Here’s a prediction of what will happen in today’s primaries on the Democratic side. Bernie Sanders will do very well, winning Illinois and Missouri; Hillary Clinton will take Florida and North Carolina; and Ohio will be essentially a tie. Sanders might even pull ahead there. If that does happen, the headlines will justifiably read that Sanders is surging while Clinton struggles to fend off his strong challenge.
But even if I’m right about that, Clinton will probably end the night having won more delegates than Sanders, expanding her lead and bringing her closer to the nomination. That’s because the Democratic primary contest is working out just as it was designed to.
Some Clinton supporters might not think so — after all, this race has turned out to be more difficult for her than most people thought it would be, and Sanders could still triumph. But in contrast to the Republican system, the one Democrats built favors establishment candidates and ones who have the resources for the long haul.
The first reason is, of course, the superdelegates. While the Democrats need 2,383 delegates to claim a majority, there are 712 superdelegates — mostly elected officials and party leaders — who can support anyone they wish. Most of them are going to go with the candidate with deeper party roots, which is happening this time. Clinton has 467 superdelegates who say they’ll support her, while Sanders has only 26.
The second reason the Democratic system favors a candidate like Clinton is that all the delegates selected in the primaries and caucuses are allotted proportionally. Now this may seem like it could boost candidates who aren’t the party’s favorite, and it can. Even if you come in second or third, you won’t get shut out. So for instance, in South Carolina, Clinton beat Sanders by an emphatic 74-26 percent. She got 39 delegates, but he also got 14. On the Republican side, Donald Trump won with only 33 percent of the vote, but he got all 50 of the state’s delegates, since it’s one of the Republicans’ winner-take-all states.
The reason I argue that the proportional system benefits the party favorite is that in a system with a lot of winner-take-all states, someone can become a momentary front-runner and grab a load of delegates by narrowly winning some states. The proportional system, on the other hand, benefits the candidate who is popular in many different states, has a broad and deep organization, and is prepared for a long campaign.
But what about 2008? Didn’t the insurgent candidate beat the establishment one that year under similar rules? Yes and no. Barack Obama started off the race as an insurgent, but the better he did, the more of an establishment candidate he became. As the race went on, Obama got more and more endorsements from key Democratic politicians (none more important than Ted Kennedy, who endorsed him at the end of January), and some superdelegates switched their allegiance from Clinton to him. And his campaign turned out to be a much more efficient and effective operation than hers, with a deep understanding of the delegate rules that enabled him allocate resources in such a way that he could snatch more and more delegates before the Clinton team even understood what was happening.
Republicans had hoped that their system — a mix of proportional, winner-take-all, and what are sometimes called winner-take-most contests — would allow their front-runner to quickly vanquish his opponents by piling up delegates. That’s sort of what happened four years ago, but it also allowed candidates who had momentary strength, like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, to grab lots of delegates even without the infrastructure to go deep into the campaign. And this year, the system is boosting Donald Trump, by giving him the ability to open a big lead and knock out competitors. Needless to say, he was not what the party had in mind when they designed a system to help the front-runner.
So why did I say that Clinton will wind up getting more delegates that Sanders tonight, even if his victories end up being the big story? Consider what happened a week ago on March 8th, when he surprised everyone by winning Michigan. It was a big deal for the Sanders campaign, and it dominated news coverage of the day’s contests. But what most people missed is that because the Michigan results were close (Sanders won by 1.5 points), while Clinton destroyed him in the day’s other contest in Mississippi (she won by 66 points), she wound up with 90 delegates to his 71.
Something similar is likely to happen tonight. Clinton has been leading in polls of Ohio and Illinois, but Sanders seems to have the momentum in both states. But even if he pulls ahead and wins, they’re likely to be pretty close. Yet in Florida, polls show her with a huge lead, of around 25 points. The same is true of North Carolina. If she wins those states by large margins, it won’t surprise anyone, and thus won’t dominate the headlines. But it will widen her lead over Sanders and make it even harder for him to catch her.
I’m sure Clinton and her supporters would like to have the nomination wrapped up as soon as possible. But even if the campaign grinds on for a couple more months, the system is still working just as it was intended, despite all the bumps along the way.