03/16/2016 12:21 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2017

Super Tuesday 3 Results Confirm That Clinton Needs to Put Bernie Sanders on the Democratic Ticket


There are two nomination processes currently underway in the Democratic Party.

In the first -- the official nominating process to be the Democratic candidate for president -- Hillary Clinton has a commanding lead. Indeed, in the first half of this nomination process, Clinton has won 58.5 percent of the pledged delegates. This means that Sanders would need to win slightly more than 59 percent of the remaining pledged delegates -- admittedly, in states much more favorable to him than those that have already voted -- to win the pledged delegate battle. It's a very, very steep mountain to climb.

Still, it's been a competitive enough primary that we can say this much: The last time the Republican Party had a primary this competitive was 40 years ago. And the last time the GOP saw a race this close that didn't involve Ronald Reagan was 1952.

The second nomination currently under contention involves an unofficial nominating process -- the process by which Hillary Clinton, the likely if not certain Democratic nominee, will choose her running mate. In 2008, a hotly contested nominating season led to President Obama making Clinton the second most-powerful person in his administration; in 2016, the Clintons are implying that if Sanders continues to win about 42% of all Democratic votes they will give him a favorable speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer.

That's not going to be sufficient.

While Bernie Sanders is not likely to be the Democratic nominee for president, the question of whether he can force Hillary Clinton to make him her vice presidential nominee, thereby keeping his agenda at the forefront of American democracy, is still very much an open one.

The open question, of course, is whether Sanders can win enough votes, and delegates, between now and the Democratic National Convention to force Clinton to rethink her present preferences for vice president, as typified by Cory Booker and Julian Castro. In what is likely to be a "base election" -- one in which both parties attempt to whip their bases into a frenzy to get them to the polls -- Sanders can only make a case to be vice president if his coalition of voters appears to be a) extremely large, and b) one that Clinton herself has not yet been able to reach. Clinton's popularity with African-American and Latino voters has thus far been beyond reproach, yet it's unclear whether she has any hope of winning over young voters, Independents, white men, or working-class voters in November.

Bernie Sanders could be critical to Clinton winning those demographics -- but will only appear to be so if his own candidacy for president continues to gather steam. At first blush, the election results from last night (popularly termed "Super Tuesday 3") would seem to have done significant damage to that critical premise.

In fact, if you stopped watching election-night coverage of Super Tuesday 3 at 8:30 PM ET, you probably went to bed believing that Clinton had routed Sanders in all five of the states that voted yesterday, and thereby had wrapped up the Democratic nomination for president.

At 8:30 PM, the only three states to be called on the Democratic side -- Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina -- had all been called for Clinton. And the margins of victory looked staggeringly large. At 8:30 PM, Clinton was leading in Ohio by 30 points, in Florida by 35, and in North Carolina by 25. Indeed it was blowouts across the board, as even in Missouri (which at that point had not yet been called) Sanders was down by 25 points. In his "strongest" state, Illinois, Sanders was down by double-digits.

Things looked very different by 10:30 PM ET.

And no, I'm not speaking of the fact that (according to the pundits) all of Bernie Sanders' strongest states are to come, and that Clinton might not win a single primary or caucus between now and April 19.

What I'm referring to is what actually ended up happening in the five states that voted last night. Let's take a look:

Illinois. One week ago, Hillary Clinton was leading in her home state -- to repeat, her home state -- by 42 points, per The Chicago Tribune. Last night she won Illinois 50 percent to 49 percent. It's difficult to call a 41-point swing in seven days a "win," but Clinton boosters on CNN and elsewhere gamely found a way to do so last night. If Sanders supporters aren't buying it, it's not because they're unrealistic; rather, it's merely that they're looking at the same thing -- math -- that Clinton has emphasized in every one of her victory speeches. The math says that Hillary Clinton won 50.4 percent of the vote in a two-person race in her home state. That's embarrassing, given that Sanders won his own home state with more than 86 percent of the vote. Looking at it another way, Hillary netted 2 delegates in Illinois; Sanders netted 800 percent more than that in Vermont.

