After the Ides of March Primaries: an Assessment of Sanders’ Prospects at the Halfway Point

The propagandists are out again in force, informing progressive voters that Bernie’s chances were impaled on the March 15 returns. They are already busy coaxing Sanders voters to abandon the corpse and support Clinton in the general election, as if the coronation had already occurred.

Of course the plutocratic mass media, and DNC operatives have been playing this same song for many months, so it should be no surprise. It is the same old fraud to sap morale from Sanders’ supporters. “Don’t invest there. His stock is falling.”

It is useful therefore to make a reality check to sum up exactly what the results are to date in this historic 2016 election, in order to separate reality from both the propaganda and also from the rigged process.

Is Bernie winning or what?

Rigged Scoreboard

First, to describe the real world rather than the rigged one that keeps announcing that Clinton can’t loose, it is necessary to change the DNC scorekeeper who distorts the score to suit the plutocrats who pay the DNC’s tab.

In the real world the states that will elect a Democrat are known. They are called blue states. Which are the blue states? They are that minimal number of reliably Democratic states that, along with some swing purple states, are needed to win in the Electoral College. Blue states all voted Democrat in the narrowly divided election of 2000, and also in 2012. The currently blue state of New Hampshire was a purple state in 2000 and flipped that election to Bush. It was New Hampshire not Nader.

The 2000 electoral map, plus New Hampshire, make up the 2000 election blue states that were then necessary to win the presidency. But the map changes with the census, which now requires Democrats to win some purple states at the same time that several purple states are in various phases of turning blue.

In 2012 Obama won Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. They are two high electoral vote purple states and one purplish-red state that were unnecessary for his victory. But Obama did need the purple states of Nevada, Colorado, Virginia and Iowa which are all varying shades of turning blue. Some combination of the 2000 blue state map plus those seven various shades of purple states, make up the meat and potatoes necessary to win the Electoral College. Everything else is gravy.

Red states are everything else. They are unnecessary and highly unlikely to contribute any electoral votes to a Democratic candidate, except in a landslide election. Since Democrats have not won a landslide since 1964, red states are for all practical purposes irrelevant to any realistic Democratic strategy for a presidential victory. Red states should therefore be ignored for the most important element of that strategy, which is nominating the candidate that can best represent and hold together the minimal blue and purple state coalition necessary to win.

Currently the DNC rules do count red state delegates as if they had some essential role to play in the process, other than as interesting straw polls. This is not only undemocratic, because it dilutes the voting power of blue and purple states in making their collective choice, it provides a playground where plutocratic money can more efficiently harvest delegates than elsewhere. In a fair and democratic system, red states would play no role in the process, other than providing a straw vote for the curious, and participating in such associational and non-electoral matters, such as writing the party platform.

A fair scorekeeper would, while ignoring the red states, keep very close track of all the blue states, and also of at least a shifting winning share of the purple states. If the Sanders revolution is to restore democracy one of its essential goals, alongside changing the Supreme Court, should be to require the scorekeeper at the DNC to follow democratic rules for counting delegates.   Changing this “rotten borough” and other rules would make the nomination of a candidate democratic rather than rigged to favor the plutocrat candidate, as as it is now. Democratizing the DNC delegate rules would also most likely give Sanders, or a similar candidate in 2020 when there will be even more Millennial voters, the Democratic nomination.

The Ides

The immediate concern is the meaning of the March 15 results, which plutocrats present as the scene of the latest money-stream media assassination of Sanders’ chances for the nomination. How do the Ides look from a democratic perspective rather than that of the assassins?

In the midst of all the propaganda about the Ides of March results, it needs to be pointed out there was only one solid blue state in play, Illinois. There, for a third time, Sanders fought in a major blue state to a virtual tie. Sanders lost by just two delegates in Illinois, designated as Clinton’s home state as well as her powerful backer, Barack Obama.   Illinois was otherwise similar to Sanders’ historic virtual tie in blue state Michigan. There he won by seven delegates. One win, one loss in the rustbelt Midwest region – both were within a less than 2% margin, for a net five delegates to Sanders. Only in comparison with Michigan is the Illinois result disappointing. Together they are historic. More on Illinois later.

Sanders also tied in Missouri, a red state which will make no necessary contribution to a Democratic Electoral College victory and so its primary result should be considered as just a straw poll under democratic rules. Its delegates which were split equally should be irrelevant to the selection of a Democratic nominee, as it should be in all other red states.

The other three states in play in the Ides of March primaries were two purple states that were unnecessary for Obama’s 2012 victory, Ohio and Florida (which has a closed primary), and the mostly red state of North Carolina. The delegates from these states should count in the Convention but nowhere near as strongly as the blue state votes count, because they are neither essential nor likely for a Democratic 2016 victory. The voting weight should be based on, for example, the electoral votes North Carolina has contributed to Democrats in the electoral college during the previous generation. Nothing earlier than that could have much predictive power. A reasonable weighting formula, would reduce voting strength based on electoral votes by 60%, 25%, 15% and 5% for each previous year the state made no contribution to the Democrats electors in the Electoral College.

