Totally Useless Primary Predictions And Analysis That Nobody Asked For: March 10, 2020

The state of the race through March 3. Delegate and vote totals valid through the evening of March 4.

I’ve decided to revive my 2016 tradition of writing up my trademark Totally Useless Primary Predictions And Analysis That Nobody Asked For (Title In Progress). It’s a little easier to fill in the blanks now that the 2020 presidential field has winnowed to two people—well, three, but really two—from a historic high of something like 30 candidates and a dog.

We enter Super Twosday II: 2 Super 2 Tuesday with Joe Biden holding a 60-80 delegate lead over Bernie Sanders. Biden completely collapsed in the first three contests of the race; his campaign was running on fumes when he won the endorsement of Rep. Jim Clyburn, dean of Democratic politics in South Carolina, solidifying Biden’s support among the state’s Black voters. The shock of Biden’s strong win there cleared the field and helped Biden roll to numerous commanding victories on Super Tuesday, unseating Bernie Sanders as the frontrunner and placing him on track to win the Democratic nomination.

Today (March 10) is the next major round of voting. Six states—Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, and Washington—will cast their votes today and set the tone heading into the March 15 debate and the delegate-rich states that vote on March 17.

Barring any earth-shattering surprises (and we’ve never seen those, have we?), the results from Super Tuesday could be a reliable guide for how the next couple of weeks will go. Joe Biden has a commanding lead among voters of color and folks 65 and older, while Bernie Sanders is the runaway favorite among young voters.

We’ve seen three major shifts between 2016 and 2020…

1: Joe Isn’t Hillary

The most apparent change is that Biden is much stronger with white rural voters than Hillary was in 2016, and—possibly as a direct result—Bernie is much weaker in states that he kept close or won outright in the last primary cycle. The results from the first 18 races makes it clear that a not-insignificant segment of Bernie’s support in 2016 was driven anti-Hillary sentiment. For those voters, Bernie was simply the “Not Hillary” on a ballot with two names.

Results in Vermont’s Democratic primary, 2016 (left) and 2020 (right). [Source: NYT]

Case in point: he won his home state of Vermont in 2016 with a whopping 86% of the vote, locking Hillary out of all 16 delegates there. This time, though, he only pulled just over 50% of the vote, winning 11 delegates to Biden’s 5. His declines at home and in the other 13 races held on Super Tuesday were significant enough that the packed field doesn’t explain away his decline. Bernie’s share of the vote will almost assuredly go up now that all the other candidates have dropped out, but last week’s results show that there was a genuine loss of support that he’ll have to make up if he wants to stay in the race for the long haul.

It’s also notable that Biden’s coalition seems like it’s broadening out to include a wider section of the Democratic electorate than Hillary was able to put together during the last primary. One of my favorite statistics from the 2016 primary was how you could predict the margin of races within a few points just by looking at a state’s demographics alone. The whiter a state, the better Bernie did. That’s hasn’t been the case this time around.

2: Most Caucuses Are Primaries Now

Bernie won every caucus in 2016 that came after Nevada. Look at the margins in some of these states:

Washington: Bernie 73, Hillary 27
North Dakota: Bernie 64, Hillary 26
Idaho: Bernie 78, Hillary 21
Utah: Bernie 79, Hillary 20
Kansas: Bernie 68, Hillary 32
Alaska: Bernie 80, Hillary 20
Minnesota: Bernie 61, Hillary 38

For an entire stretch between about late March and late April, Bernie kept scoring these blowout wins in tiny caucus states that gave his campaign enough wind to keep fighting through the end of voting in June. In all, 14 states held caucuses in 2016.

That number is just 3 this cycle, and two of them (Iowa and Nevada) already voted.

The first three states in that list—Washington, North Dakota, and Idaho—are three of the states voting on March 10. It’s hard to tell exactly what will happen in the former caucus states. Washington gives us our best glimpse at what may happen this week.

Washington held two contests between Hillary and Bernie back in 2016. All of the state’s 101 delegates were awarded during a caucus in March, which saw Bernie win 73% on a turnout of 230,000 people. A few months later, they held a non-binding contest during the state’s May primary. That contest saw 802,000 people turn out and Hillary won 52-48. We saw a similar result in 2008, where Barack Obama won a commanding victory over Hillary in the caucus, while he won the non-binding primary with a much-reduced margin a few months later.

The caucus-to-primary states are still a wildcard, and this time they might not give Bernie the narrative and momentum he needs to carry his campaign through the end of voting if Biden starts running away with a delegate lead.

3: Tulsi

And then there’s Tulsi Gabbard. The last minor candidate left standing, Tulsi is every alt-right voter’s favorite Democrat. Her presence on the ballot likely gives Republicans who are “stuck” in the Democratic primary an opportunity to protest against Biden and Bernie without having to choose either. Bernie was the conservative protest vote last time for Republicans who wind up voting in the Democratic primary because they haven’t changed their party affiliation in 40 years. That’s the dynamic that drove his 2016 wins in West Virginia and Oklahoma. Gabbard’s presence on the ballot will cut into that small voter pool this go around; while it likely won’t have any practical effect, it could matter in a razor-thin race.

