Thursday, April 14, 2016

Up Next: New York!

We're coming up on a major showdown in the Democratic primary. On Tuesday, New York will be holding its primary. Only three of the ten largest states have not yet held their contests, and New York is right in the middle of those three, offering up 247 delegates. If by some voodoo magic Sanders were to shut Clinton out so she received no delegates from New York, he would overtake her in the pledged delegate race. In order to completely shut Clinton out, Sanders would have to win more than 85% of the vote in each of New York's 27 Congressional Districts, so it is unlikely that this will happen. It is more likely that we're looking at a change in Clinton's delegate lead of somewhere between 0 and 25 delegates (in either direction).

Clinton and Sanders both have some claim to the state as their home turf. The Clintons bought a house in Chappaqua, NY in 2000 while Bill's second term was finishing up, and Hillary ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate that became vacant that year. She won handily against her Republican opponent and was re-elected without much contest in 2006. She served as the junior Senator from New York until January 2009 when she resigned to accept her position as Secretary of State.

Sanders, on the other hand, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He went to the same high school as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Charles Schumer, and lived in Brooklyn until he left for college. He never moved back to New York, but he still speaks with a Brooklyn accent, and he speaks often about his pride in being a New Yorker.

The two are set to debate tonight from a venue just down the street from my office, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The last time both Sanders and Clinton were on stage at a debate together was March 9, before Super Tuesday and before Clinton's delegate lead reached its peak on March 15. Since the last debate, Clinton has won more pledged delegates than Sanders in five contests, fewer than Sanders in six contests, and tied with Sanders in two contests. Sanders' six victories since the last debate have given him as many net delegates over Clinton as her five victories since then have given her.

In other words, the gap between the candidates (in raw pledged delegates) is the same tonight as it was at the last debate, but now Clinton is on the decline, whereas she was on the rise going into Miami. Still, there are fewer delegates now outstanding than there were then, and Sanders has not managed to reduce the percentage of pledged delegates he needs between now and June 14 in order to get a majority, although he has held steady to his targets.

The New York primary may very well end up being the single most important primary of the season. Even though Florida and Texas are larger than New York, because the Democrats assign their delegates in proportion to the Democratic turnout over previous years, New York has more delegates than any state that has voted so far this season: only California has more delegates at all. Clinton hopes to use a clear victory here to break Sanders' momentum as part of a "three-part strategy before the New York primary on April 19: Disqualify him, defeat him, and unify the party later."

There are significant reasons to believe her efforts may be successful, but they have nothing to do with whether she is able to "disqualify" him. New York is probably the most establishment-friendly jurisdiction in the primary season. Some states have open primaries where any registered voter (in some jurisdiction, even someone who registers on election day) can participate in the selection of a party's nominee. Other states have semi-open primaries where you can participate if you aren't a member of another major party. Other states have closed primaries, where you have to be registered for the party in order to vote in the primary. New York takes closed primaries to a whole new level that I call a hermetically-sealed primary.

In case you didn't follow the link, here's a brief overview. New York only processes requests to change party once a year. If you are already registered to vote, you have to change your party registration at least 30 days before the general election. New York has a general election every year: sometimes there are U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, and Presidential candidates on the general election ballot, and sometimes it's just state and local officials like judges and school boards. The general election is always in November. For this election, the deadline for registered voters to change their party registration was October 9, 2015.

That was six months and ten days before the primary election. It was a week before the first Democratic debate when Clinton and Sanders shared the stage with three other candidates. It was five months and a day before the first primary poll in New York was conducted. It was three months and 23 days before the Iowa caucuses. It was 60 days before the Working Families Party endorsed Sanders for the Democratic nomination. Sanders was polling at 25% nationally at that point and everyone thought that Clinton would secure the nomination before the end of February.

Clinton's supporters recently leaked a suggestion that this race may be closer than the polling suggests, citing a phenomenon called "Clinton exhaustion." But this is just typical political managing of expectations. By claiming that they are concerned about the race being close, they will be able to market a slight victory as a major accomplishment. But don't be fooled: 40 of New York's 44 super delegates, including the governor, both Senators, and every Democratic U.S. representative, have endorsed Hillary Clinton. The RealClearPolitics polling average gives Clinton a 13.3 point lead, and her lead has never dropped into single digits. Indeed, FiveThirtyEight's primary projections (on either measure) give Clinton a 98% chance of winning New York.

Still, record numbers of new voter registrations came in just before the deadline before the primary, Sanders has been attracting enormous crowds at rallies throughout the state, and Sanders was successful in shaming Clinton into agreeing to a debate in Brooklyn before the primary. She's clearly on the defensive, and his star is rising. If he wins in New York, it wouldn't be the first time he pulled off a dramatic upset when far behind a week ahead of the election this year.

But with all the structural advantages New York's primary gives Clinton, if she doesn't win by a landslide, she's going to have a lot of explaining to do.

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