For example, North Carolina voted Democratic once in the last generation, in 2008. Its delegates’ voting strength should be weighted at 25% compared to reliable blue states like Michigan or Minnesota which voted Democratic for at least the past generation and are likely to do so in 2016. The same with other purple states, each with its own estimated probability for contributing electoral votes in 2016 based on actual past experience not a mythical treatment of unequal states as if they will contribute equally to a Democratic victory.

Blue state victor, purple state competitor

Before Illinois, other than Clinton’s one delegate margin in Massachusetts, discussed below, Clinton had yet to win a single blue state and had no better than virtual ties in purple states outside the South. March 15 added two more landslides to her southern purple state column, along with Ohio.

Under the fair system of counting delegates described above, not only would March 15 be less significant than the media has treated it, but the red state reliance of Hillary Clinton for most of her delegate strength would and should entirely evaporate. In blue states, she has those two extra delegates in Illinois and that delegate in Massachusetts. That is it.

Massachusetts, had an unexplained 8% exit-poll anomaly which argues for a second DNC rule change — in addition to the “rotten borough” rule change suggested above. The DNC should discount the weight of any ballots from states that are not made on paper, and subject to hand re-count, which are also unconfirmed by reliable exit polls. One analysis of Massachusetts’ returns alleges that the returns “indicate fraud.” This virtual tie should be contested before the Rules committee where the credentials of Clinton’s Massachusetts’ delegates should be challenged. Until resolved this problem takes Massachusetts out of the Clinton win column, leaving the virtual tie in her home state of Illinois as her only blue state victory. The remainder of the blue state primaries were won by Sanders in landslides.

The purple state of Iowa also has alleged irregularities. That should also take the Iowa virtual tie out of the Clinton win column. Of the three remaining purple states required for victory, Sanders and Clinton traded landslide victories in Colorado and Virginia, for a tie. Clinton won Nevada by five percent, which is a little better than a tie. So in the essential purple states Clinton has slightly more than a tie, which is more than cancelled out by Sanders’ landslides in blue states. In three inessential purple states she won by wide margins comparable to Sanders’ victories in blue states, but which should not convey the same voting power if fair rules were applied.

Summing up, in a fair run-off election conducted under fair DNC rules Sanders is narrowly ahead with prospects for widening the lead. The March 22d primaries in Western red states will not change this calculus, since they should be treated as straw polls.

Looking further ahead, the purple state elections – where Clinton has been strongest – have been completed so no further landslides which she won only in the most marginal purple states should be expected for her. Sanders’ six wins and four virtual ties (including Nevada as nearly a tie) in representative blue and purple states suggest his competitive strength going forward in each of five well-defined blue and purple state regions: the East Coast (represented by landslide victories in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and the tie in Massachusetts), Rustbelt Midwest (represented by offsetting virtual ties in Illinois and Michigan), Upper Midwest (represented by a landslide in Minnesota and tie in Iowa), Southern Rockies (represented by a landslide in Colorado), and Pacific Coast (roughly represented by a competitive race in Nevada). These are the regions that will elect a Democratic president. They augur well for a continued close race leaning to Sanders in the remaining blue states. Though Sanders should win landslides in some of these blue states, it is unlikely that Clinton will.

That this optimistic analysis based on Sanders’ victories where it counts is more than a counterfactual rosy hypothetical is explained below in connection with a proposed DNC rules initiative.

Slow Strategy for Black Women

It is useful first to pause to look at some of these states in the Ides of March primaries from the perspective of analyzing why Sanders is losing. North Carolina was the last primary in Clinton’s sweep of the almost all red deep South. It was typical of those red states. Clinton’s margin of victory there was largely accounted for by her 81% of black women voters, who were 19% of the primary electorate.

In the Ohio primary black women, again, were 13% of the electorate compared to 8% for black men. While white men and women broke 3-2 respectively for Sanders and Clinton, black women voted more than 2-1 for Clinton. Again a good portion of Sanders’ losing margin would have been erased if he had reversed this ratio of black women voters.

In Illinois, if Sanders had reduced only about 10% of his 32% losing margin among black women, who made up 17% of the primary electorate, Sanders would have won.

Sanders clearly has a black women problem that he has not yet addressed.

African American women first soundly defeated Sanders in South Carolina where this problem hit him in the face, stalling the momentum gained from his enormous New Hampshire landslide. But there is no evidence of any effort by the campaign to address the problem, let alone solve it. So Sanders just keeps getting slapped down in one primary after another by a constituency that should be his strongest supporters on the merits of his record. His issue is inequality and black women suffer two sources of entrenched institutional inequality along with the inequality imposed by plutocrats on everyone. Black women should be Sanders’ peeps.

This is not a problem caused by black women, nor by insufficient small campaign contributions from people who trust their money is spent wisely, nor is it about insufficient enthusiasm from Millennials and others at large campaign events who are depending on Sanders for their future, nor about insufficient support from black intellectuals like the great democrat and Sanders supporter Dr. Cornel West, or Glen Ford and others who are familiar with the Clintons’ record on matters important to black women.

