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No, actually Hillary Clinton won Tuesday night

- March 9, 2016
During the Hillary Clinton election night party at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland on March 8, her supporters cheer when they hear that she won the Mississippi primary. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

I know what you are thinking — yet another article detailing Hillary Clinton’s victory Tuesday night on her increasingly inevitable path to the nomination. I’ll probably note, just like every other article you’ve read, that Clinton got 125,000 more votes Tuesday than Bernie Sanders, and that she picked up 18 more delegates than Sanders (New York Times numbersCNN has slightly different), bringing her already impressive lead in pledged delegates to over 210.

Wait a minute! It’s Cranky Reader from John Sides’s posts at The Monkey Cage.

CR: Hold on a second!  I read the papers Wednesday morning. The New York Times, the LA Times, and even your Washington Post (to say nothing of Politico or CNN), and they all have top stories about how Clinton lost Tuesday night in Michigan.

Me: That’s true. Sanders did get more votes than Clinton in Michigan. But Clinton got more votes than Sanders in Mississippi. A lot more votes. As in, five times as many votes. So actually, as of 10 a.m. Wednesday, she had picked up more than 125,000 more total votes than Sanders on Tuesday.

CR: But Michigan is a bigger state and has more electoral votes than Mississippi. Therefore, it is more important to win Michigan than it is to win Mississippi if you want to be the nominee, regardless of the number of votes she won across the two states.

Me: That would be true if states in the Democratic primary were “winner take all” like most states are in the general election. Michigan does have more electoral votes than Mississippi in the general election, and for largely the same reason does award a lot more delegates to the Democratic nominating convention (123) than Mississippi (33).

CR: Ah ha! So winning Michigan is more important.

Me: That would be the case if each candidate won by the same margin. That’s because delegates to the Democratic nominating convention are distributed proportionally. Sanders doesn’t get all 123 delegates because he won Michigan, and Clinton doesn’t get all 33 Mississippi delegates because she won there. Instead, provided they get at least 15 percent of the vote — which they both did in both states — they each win a number of delegates determined by a complex set of electoral rules that in the end roughly approximates their vote share. So since Sanders won by a smaller margin in Michigan (50 percent to 48 percent) than Clinton did in Mississippi (83 percent to 17 percent), she actually won more delegates Tuesday night. And, for that matter, more than 125,000 more votes across the two states.

CR: But Sanders outperformed expectations! He was supposed to lose in both states, and he actually won Michigan. So that’s more important than Clinton winning Mississippi.

Me: Sure, it might be more important for his fundraising efforts. It certainly seems to be more important for generating positive news coverage Wednesday morning for his campaign. But it does not change the fact that based on the votes cast Tuesday night, Clinton got closer to the nomination after the votes were counted than she was before the votes were counted. Seems like that’s a pretty good definition of “winning.”

CR: But this sets up Sanders to win other midwestern rust belt states in the future, right?

Me: Maybe, but again the key point to remember is that he’ll need to win them by a lot. He’s currently over 200 delegates behind Clinton, which means that even if he wins a lot more states by 50 percent to 48 percent, it’s going to be very hard to catch Clinton if that only translates into a net increase of seven delegates relative to Clinton (as it did in Michigan Tuesday night). And he really can’t afford many more days like Tuesday during which she increases her lead in delegates.

CR: But surely it is significant that he outperformed the polls, which had her heading for a landslide in Michigan.

Me: I’ll agree with you there. I think this is the most interesting result from Tuesday night. Harry Enten has a nice commentary on this at FiveThirtyEight, but even here the big question is what it means for forecasting what is likely to happen in coming primaries, not for how Clinton and Sanders preformed Tuesday night. This in turn could again have an important impact on how money is allocated, funds are raised, campaigning decisions are made, etc., but it doesn’t actually net Sanders any more delegates. Put another way, he gets the same number of delegates for his 50 percent of the vote regardless of whether he got there by under-performing, meeting, or over-performing expectations. At the end of the day, the Democratic nominee will be determined by who has the most delegates at the convention. Clinton started the night with a large lead in pledged delegates and ended the night with an even larger lead. Thanks to proportional representation — and the fact that she won 125,000 more votes than Sanders on Tuesday — she won more delegates Tuesday than Sanders did.