Thursday, March 24, 2016

Can Bernie Still Win? Post Idaho Utah and Arizona

Once again, I am not a Bernie Sanders supporter, but some friends talked me into looking at the data surrounding this primary, and I have found it fascinating. I spent a bit of time trying to figure out how to describe my feelings on Bernie Sanders performance Tuesday night, and "Held Serve" is the sports term that I think is most relevant.  

Bernie won two states by huge margins, but lost the biggest state (Arizona) by a significant margin.  In net, it turns out not to be a huge win, and doesn't fundamentally change the numbers for the rest of the race.


Other websites have detailed accounting of the Tuesday elections, including some craziness in Arizona, but the summary is this:  Bernie lost Arizona by more than expected, and won Idaho and Utah by much more than expected. Because Arizona is bigger than Utah and Idaho combined, Bernie performed slightly though not materially better than this blog's "Bernie Sanders Performance Improvement Plan."

After Tuesday night, Bernie sits in a similar position as he did before, no worse, and no better, really.  He picked up a few delegates over my initial posts, but not enough delegates to fundamentally change the race.  He still needs to win about 57% of remaining delegates to win.  

On the positive side for his followers, he over-performed polling in two western states, so they can likely argue that he has a chance in the rest of the west.  Here's what the delegate counts look like now, first the google view, and then our fair, sans super delegates view.


If this is the first time you've looked at this analysis, you can read the full methodology here.  Essentially, this analysis looks at the pledged delegates required to win (assuming supers will follow), and then uses a logistic function to calculate how much Bernie needs to outperform polling by in each remaining State in order to win.  

How is this helpful? In two ways really:
  • It allows us to quantify how much better than polls Bernie would have perform in order to win. (And the general plausibility of that performance, I generally think it's implausible at this point)   
  • It allows us to set intermediary targets for Bernie's improved performance, that let us know if his current performance is putting him on pace to win.  For instance, Bernie's target for Tuesday was 80 delegates, and he performed slightly better at 85.  On pace, but not good enough to change fundamentals the rest of the way. 

Here's the data, with polling and what Bernie needs to do going forward to have a shot.


I had a few open questions after all of this analysis that I wanted to address.  The first question was: can we project when Bernie will drop out?  To be honest there have been quite a few opinion and think pieces on this in the last few days, ranging from he should drop out now and get out of Clinton's way to, he should wait and see what happens at the convention (e.g. my very low probability scenario where super delegates try to take the party to the left when faced with a Trump opponent).

Right now the data shows that if Bernie doesn't think he has a reason to drop out now, then he won't drop out until after April 26th.  If he still is close after April 26th, then he probably won't drop out until the end of the primaries.  Some reasons for this:
  • Delegate Calendar: We're in a flat spot as far as the delegate calendar, there really aren't any significant races for the next month and the fundamentals underlying the delegate count really can't change until late April (see chart below).
  • Polling: Let's say Bernie is looking at polling to make a decision whether or not to drop out, the polling is pretty grim going forward.  That said, there are likely some in the Bernie camp that would still claim that polls are substantially biased against him (given results in Michigan et. al.), especially in caucuses.  As a side note, the biggest remaining contest (California) doesn't have recent, good polling data.  That would be helpful in both my analysis above, and in Bernie's decision.  Also, in national polls, Bernie appears to continue to close the gap (second chart below).

There's another thing about Bernie's campaign that is bothering me right now, and for lack of a better term, I'm calling it the Sanders Moral Hazard.  I think additional research into this area would be interesting, but here's generally how it lays out:
  • Candidates served by concentrated large donors, Super Pac's or the establishment are more beholden to the rational whims of said donors/institutions. Those donors, many from the business community, are used to pulling plugs on projects and are more dedicated to the party rather than individual candidates:  they may be more likely to pressure a candidate to drop when candidacy seems pointless.
  • Sanders (and candidates like him) have a lot of small donors and supporters, but no big donors to tell him to pull the plug on his candidacy.  Instead, they have a small, populist and emotionally motivated group of followers, that even in the face of defeat, want their leader to stay in.  There is no-one with an individualized motivation nor power to encourage Bernie to drop out.
  • The moral hazard here is this: Sanders has less incentive to drop out of the race because his actual risk (potentially spending money on a pointless campaign) is felt in such a diffuse way, rather than larger, rationally motivated supporters.
  • The irony (and potential harm) here is this: Sanders can stay in the race longer (and theoretically past the point of no-return) with smaller donors.  These small donors are the ones that *pay* for Bernie's risk, and are more likely to be poor/lower middle class voters.  In essence: The structure of Bernie's candidacy has the potential to hurt poor people.  


A few takeaway thoughts:
  • Sports Analogy: Sanders "Held Serve" on Tuesday in Idaho, Utah and Arizona.  
  • Positioning: Sanders is essentially in the same position going forward as he was prior to Tuesday, no worse, but not materially better.
  • Drop Out?: If the Sanders campaign sees no reason to drop out now, it's unlikely they will drop out in the next month.
  • Moral Hazard: Area for future research? There's a potential moral hazard in populist, poor-funded candidates having disincentives to drop-out of races at appropriate times.

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