CBS’s coverage of the Democratic primary is highly misleading in its estimates of the number of convention delegates that each candidate might win “through Super Tuesday.”
Why? CBS’s Battleground Tracker implicitly assumes all voters will cast their ballots at roughly the same time. That is not the case, and it makes a big difference in understanding the dynamics of the primary campaign.
After all, there is no national primary, but instead a series of state contests. What happens in Iowa, the first contest, can dramatically affect the voting in New Hampshire a week later, and what happens in New Hampshire can dramatically affect the subsequent outcomes in Nevada and South Carolina.
Thus, it makes sense, as CBS does, to poll in those first four “cut-out” states, which have been authorized by the two political parties to hold their contests before all others. The rest of the states can begin voting no earlier than March 3, Super Tuesday. Currently, fourteen states are scheduled to hold their contest on that date.
But by the time Super Tuesday occurs, voters in those fourteen states will have a very different picture of the race from what voters in early states will have seen. At the very least, several candidates will have dropped out of the race, and the relative standings of the top candidates could well be significantly rearranged. It is hardly useful to poll in those fourteen states now, when the results of the early contests can so drastically change the contours of the primary race.
In 2016, for example, all early estimates of the Democratic contest showed Hillary Clinton almost certain to win the nomination. But after only a close win for her in Iowa, and a blowout by Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, the contest was upended. She eventually won, but only after a long and competitive campaign.
In 2008, Obama’s surprise win in Iowa also upended the primary contest, which early estimates showed Clinton as the likely winner. That time she lost a long and competitive campaign.
In 1984, Gary Hart was in the third tier of candidates nationally, behind Walter Mondale the frontrunner and his closest competitor, John Glenn. Hart came in second behind Mondale in Iowa, losing by more than thirty points. But he suddenly became the “not-Mondale” candidate, surged to a win in New Hampshire, and came close to winning the nomination. Glenn was never a factor after New Hampshire.
Similar dramatic moments could occur in 2020. According to virtually all national polls, Biden is the frontrunner, a perilous, if seemingly desirable, place to be. If he should lose or barely win in Iowa – and the CBS Tracker shows him with a very small lead over Sanders – it could upend the whole dynamic of the race.
The Tracker also shows Warren, Biden and Sanders essentially tied in New Hampshire, but the results in Iowa could shake up that order in unexpected ways. One might think the winner in Iowa would be rewarded with increased support in New Hampshire but, as noted above, that didn’t happen to Mondale in 1984. Instead, the second place finisher got the momentum. The impact of each state contest can have unexpected results in subsequent contests.
One of the interesting dynamics is between Warren and Sanders, both of whom reside in states that border New Hampshire. New Hampshire could be the do-or-die contest for either.
Another dynamic involves Biden’s support among black voters, especially important in South Carolina. Should he falter, it’s possible that support could shift to other candidates, like Warren or Kamala Harris. If Harris were to do well in South Carolina, that could give her a breakout opportunity in her home state of California.
There are numerous such scenarios that could dramatically alter the dynamics of the primary contest from one early state until the next. The point is that each succeeding state will face a different situation than earlier states. And the Super Tuesday states will almost certainly have a much altered set of choices than Iowa.
CBS Delegate Tracker
The CBS Delegate Tracker reports that as of its publication, Biden has “amassed” 600 delegates to Warren’s 545 and Sanders’ 286 through Super Tuesday. It’s important to note the poetic license here: No one has amassed any delegates at this point. The delegate totals assigned to each candidate are estimates, based on statewide polling results.
The Tracker goes on to note:
More broadly, in aggregate vote preference across the early-state contests through Super Tuesday 2020 — the most important contests up front — Warren has risen and holds a one-point edge over Biden. These figures capture the impact of campaigns that are focusing on the earliest states, in contrast to other national polls that include states that won’t vote until late spring.
The implicit criticism above, that “other national polls…include states that won’t vote until late spring,” applies to the Tracker as well. All states after Iowa can be affected by Iowa’s vote, and all states after New Hampshire’s vote can be affected by the results of the first two states, and on down the line.
To include an “aggregate” of the vote even of the first four states, much less the first four and the fourteen states on Super Tuesday, gives a highly misleading picture of the state of the primary race.
The truth is that such precise estimates of the delegate count, no matter how carefully based on state polls, are wildly speculative. It’s not only that there is a lot of time until voting occurs, it’s also that the voters in later contests face a very different set of choices than voters in earlier states.
It’s useful that the CBS Tracker focuses on state contests, rather than on a nonexistent “national primary,” as do many polls. Still, while it’s interesting to see what the voters in the first four states are thinking, I wouldn’t put much confidence on their estimates of delegate totals through Super Tuesday.
One last caveat: There is still a long time until the Iowa caucuses. Voters there are still making up their minds. History has shown that last minute changes in the candidates’ standings among Iowa voters are not unusual. Ask Howard Dean and John Kerry. Or Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
However unfair it might be, all of us are waiting on the whims and considerations of voters in the first four cut-out states to get a reasonable picture of the primary contest. Even now we can be confident that some of the currently lowest ranked candidates, as reflected in the state polls, will not be factors by Super Tuesday. But among the top ten or so, a clearer picture won’t be available until after the voting has begun.
Until then: Patience.