In Illinois, as in Missouri and North Carolina, the math for Clinton last night was very bad. It suggests that while these states may have helped Clinton in her bid to be the Democratic nominee for president, they also underscored that she is a weak candidate who would likely not be beating Bernie Sanders in the delegate count if he hadn't started this nomination process with no name recognition anywhere and -- if you can believe it -- more than 55 points behind his rival.

In other words, Clinton supporters are crowing about victories that should be deeply embarrassing to them.

Last night, Clinton cleaned up in Florida -- and topped out at around 55 percent in the other four states (in two of these, she only managed 50 percent in a two-person race). If this somehow confirms for you that Clinton is a strong general-election candidate, you probably are a child or relative of the Clintons.

Of course, you wouldn't have known that things weren't looking so good for Clinton in her home state at 8:30 PM ET, when CNN erroneously reported that a third of the Illinois vote had already been counted (in fact, less than 10% had; all night, the "early voting" that heavily favored Clinton was tallied first, which both messed up cable news' "precinct counts" and gave cable-watchers a false impression of what was really happening). The result? The 10 percent lead Clinton had at 8:30 PM was down to 1.8 percent by the end of the night.

North Carolina. Prior to Super Tuesday 3, Here's how Hillary Clinton had performed in the four states abutting North Carolina: in South Carolina, Clinton beat Sanders by 46.5 percent; in Virginia, she beat him by 29.1 percent; in Tennessee, by 33.7 percent; in Georgia, by 43.1 percent.

Yesterday, Clinton defeated Sanders in North Carolina by a mere 13.8 percent -- so strong a performance by Sanders relative to any other state in the South that it suggested a sea change in the Senator's ability to attract votes from demographics he'd never before been able to reach.

So whereas at 8:30 PM ET, Clinton was up in North Carolina by 25 percent, making the state look like a mere continuation of her Southern dominance, less than two hours later it was clear that Sanders had outperformed nearly every poll taken in the Tar Heel State and -- moreover -- had outperformed his percentage of the vote in every other Southern state.

Missouri. At 8:30 PM ET, Clinton was "leading" Sanders by more than 20 points in Missouri, with about a sixth of the vote counted -- or so CNN said. In fact, per the Associated Press less than 1 percent of the state's votes had been counted and by 1AM ET Sanders and Clinton were locked in a virtual tie. At the end of the night, more residents of Missouri voted against Clinton than for her, and she and Sanders split the Show-Me State's delegates. The unofficial margin of victory for Clinton was 0.2 percent.

The most recent poll in Missouri before Super Tuesday 3 had shown Clinton leading Sanders by 7 points.

Florida. Florida is the only state in which Clinton met expectations last night, and we already know the reason -- per exit polling, more than 80 percent of Florida voters were "beyond persuasion," meaning that they'd made up their mind about who to vote for before the candidates had even begun campaigning actively in the state. To call these "low-information voters" is not a slur; it simply means that name recognition was much more likely to determine who these voters cast a ballot for than anything the candidates actually said while campaigning in the state. Notably, the same percentage of voters were "beyond persuasion" in nearly every Southern state Clinton won.

Ohio. Ohio has been the most-polled state this month. Four polls taken in the first ten days of March showed an average Clinton lead, in Ohio, of 20 points; five polls taken in the last 96 hours showed Clinton's lead eroding to an average of 8 points, with an average margin of error of 5 percent -- meaning that, on Super Tuesday 3, one would have expected a Clinton win of anywhere from 3 to 13 points.

At 8:30 PM, Clinton was up on Sanders in Ohio by 30 points -- a shocking result which, had it stood, would have been a profound under-performance by Sanders, in fact one of the worst under-performances of any candidate this election season (a 22-point shortfall).

Ultimately, Sanders lost Ohio by 13.8 percent, just a hair outside the range of what this week's polls predicted, and well ahead of what last week's polling was telling us.

Simply meeting expectations would seem like a disappointment for Sanders, until we consider what the polling landscape in Ohio looked like for Sanders in the eight months after he declared his candidacy for president: throughout 2015, the Vermont Senator was consistently between 35 and 50 points behind Clinton in the Buckeye State. Consequently, though no one in the Sanders campaign could be satisfied by losing Ohio by 13 points, that margin -- coupled with Sanders' wins in Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas, and Nebraska; Clinton getting no better than a tie in Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois; and Sanders' current lead in Wisconsin polling -- emphasizes that Sanders is in fact unusually strong in the Midwest, an area of the country the Democratic candidate will absolutely have to win (perhaps even sweep) to win the general election in November.

