.5% of the 1,991 total needed to win the nomination on the first ballot.
- On the flipside, a candidate could theoretically be shut out in all of these states and still pick up enough delegates of the 3,979 total available in other states and win the nomination.
- If they were to be shut out in all these states that matter (just as an example since we know the results of two of them already), a candidate would need to win 67.7% of the delegates remaining outside of these priority states, which is not all that unrealistic considering 4 states alone that are not really even in play in the general election (California and Texas, both held on Super Tuesday, Illinois, to be held on 3/17, and New York, to be held on 4/28) have a combined 1,072 delegates available.
- Just the four states alone (listed above) that do not really matter in terms of winning the general election actually have more delegates available than these 9 priority states and 2 priority Congressional Districts.
- The dates of the primaries in these priority states.
- While Super Tuesday is quite likely going to lead to the media and their analysts declaring a presumptive winner of the nomination, the primaries that truly matter continue all the way until April 28th.
- This will impact voter turnout, and the decisions of those voters who do show up.
- This will impact donations to the candidates that may not have done as well on Super Tuesday, and as a result, they will not make it through all the states that matter.
These are ALL huge concerns, and totally conflict with the DNC’s ONLY purpose, which is to win the General Election.
Now, it is very possible that all of this might not come to pass and the “Will of the People” that is determined along the way at all of the primary and caucus stops will ultimately align with what is in the best interests of winning the General Election, but we all need to be prepared for those two things being divergent instead of convergent.
What Can Be Done
Fortunately, there is a caveat in the established DNC rules that may allow for a correction if necessary, several actually.
- The more candidates that stay in the race, the more the delegates will be split between multiple candidates and could prevent anyone, even the overall front runner from attaining the required 1,991 delegates to be declared the nominee on the first ballot.
- On the second ballot, all pledged delegates become free agents, plus 771 super delegates enter the fray.
- At this point, it becomes a free for all with negotiating and deal making galore for the candidates (or technically anyone else) to attempt to secure the 2,376 delegates needed to win on the nomination on the second ballot, and in spite of the “Will of the People” that the current front runner Bernie Sanders is pushing for, the delegates have the opportunity to do the right thing for the party and the country…put the best candidate forward to win the General Election.
CRITICAL NOTE: This entire process has been in the rules this entire election cycle, so each candidate knew all of this when they chose to enter the race. Also, every candidate except Bernie Sanders declared they wanted to follow the rules during the Las Vegas debate barely over a week ago, and Bernie Sanders declared he wanted to follow these same rules in 2016, so his objection now can really just be dismissed as opportunistic. In other words, no one needs to feel like the election was stolen, although the Russians, the GOP and a bunch of Bernie Bros will blow up the Internet declaring it was if it comes to this.
As voters, what should we do?
- Ignore the talking points from all the experts you see on TV and read the opinions of.
- See the process through…keep supporting the candidate of your choice until they are no longer in the race, and maybe even then.
- If you are making donations, keep making them. Your candidate of choice needs them to keep going.
- Show up to vote when your primary is scheduled, and vote for who you believe is the best candidate for the General Election, not just someone you think is going to win the primary.
- Keep promoting your candidate of choice in whatever ways you are doing now, and do not be swayed to give up before it’s time.
- Reach out to campaigns and encourage them to keep going.
In each of the critical races listed, the odds are relatively good if there is good voter turnout and a Democrat with broad appeal, but here are more specifics that will help paint that picture:
Cook’s Political Report is one of the most well regarded for partisan rankings available, so seeing how they are rating each of these critical electoral votes is helpful in understanding what the Democratic Party’s chances are in each. In addition, the two links below will take you to their rating pages for all of the House and Senate races that will be on the ballot in 2020 since those are obviously important as well.
Additionally, I think it is instructive to know how each of these States has voted in other statewide elections for offices such as the U.S. Senate, Governor and what the make-up is of the State Legislatures. Knowing how the people of the State (or Congressional District) view Democrats can be some indication of whether they will consider a Democrat for the Presidency.
Below you will see the current vote and delegate totals for the candidates tabulated in 3 different ways. The first two graphics represent totals based on only the 11 races deemed a priority because the fall into the proverbial battleground category. For my purposes, I used a plus or minus margin of 5% or less, based on the average margin of victory (or loss) for the Democrats between the 2016 Presidential election and the 2018 House races. I chose this averaging method because 2016 had a significant drop off in Democrat turnout compared to 2012, and it seems as though this resulted from a combination of lack of enthusiasm for the Democrat nominee, combined with a complete lack of knowledge of Donald Trump, at least how he would perform as President (or a politician at all). 2018, on the other hand, went totally the other direction, with extremely high voter turnout on the part of Democrats, compared to a typical mid-term election cycle. Now, what happens in 2020 remains to be seen, however, in order to be a little more conservative, knowing that Donald Trump will actually be on the ballot in 2020 (as opposed to 2018), and having another year of the Trump experience as motivation.
