- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2020

Sen. Bernard Sanders appears to have hit a ceiling of support, with polls and early results showing him struggling to top 30% of the vote in most states.

Yet that may still be more than enough to win the Democratic nomination this year.

So long as the rest of the field remains large and fractured, Mr. Sanders will be able to rack up wins in states with a plurality of the vote. And as long as there’s no single opponent matching him win-for-win, he will emerge with the most delegates at the end.

Just two races in, there’s a growing concern among Mr. Sanders‘ opponents that the self-described socialist is little more than two weeks away from taking an “insurmountable” lead.

Michael Bloomberg’s campaign sounded the alarm in a memo this week, crunching the polling numbers and concluding that as long as former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar are all in the race, along with Mr. Bloomberg, on March 3, when a third of all pledged delegates will be decided, they’ll divide the non-Sanders vote.



If that happens, the Bloomberg team says, Mr. Sanders will emerge from that Super Tuesday slate of contests with 720 new delegates, or more than the others combined.

Josh Putnam, a political scientist who runs FrontloadingHQ and studies delegate math, said the Bloomberg memo is typical campaign spin, and with only two races in the book it’s too early to draw those kinds of grand conclusions.

But he said there is truth to the sense that a fractured field is Mr. Sanders‘ ticket to victory.

Sanders is likely to take out of Super Tuesday a delegate advantage (but one I think that will be smaller than what is projected by Bloomberg),” Mr. Putnam said in an email. “Secondly, the memo is right that consolidated support is probably the only way to head off a Sanders advantage. But that is true for Biden or Klobuchar or Buttigieg and not just Bloomberg.”

It all comes down to a number: 15%.

For a candidate to win delegates, he or she must at least top 15% of the vote in a state or congressional district, depending on how each state allocates its delegates.

Below 15%, and candidates walk away empty-handed. Those who clear the threshold then divvy up the state’s pledged delegates based on their adjusted share.

Mr. Putnam said the more candidates who cross the 15% level in states, the better for Mr. Sanders because it dilutes his opponents’ share.

All of this hinges on the assumption that Mr. Sanders has consolidated the liberal vote behind him, and he can consistently score a quarter or more of the vote, while the rest of the primary electorate, even though it’s larger, is up for grabs among four or five candidates.

In other words, being the only fish in a small pond is better than being one of several fish in a big pond.

That’s left the big-pond fish arguing that the others should quit the race. Mr. Bloomberg’s memo was the first salvo, and it went over poorly with his fellow candidates.

Mr. Buttigieg fired back with his own memo Thursday saying he’s on track to stop Mr. Sanders, unless Mr. Bloomberg mucks it up.

“If Bloomberg remains in the race despite showing he can not offer a viable alternative to Bernie Sanders, he will propel Sanders to a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead siphoning votes away from Pete, the current leader in delegates,” the Buttigieg campaign said.

The apocalyptic warnings are all the more striking, given that just two states have voted, and as Mr. Buttigieg points out, Mr. Sanders doesn’t even lead in the delegate count.

And while he’s consolidated liberal primary voters behind him, Mr. Sanders has struggled to make inroads toward the political middle.

It’s left him with what appears to be a ceiling of support. He earned just 27% of the vote in Iowa and a disappointing 26% in New Hampshire. The massive influx of new voters he predicted never materialized.

And new surveys over the last week show Mr. Sanders below 25% support in Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. He’s barely cracking double digits in Florida and Georgia.

His bright spot is California, the biggest prize on the table, where some polls show him cracking 30%. Early voting began in California on Feb. 3 — the same day as the Iowa caucuses, and it’s likely Mr. Sanders has already banked more votes in that state than he won in Iowa and New Hampshire combined.

If Mr. Sanders does open up a delegate lead, Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign is correct in saying it will be tough to catch him. said Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

As Mr. Bloomberg figures, even if Mr. Sanders emerged from Super Tuesday with a 150 delegate lead, the next-best candidate would have to outperform him 55% to 45% in the rest of the contests just to catch up.

“That said, it may be hard for anyone to get to a majority,” Mr. Kondik said. “This is why Sanders was the only candidate arguing last night that the June leader in pledged delegates should get the nomination.”

Mr. Kondik was referring to the final question in Wednesday’s debate, where the candidates were asked whether the person with the most delegates should win, even if it’s not a clear majority. Mr. Sanders said “Yes,” the other five candidates said “No.”

Under Democrats’ new rules this year — rules Mr. Sanders pushed for — the first ballot at the convention will be among 3,979 “pledged delegates,” or those that are won in the primaries. There are also 770 “superdelegates,” or party bigwigs, who are generally free agents. They will only be able to vote if the race goes beyond the first ballot.

Mr. Sanders expects the superdelegates will be opposed to his more radical vision, so he wants to win the 1,991 pledged delegates needed to earn the nomination on the first ballot.

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