In the wake of new Iowa and New Hampshire polls showing Bernie Sanders gaining, some say it's time for Hillary Clinton to hit the panic button. "Clinton should ABSOLUTELY be nervous about the state of the race with less than three weeks before voters in Iowa head to the caucuses," the Washington Post's Fix blog blared last week.
There are just two obstacles in this theory's way: demographics and delegate arithmetic.
In poll after poll, Sanders's best group within the Democratic Party is liberal whites. Unfortunately for Sanders, Iowa and New Hampshire couldn't be much further on the extreme end of the party's demographic or ideological spectrum. According to our estimates, based on past exit polls and Census data, there is only one state where whites who self-identify as liberals make up a higher share of the Democratic primary electorate than Iowa and New Hampshire.
You guessed it: Vermont.
In fact, 98 percent of pledged Democratic delegates will come from states with lower shares of liberal whites than Iowa and New Hampshire. Just 447 of 4,051 pledged Democratic delegates - 11 percent - are tied to results in states or districts with higher shares of college-educated whites than New Hampshire. Moreover, just 13 percent of pledged Democratic delegates will be awarded in caucus states like Iowa, which as 2008 proved, tend to bring out more liberal participants than primaries.
In other words, if Sanders prevails narrowly in Iowa or New Hampshire, his support among liberal whites and in college towns - essentially Portlandia - would be entirely consistent with a scenario in which he also gets clobbered by Clinton nationally.
As Cook National Editor Amy Walter wrote last week, this race will come down to whether Sanders is Howard Dean or Barack Obama. While Dean fizzled in Iowa, Obama's Iowa win solidified his burgeoning popularity among white liberals but also legitimized his candidacy in the eyes of many previously skeptical African-American voters. But so far, there are few hints of a Sanders "expansion" constituency beyond liberal whites.
There's another gigantic Sanders math problem the Post failed to mention: thanks to Clinton's early dominance of superdelegates, he effectively begins the race eight points behind in the delegate count, before any votes are even cast.
Unlike on the GOP side, 713 of Democrats' 4,764 convention delegates (15 percent) are unpledged superdelegates. By the AP's count last November, Clinton had the support of 359 superdelegates. Since then, according to FiveThirtyEight's endorsement tracker, Clinton has picked up 21 congressional endorsements, for an estimated total of 380. The most recent count has Sanders at 11.
This is a much different story from a comparable point in the 2008 primaries, when Obama had already amassed a respectable number of superdelegates and most were still uncommitted. Unless uncommitted superdelegates switch allegiances or flock to Sanders in droves, he wouldn't just need to edge out Clinton in primaries, he would need to beat her soundly just to offset this huge deficit.
To gauge the difficulty of Sanders's task, we built an estimate of how many delegates Clinton and Sanders would need in each state to win exactly 50 percent of pledged Democratic delegates - similar to the GOP primary scorecard we published earlier this month. To build our model, we relied on results from the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal survey broken down by race and ideology. Then we applied them to the racial and ideological makeups of each state's Democratic electorate, gleaned from 2008 and 2012 exit polls and adjusted for recent population changes.
NBC/Wall Street Journal found Clinton performing better with non-whites and Sanders performing best with liberals, but we made several additional assumptions. First, we assumed a modest five percent "home state bump" for Sanders in Vermont and for Clinton in New York. Second, based on past primary patterns, we assumed that Sanders will perform ten percent better in caucus states than primary states, which may be generous to Sanders. Third, we assumed that Martin O'Malley will not hit Democrats' mandatory 15 percent threshold to earn delegates in any state or district.
The key takeaway from our model below: in order for Sanders to be "on track" to break even in pledged delegates nationally, he wouldn't just need to win Iowa and New Hampshire by a hair. He would need to win 70 percent of Iowa's delegates and 63 percent of New Hampshire's delegates.
Early primary results can be misleading, but presidential primaries tend to follow clear patterns. In 2008, Super Tuesday produced a virtual tie for Democrats; Barack Obama edged Clinton 847 to 834 in delegates that day. But thanks to Obama's heavy backing from African-Americans and liberal whites, savvy number crunchers could discern that he was "on track" to build an insurmountable delegate lead in upcoming primaries like Maryland and Virginia. In other words, the race was already over. This time around, close finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire would be good news for Clinton.
Furthermore, even if Sanders did hit every delegate target on our scorecard below and won 50 percent of pledged delegates, he would be at a severe disadvantage heading into the Philadelphia convention because our model doesn't even take into account his severe superdelegate deficit.
This isn't to say Sanders's 2016 bid is meaningless. It's possible he has already forced Clinton further to the left than she would prefer to be on a variety of issues. What's more, strong Sanders performances in academic centers like Charlottesville and left-leaning cities like Denver could expose Clinton's enthusiasm deficits in all the kinds of places where she will need base voters to be exceptionally energetic and engaged to win in the fall.
However, when placed in the proper mathematical context, this year's Democratic primary remains a much steeper mountain for Sanders than many chroniclers of the campaign trail seem to realize or acknowledge.
2016 Democratic Delegate Scorecard: What Clinton and Sanders Would Need in Each State to Win 50% of 3,952 Pledged Convention Delegates*How this works: The scorecard below is not a prediction or forecast. Rather, it's a tool to gauge Clinton's and Sanders's true progress towards the nomination. At any given point in the primaries, the candidate who exceeds his or her cumulative delegate target should be regarded as the frontrunner.
*Because of limited demographic and exit poll data for entities other than states and the District of Columbia, this analysis does not include estimates for the 99 pledged delegates awarded abroad and to the insular territories: Puerto Rico (60), Democrats Abroad (13), Guam (7), U.S. Virgin Islands (7), American Samoa (6), and Northern Marianas Islands (6).