Interestingly, in those Priority States and Congressional Districts, from 2016 to 2018, Democrat voter turnout only dropped off a cumulative 7.59%. Republican turnout dropped by a more typical 16.64% for a midterm election, and that contributed greatly to an overall national popular vote margin of 2.10% (in favor of Democrats) in 2016 to 8.82% popular vote margin in 2018 (also in favor of Democrats).
The third and fourth graphics below represent that traditional method of calculating all states and territories, and finally, the last two graphics represent a hybrid system that does include all states and territories.
Basically, the logic used that the Priority States are more critical to win in the General Election than the others, either because they are likely (or definitely) unwinnable (greater than a 5% 2016/2018 margin of victory held by Republicans with most being plus 10% or greater), or nearly impossible for the Democrats to lose for the same reasons. So, with that, to keep the math simple, Priority States have their total Pledged Delegates, Super Delegates and accrued votes for each candidate multiplied by a factor of 2.0. Secondly, because it is still important to defend reliably Blue states, the normal delegates available and votes accumulated are multiplied by a factor of 1.5. Reliably Red states are left at their standard totals for both delegates and votes, so multiplied by a factor of 1.0. And lastly, all of the territories that have no electoral votes, but still hold a primary or caucus are counted, but multiplied by a factor of 0.5.
This weighting system is just used for an example of something that could be done to focus more of the attention and place more importance on the specific voter blocks that live in the states that are most likely the true battlegrounds of the 2020 election cycle, because the entire General Election is going to come down to these states and districts. Based on that it may be more beneficial to weight these Priority States more heavily, but that can obviously be discussed (and discussed by people who actually have a say in the matter – the DNC), but this at least gives you a snapshot look at what kind of impact it has. Of course, as of this writing, there have only been three primaries and caucuses in the books, so the spread is not great. I will however keep updating the totals as we roll through the rest of the primary season as results become available. (Note: The South Carolina primary is going on as I type this.)
This has been an interesting learning experience, doing a deep dive into the election data from the past 2 cycles, and while this is by no means complete in the sense of taking all factors into account (such as down ballot races that may impact turn out in any area), it hopefully illustrates the need for a more effective strategy when determining who the Democratic nominee is for President. I have come to this conclusion for two primary reasons:
- The selection of a nominee should more closely replicate the process (The Electoral College) that is used in the General Election, and not be what is effectively a national popular vote because if 2016 should have taught Democrats anything, it is that the national popular vote means nothing…winning does.
- That people who are clamoring for the nomination to go to the candidate with the most votes or most delegates even if they do not attain an actual majority is simply not the right approach if you are interested in winning. Simply put, that would be nominating a candidate (potentially) with the same flaws as 2016…someone who dominates in states that are guaranteed wins for any Democrat, and loses the key battleground states. Keep in mind, that if a candidate does not get a majority of votes or delegates throughout the primaries, that means in reality that within the Democratic voter base, more people were opposed to them than were in favor of them, and that is simply no way to win the general election.
Ideally, there is a clear cut winner that both wins the majority (not just a plurality) of delegates and votes through the full schedule of primaries AND dominates the real battleground states, but if not, a decision must be made who to send forth into the general election, and it is my belief that in some way, there must be additional weight given to the votes and delegates secured in the areas that are critical to winning. Some may feel that is unfair, and disregards the will of the people, but unfortunately, those are the rules of the game that matter…the General Election, and the DNC has an obligation to put forth the best candidate possible to win that race, regardless of what one candidate thinks about it, or their supporters think about it.
In addition, the other change that needs to be made is to the primary schedule. You hear much about this with Iowa and New Hampshire going first, yet not representing the demographics of the Democratic base. I agree that the calendar needs to change, but not for demographic reasons. It needs to change because of the cost of running a national campaign and the early states go a long way toward fueling the fundraising machine that is needed to go the distance. With that, the DNC needs more candidates running in the key states to really see who has what it takes. With that, I think the first month of the primary season should be run with 2-3 Priority States running their contests each week. These may change each cycle based on the results of the previous two cycles, using those to determine where the true battlegrounds will be, and then give the voters of those states the full slate to consider, and let each candidate show who is the strongest in the areas that matter. After the Priority States, then comes the Democrat strongholds and finally, the Republican strongholds. The logic on phases 2 and 3 of schedule being that candidates who survive the battleground gauntlet can then build momentum with the Democrat base, and finally, when the field it whittled down to either a presumptive nominee or at worst, two candidates, they can focus all of their time and money drumming up votes in the red states as an aid to down ballot races that may be there with a more precise effort.
With elections, nothing is guaranteed, but not having an effective strategy to put forth the candidate best positioned to win the General Election, that aligns with the constraints of the Electoral College, is downright malpractice on the part of the DNC.