The continued problem is due to nothing else than the apparent strategic incapacity of Sanders’ own campaign to effectively communicate to black women a good reason to vote for him rather than for a Jim Crow candidate who helped foster the current civil rights crisis by advocating tough policing and welfare cuts in the 1990’s.

Scalia’s death bequeathed to Sanders’ campaign the timely gift of a ready solution for this problem. Senator Sanders only needed to exercise his constitutional power to advise President Obama publicly to make an historic nomination of the first black woman justice on the Supreme Court. There are many qualified strong black women who would make excellent progressive Supreme Court justices. The first African American woman justice would be Obama’s historic Supreme Court legacy, like Thurgood Marshall was Lyndon Johnson’s. Sanders could have embedded this recommendation in a major speech on civil rights, presented at Howard Law School, almost in sight of the Supreme Court. The speech would celebrate the profound contributions to American democracy of black women and women abolitionists, calling for deploying their considerable skills effectively at the highest level in solving the current civil rights crisis as an integral part of Sanders’ democratic revolution against plutocracy.

This historic opportunity was ignored by the Sanders campaign.

Since the principal means the campaign makes available to communicate with it is the one way transaction of giving it money, perhaps a contribution boycott would wake it up. Or send a message through Otherwise Sanders may lose the election of 2016 for no other reason than an incompetent campaign which was unable to communicate effectively its support for its essential constituency of black women voters who never received the message.

Even now after Obama’s white male plutocratic nominee has been definitively rebuffed by Republicans, instead of having Sanders offer the advice that Obama use the remedy that the Constitution provides for such a deadlock by making an Easter recess appointment of a progressive black woman who Sanders could recommend, the campaign allowed Sanders to endorse Merrick Garland who would undermine Sanders whole purpose for seeking the presidency, as one of the judges who signed on the opinion which legalized SuperPACs.

Were the campaign to solve this black women problem the narrow blue and purple state losses or virtual ties would be converted to clear Sanders victories, and significant purple state losses into ties. The red state wipe outs would become victories and ties. The campaign would have only built accelerating momentum straight out of New Hampshire.

The Sanders campaign is the people’s campaign, funded by the people, energized by the people, and the people are crowding the polls in the only places that should count.   The people were unable to also take on the task of communicating with black women voters on behalf of the campaign, as needed. Only the campaign could perform this strategic task. With its enormous bankroll of $140 million it should have been able to spare funds for this purpose. The campaign would be clearly winning at this point, if it had competently handled this issue. The outcome now remains unnecessarily close and uncertain, because it did not. It is still not too late to turn this negative factor into a positive for the remainder of the campaign, if Sanders would campaign for Obama to make a recess appointment of a progressive black woman. This could still help to some extent in the remaining half of the primaries, and even possibly win over some of the Clinton delegates on crucial rules and credentialing fights at the Convention.

DNC Rules Initiative

Due largely to the strategic error described above, the nomination could depend on the interpretations of rules by the DNC.

Perhaps the campaign’s all but fatal, and ongoing, failure to seize the opportunity to appeal to black women voters will prompt it to up its game in taking on the DNC rules problem. In the end, a list of undemocratic rules could determine the nomination, including those for, 1) the red state “rotten borough” problem described above, 2) blatant conflicts of interest among Superdelegates and the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee, 3) credential contests over election machine fraud and other irregularities in counting votes or resolving election law violations, such as in Massachusetts and Iowa, and 4) overvaluing results from closed, or partially closed, duopoly primary states like Florida and Massachusetts that deter independent participation. Just as these rules could undemocratically determine the outcome of the 2016 election that has attracted more democratic energy than most, they can continue to distort primary elections in 2020 and beyond.

One of the most important outcomes of the last comparable electoral insurgency within a rigged primary electoral system, in 1968, resulted in the 1972 DNC rules changes which have allowed Sanders to get as far as he has in 2016. The 1968 insurgency resulted in an untenable choice between a candidate seen as warmonger and another who was a crook. Nixon was eventually run out of office, but not before he had done great damage especially with his four Supreme Court appointments. The rules changes salvaged some democratic gain from the debacle. Superdelegates introduced after the 1980 Ted Kennedy fiasco represented backsliding from those changes, but the 1972 rules otherwise remain largely in place.

Similar reform of the rules to finally convert at least one of two parties into a vehicle that can reliably nominate the people’s choice in blue and purple states would be a valuable outcome of 2016, whether or not the Sanders campaign succeeds.

Like the strategic failure with black women, effective challenge to the undemocratic rules of the DNC can be organized only by the campaign, not by the people supporting the campaign, or even the Sanders delegates to the state and national Conventions. The Sanders campaign, waged on behalf of the people and using the people’s money, needs to prepare a strategy to reform the DNC’s rules so that Sanders’ victories given him at the polls by the people can be honored by placing the people’s choice, not the plutocrat’s choice, on the ballot in November.

It is doubtful that the Sanders campaign could withstand strategic failure on both of these potentially fatal issues. By working on the reform of DNC rules, the Sanders campaign can leave an important legacy however the nomination turns out.

Rob Hager is a public interest litigator who filed an amicus brief in the Montana sequel to Citizens United and has worked as an international consultant on anti-corruption policy and legislation.