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The delegate math for Biden and Sanders after Super Tuesday, explained

Biden’s lead isn’t that big yet. That could change quickly.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to California voters during a Super Tuesday election night party in Los Angeles on March 3, 2020.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Former Vice President Joe Biden was covered as the decisive winner on Super Tuesday, winning 10 out of 14 states — but the number that really matters for the future of the Democratic nomination contest is the delegate count.

And we’re finally starting to get a clearer picture of what that count looks like: Biden has gained a significant, but not an enormous, advantage.

As of Friday morning, organizations tracking the delegate count — Decision Desk, the Associated Press, and the Green Papers — show Biden with between a 70 and 80 delegate lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders.

That number could move around as more votes are counted (particularly in California, which is notoriously slow at tallying), but it will likely end up somewhere in that neighborhood.

For context: There are 3,979 pledged delegates in the Democratic contest, and 1,499 will have been allotted after Super Tuesday, with 2,480 remaining.

So a 70-80 delegate lead is not insurmountable: far from it. Sanders only needs to win a little over 51 percent of remaining pledged delegates to pass Biden.

The problem for Sanders is that the calendar suggests he’s in great danger of falling hopelessly behind in the next few weeks — unless he manages to sharply improve his performance.

A key metric to watch: net delegate gains by state

Now, to actually win the nomination, you need a majority of pledged delegates, not just a plurality. But the math on what Biden or Sanders need for a majority is highly contingent on what happens to the delegates won by candidates who have dropped out, which is a bit murky at the moment.

So let’s put the majority question aside for now and focus on who’s ahead in what’s now a two-way contest between Sanders and Biden.

If, then, you’re tracking which one of two main contenders is ahead in the delegate count, a useful shorthand way to think of things is — How many delegates did Sanders and Biden net in each state?

Supporters cheer during a campaign event for Joe Biden in Norfolk, Virginia, on March 1, 2020.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

This metric is helpful because it drives home how close outcomes, even in big states, don’t affect the delegate count very much — they’re essentially draws, due to Democrats’ proportional delegate allocation rules.

Take Texas. It’s the second most populous state in the country, with 228 pledged delegates at stake. But it ended up being pretty close, and the net delegate advantage is currently projected as Biden +9.

In contrast, Alabama is far smaller, and has only 52 pledged delegates. But Biden won it overwhelmingly, and per the AP’s current tally, the net outcome would be Biden +34. So outcomes like Biden’s Alabama landslide are extremely important in his efforts to build a durable delegate lead over Sanders.

How Biden built his delegate lead

Let’s look at the net delegate totals so far, then, breaking the states up into groupings, and using the AP’s current totals:

  • Biden +24 from the one early state he won, South Carolina
  • Biden +99 from his landslide wins in Virginia (+35), Alabama (+34), and North Carolina (+30)
  • Biden +61 from his other Super Tuesday wins: Tennessee (+15), Minnesota (+11), Texas (+9), Arkansas (+8), Oklahoma (+8), Massachusetts (+8), and Maine (+2)

So Biden netted a total of +184 delegates in the states he won.

Then there are the states where Sanders netted delegates:

  • Sanders +30 over Biden from his early state wins: Iowa (+6), New Hampshire (+9), and Nevada (+15)
  • Sanders +49 from his win in California (though this is highly subject to change as more votes there are counted)
  • Sanders +27 from his other Super Tuesday wins: Colorado (+11), Utah (+10), and Vermont (+6)

For now, Sanders’s net total is +106 from the states he won.

So, subtracting 106 from 184, the current overall delegate tally according to the Associated Press is: Biden +78.

You see, then, how crucial Biden’s huge victories in Virginia, Alabama, and North Carolina were — Biden netted twice as many delegates from that trio as Sanders is currently netting in California.

But Biden’s other Super Tuesday wins were important, too: they meant there simply weren’t very many states Sanders was netting delegates from. And a bunch of relatively smaller delegate advantages for Biden, when combined, can add up to a significant lead.

Why Sanders really needs to shake things up quickly

A 78-delegate lead is substantial, but it’s hardly overwhelming. For comparison, Hillary Clinton emerged from Super Tuesday 2016 with a lead of about 190 pledged delegates over Sanders, and expanded that lead to more than 300 two weeks later.

But the danger for Sanders is he could run up a bigger deficit when a whole lot more delegates are going to be allotted over the next few weeks.

Supporters cheer during a rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders in Phoenix, Arizona, on March 5, 2020.
Laura Segall/AFP via Getty Images

This coming Tuesday, March 10, features six contests (Michigan, Washington, Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho, and North Dakota). The following Tuesday, March 17, features four (Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio). Then on March 24 is Georgia.

That is a lot of big states in a very short period. Right now, 62 percent of delegates in the Democratic contest are still up for grabs, but after March 24, only 36 percent will be left.

Even more worryingly for Sanders, Biden is currently favored to win big in some of these states — most notably Florida and Georgia.

And if Biden does as well in Florida and Georgia as he did in Virginia and North Carolina, just those two states would result in a Biden +110 net delegate advantage — more than doubling his lead, and putting it into the “likely insurmountable” territory.

So Sanders really needs things to change fast. And a narrow win in a state like Michigan won’t cut it. He need to either limit Biden’s delegate gains in Florida and Georgia, or make enormous gains himself elsewhere to make up for them.

It will be tough for Biden to actually clinch the nomination for a while

Still, Biden needs 1,979 pledged delegates — and getting there will take some time.

Biden will probably come out of Super Tuesday with fewer than 700 pledged delegates. Then:

  • If he wins 55 percent of pledged delegates going forward, he wouldn’t clinch a majority until June.
  • If he wins 60 percent, he’d clinch around late May.
  • If he wins 65 percent, he’d clinch around early May.

It’s entirely possible that Democrats will face a very similar situation to 2016 — where Bernie Sanders has fallen far behind in the delegate math, but keeps contesting the race for months, and accumulates delegates due to Democrats’ proportional allocation rules. (Of course, Sanders could choose to quit the race earlier, but he notably didn’t do that in 2016 until after the last primary race.)

For now, though, Biden’s lead isn’t yet overwhelming and it makes perfect sense for Sanders to stay in the race. Sanders may well fall hopelessly behind — but it hasn’t happened yet. The voters in the rest of the March contests will have their say.

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