The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bernie Sanders is still winning states — and still losing ground

Bernie Sanders pauses as he speaks at an April 25 campaign rally in Hartford, Conn. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

So the Republican race is over. Newsflash. Assuming that Donald Trump scoops up all the delegates in Indiana (which isn't yet confirmed), Trump will now have won about 53 percent of all of the delegates in the Republican contest and will need to win half of what's left in order to hit the critical 1,237 pledged-delegate mark before the convention.

After Wisconsin, the percentage of the delegates he needed to win in order to clinch the nomination was more than two-thirds — the high-water mark. But winning seven straight states by huge margins — and winning 95 percent of the delegates in those states — kept bringing that number down. That's the way these so-called magic numbers work: If you beat the target, the number drops. If you don't, it increases. After all, if you need to save $100 a week to pay rent and you only save $75 one week, you need to make up that extra $25 before the rent is due. Missing the current target makes the future goal harder.

And that, in a nutshell, continues to be Bernie Sanders's problem. He won Indiana on Tuesday, beating the polling average by a wide margin and netting delegates against Hillary Clinton. But coming in to Indiana, he needed to win about 64 percent of the delegates to eventually pass Clinton's pledged delegate total. Per the Green Papers, he won 53 percent of the state's delegates. So moving forward, he needs to do even better.

(The Indiana outcome also officially eliminated any idea that Sanders could possibly win enough pledged delegates to clinch the nomination outright. Sanders has correctly noted that Clinton won't clinch the nomination with only pledged delegates, either.)

Why isn't Sanders having luck catching up to Clinton? Notice the lighter-colored bars on both of those graphs. They represent the percentage of delegates won on each day. For each candidate to see a drop in the percentage he needs, those bars need to be above the clinching line. Trump’s are. Sanders’s aren’t.

Trump keeps winning nearly all of the delegates because the Republican system is set up to allow that. The Democratic system, on the other hand, doesn't allow it — meaning that a win in a state earns you roughly the same number of delegates as the percentage of the vote you get. Making it much, much harder for Sanders to hit his target number than it was for Trump.

Trump had to win 67 percent of the delegates after Wisconsin. In New York, he won about 60 percent of the vote — but got 95 percent of the delegates. If the Democratic rules had applied, he'd be falling further and further behind, in the way that Sanders is. But this system is still better for Sanders. If the same rules from the Republican contests applied to the Democrats, Clinton's lead would be three times as big.

The upcoming states in the Democratic contest are ones that are more likely to favor Sanders. But they need to favor him by a lot. And even if they do, most of them are small enough that they won't take a big bite out of Clinton's delegate lead. His magic number will fall by tenths of a percent, not even full percentage points — meaning that he may still need to win nearly two-thirds of the vote by the time California rolls around. And that's a state where Clinton continues to lead.

Which is why Sanders's team is now arguing that late votes count more than early ones. Here's the Huffington Post, quoting Sanders's strategist Tad Devine.

Asked if he believed that later contests were more important than earlier ones, Devine didn’t flinch.
“I think they are,” he said, “You know why? Because they are closer to November, that’s why, you know. And what happened a year ago is not as important as what’s going to happen in June of this year.”

Devine is suggesting, in essence, that hitting a few homers in the ninth even though you fell behind by 15 runs in by the fourth means you should be the winner because you can carry over that hot streak into the next game. (Which, of course, is on a different team and not on your home field.)

We'll see if the superdelegates, which are Sanders's only hope for the nomination, agree with that argument.