If Clinton consistently winning African-American and Latino voters by margins of between 30 and 75 points means that these are voter groups she can feel confident about carrying in the fall, what does tying or losing nearly every Midwestern state to an unlikely competitor say about her ability to win there?

Some will say that none of the above means much in light of Clinton's commanding lead in pledged delegates, and this may well be true.

However, as already noted, various political pundits have said that Hillary Clinton could easily go the next month without winning a primary -- as the next twelve to fifteen primaries and caucuses are in states whose demographics favor Bernie Sanders.

Moreover, the way Clinton has run her campaign has alienated many Sanders voters, raising the possibility that supporters of the man who's won 42 percent of all Democratic primary votes could stay home in November. Would Cory Booker, largely unknown to national Democrats, solve that problem? Or Julian Castro, a complete unknown?

It's not yet time for Sanders voters to pray for a vice presidential nod, but it's also not too early to start making the case that, even on nights in which Clinton extends her delegate lead, she isn't, in fact, doing so in a way that suggests she's a strong general election candidate. For instance, in remains the case that Bernie Sanders performs better against Trump than Clinton does in ten of the eleven blue, purple, and light-red states in which general-election head-to-head polling is available.

Nor is it too early to note that, in Missouri, Clinton lost independents by 31 points. Or that in Illinois, Clinton lost independents by 43 points. Or that, overall, Clinton is losing the Midwest badly to Sanders, and is projected to lose much of the West to him. Indeed, the only states Clinton has won comfortably this election cycle which the Democrats have any chance of winning in November are Virginia and North Carolina -- and as we've seen, in the second of these states Clinton's longstanding demographic coalition appeared to show substantial cracks.

The white-male, working-class, young, and independent voters Sanders is performing well among are the very voters Trump will be trying to steal from the Democrats in November -- not the African-American, Latino, and female voters Clinton has already been successfully courting in large numbers. So while Sanders didn't have the "Super Tuesday 3" he'd hoped to have, what he did do was underscore a) how close this race is in historical terms, b) that the demographics he appeals to most are different from those that Clinton performs best among, c) that Clinton's "victories" are short-term successes that actually prove her weaknesses to be near-fatal, d) that he continues to be more electable than Clinton (in general-election terms) in swing-states and the Midwest generally, e) that Clinton's other possible picks for veep represent demographics she's already comfortable will come out to vote for her in November, f) that in nearly every state, Clinton is under-performing the polls and over-performing among low-information voters, suggesting that her appeal wanes with voters over time, and g) that he is entitled to, prospectively, the same sort of post-primary deal that Clinton herself got when president Obama was elected, that being receipt of one of the two most visible positions in a Clinton Administration (either vice president or Secretary of State, only the first of which is Sanders well-suited to).

In short, Clinton has a habit -- with her emails; with her handling of the Obama and Sanders insurgencies; with her response to requests that she release her Wall Street speeches -- of taking things for granted, and it's not a good look on her or any presidential candidate. She appears set to take for granted that Sanders voters will come flocking to her, instead of voting for Donald Trump or staying at home once (or if) she permanently vanquishes Bernie Sanders. And she appears to believe the hype her hangers-on are pushing, which is that dramatically disappointing under-performances in her home state, North Carolina, and Missouri were in fact perfectly terrific.

Hubris of this sort could ultimately cost the Democrats the presidency.

Failing to understand Sanders' continued appeal is a "proxy failure" of sorts -- that is, it stands in for a failure to understand the outsider, rough-edged, populist, anti-Establishment appeal of Donald Trump, the inevitable Republican nominee.

It's for this reason that I had to smile a bit when Jake Tapper of CNN observed, at 10:30 PM ET, that it was "not a great night for Bernie Sanders." That's true, if the question is whether Sanders is in a deep delegate hole going into twenty-five primaries and caucuses he has a legitimate chance to win and by decent margins. But if the question is whether a man whose campaign was at 3% nationally less than a year ago is making an airtight case to be the vice presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, last night was -- in fact -- a very good night for Bernie Sanders.

Seth Abramson is the Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University) and the author, most recently, of DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016).