Tuesday’s Races

Michigan:

Bernie won Michigan in a shocker back in 2016, taking the state by a point when almost every poll showed Hillary winning by double-digit margins. Decent pollsters are afraid to touch the state after getting burned twice (they whiffed it there in November, too), so we’re going into the primary without much reliable data. This was the win that helped Bernie power through the back half of primary season even as Hillary built an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates. He needs to win here to stave off the growing assumption that Biden is the inevitable nominee, and he needs to win big if he wants any hope at putting a dent in Biden’s delegate lead. Given the changes compared to last cycle, though, it seems like Biden is a favorite here.

Michigan is a little tough to gauge because the state has robust early voting and many votes were locked in before everyone started dropping out. The state reports that about 24,000 people asked to “spoil” their ballots and cast a new one, giving supporters of candidates who dropped out a second chance. It depends on how much the vote is split, but I’ll say Biden wins it by a modest margin, but…don’t hold me to it.

Missouri:

Hillary won Missouri by about 2,500 votes last time around—which was a bit of a surprise at the time given Bernie’s strength among white voters in the Midwest.

The bulk of the Democratic vote will come from St. Louis and Kansas City, with another chunk coming from college students in Columbia. If Biden can run up the score with voters of color in the cities, make inroads with suburban white voters like he did on Super Tuesday, and win over rural voters all at the same time, there’s an outside chance he could score a decent victory in Missouri on Tuesday.

Missouri doesn’t allow early voting—you can only vote absentee if you have a valid excuse not to vote on election day—so this is the first state where almost all of the vote will take place with only two major candidates in the running. This will be the first real test to see if we’re going to fall back into the 2016 dynamic or if Biden is building a strong coalition among Democratic voters across the board.

My hunch is that Biden wins, but, again, we don’t have much to work with to guesstimate by how much.

North Dakota:

It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen in unpolled and oft-forgotten North Dakota. The state is holding a “firehouse primary” on Tuesday, which is a party-run primary that allows voters to cast a ballot and leave. They also conducted vote-by-mail for folks who requested it. It’s technically still a caucus, but in name only. That’s almost certainly going to raise turnout from the 4,000 people who caucused in 2016, which was the lowest turnout of all 50 states.

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the most recent Democrat to win a statewide election there, threw her support behind Joe Biden this weekend. Hillary won the South Dakota primary by a thin margin in 2016, which came as a surprise given her weakness in most of the surrounding states. It seems like the state is a tossup, possibly lean Bernie, but it’s really hard to tell because this is the first Bernie-dominated Plains state to vote this year.

Idaho:

Idaho is another caucus-to-primary state that went big for Bernie in 2016—he won 78% of the vote here on a turnout of 23,844. Unlike other switch states where it’s a bit of a mystery how things are going to shake out, Idaho seems like it’s decent territory for Bernie even without the caucus helping to swing things in his favor.

One demographic where Bernie has made measurable inroads since 2016 is among Latino voters, a group who will likely make up a decent number of voters in Idaho on Tuesday. This seems to favor his chances here. It’ll be a sign of significant—potentially campaign-threatening—collapse if he can’t pull off a win here.

The results of the March 2016 caucus and the May 2016 primary in Washington.

Washington:

As I mentioned earlier, Washington is the rare state where we have concrete data to back up the change between caucuses and primaries. (The other is Nebraska, which doesn’t vote until May 12.) Bernie went from 73% to 48% between the March 2016 caucus and the May 2016 primary. I expect we’ll see a similar dynamic here.

As I mentioned earlier, Washington is the rare state where we have concrete data to back up the change between caucuses and primaries. (The other is Nebraska, which doesn’t vote until May 12.) Bernie went from 73% to 48% between the March 2016 caucus and the May 2016 primary. I expect we’ll see a similar dynamic here.

Bernie is favored to win here—the state leans left, voting by mail has been going on for a while, and a significant chunk of the earlier ballots probably include candidates no longer in the race—but I wouldn’t be surprised if Biden winds up taking it once all the votes are counted in a few weeks. If Bernie does win, it probably won’t be anything near the landslide he needs in this delegate-heavy state to stay competitive. The simple fact that he won’t match the 73% he got last time might be enough to knock the wind out of a modest win here.

Mississippi:

Biden’s impending win in Mississippi isn’t in doubt. Like South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana, the majority of the Democratic base in Mississippi is made up of Black voters, who are overwhelming turning out for Biden this time around.

The only question here is how large Biden can run up his margin. Mississippi was the closest Hillary came to locking Bernie out of delegates back in 2016. She won 83-17 here, taking 32 of the state’s 36 delegates. If Biden can score a comparable victory here, it’s possible that his delegate haul out of Mississippi could single-handedly overtake any of Bernie’s wins tonight.