Delegate math is annoying. I've probably used that exact sentence in every article I've published since 8 p.m. Central time on Feb. 1, but it bears repeating. Figuring out the number of delegates committed to each candidate is a bit like figuring out how much you're worth if you have 42 bank accounts in 30 different currencies, a closet full of things that you need to take to Antiques Roadshow and a half dozen large checks that you're not sure if anyone will cash. Oh, and if you're Donald Trump, how much value you carry in your "brand."
Each state has different rules and uses a different calculus. In some states, the math is re-done after someone drops out. It's a mess. But as it stands, we figure that Trump leads the Republican field by about 84 delegates and Hillary Clinton leads the Democratic one by nearly 200 (excluding superdelegates, which, going back to the other analogy, are like a stock portfolio that changes every week).
What's harder to say, though, is if this is good or bad. Is Trump's lead safe? Have other candidates seen leads like Clinton's? What we need is a rolling total of the delegate counts both for 2016 and years past.
So we made that.
Cobbling together data from Real Clear Politics, the New York Times, U.S. Election Atlas and other sources, we created day-by-day assessments of where each nomination race stood on its way to either party's convention. This is necessarily an approximation, since on the day of many of these contests, the delegate totals weren't clear and since things can get rejiggered as the process unfolds. It's as accurate as we could get it.
First of all, here are the races this year. Both Clinton and Trump have trailed — Trump after Iowa and Clinton after New Hampshire — but only briefly.
In 2012, Mitt Romney's path to the Republican nomination looked like a staircase: a long, slow incremental climb to the majority of delegates.
Incremental is a critical word here. There are giant leaps each year thanks to the accumulation of delegates on Super Tuesday. After that, the lines move smaller amounts relatively slowly. That tends to be advantageous to whoever's in the lead, since it takes a number of incremental wins to overtake the leader.
In 2008, John McCain built a huge lead on Super Tuesday and had no problems after that.
But the Democratic side, as you may remember, was an epic struggle, with Barack Obama building a lead early and then staying just steps ahead of Clinton, no matter what. He never had more than a 115-delegate lead on any given day, according to our calculations. That's smaller than Hillary Clinton's lead (again, not including superdelegates) currently.
In 2000 and 2004, the races followed the same pattern. The front-runner got a huge lead on Super Tuesday, and that was it.
This is all useful context, but it doesn't really let us compare this year to past years. A better way to do that is to look at the evolution of each eventual nominee's lead from Iowa (or the first delegate contest) forward.
Between the first contest and June 30 of each of the six nominating contests between 2000 and 2012, the total period of time that the eventual nominees trailed in the delegate totals was 54 days — out of more than 1,000 days total.
Use the labels at the bottom to toggle individual lines.
The latest into a contest that a nominee trailed was Feb. 29, 2000, when George W. Bush passed John McCain. That year the voting started late, so Bush retook the lead for good 35 days after the first contest. Thirty-five days after Iowa this year, by the way, was Monday.
This is a very small sample size, as XKCD would remind us. But the system is built in a way that favors the man or woman in the lead. Meaning that no matter how you tally it up, Trump and Clinton are each in very good positions.