Unlike in some other countries, the United States does not directly elect its head of state. Instead, both for the primary and the general election, the U.S. has an indirect system in which the voter technically elects other people (delegates in the primary and electors for the general election) who actually cast the votes. For the most part, for both parties, the overwhelming majority of delegates are either legally or morally bound to follow the directives of the voters in their respective state or district and the system for choosing electors has mostly resulted in electors following the directives of the voter. Thus, at the end of the day, in figuring out who is leading or who has won a nomination battle, we look to the pledged delegate counts. For the general election, we look to the number of electors won.
For multiple reasons, nomination fights rarely go to the end of the process. Candidates who are hopelessly behind drop out leaving the path clear for the leading candidate to win the nomination. In 2008, however, the Democratic race was so close that it went down to the last primary. Especially as one of the two finalists is running again, that allows us to use the 2008 numbers as a base going forward to measure who is doing what they have to do to win the election.
There are, of course, differences from 2008. First, is that, in 2008, John Edwards did well enough in the first six states to get delegates in four of those states. Additionally, due to Michigan going early, Barack Obama and John Edwards were not on the ballot in Michigan and their supporters had to vote for a slate pledges as uncommitted. So there were 55 “pledged” uncommitted delegates from Michigan and a total of 32 Edwards delegates from Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. For comparison purposes, that leaves two measures for these five states and nationally — President Obama vs. Hillary Clinton (a national net of +17 for President Obama), and the “field” vs. Secretary Clinton (a national gap of 104 delegates). In this year’s race, Martin O’Malley did not pick up any delegates; so it will just be Bernie Sanders vs. Secretary Clinton. Given that both candidates need to win the uncommitted/Edwards delegates, my own opinion is that the “field” comparison is more useful.
Second, in 2008, Texas used what has been called the “Texas two-step” to award delegates — awarding district level delegates based on the primary but awarding the state-wide delegates based on the caucus results. In 2016, all of the delegates from Texas will be awarded based on the primary. If this system had been in place in 2008, Secretary Clinton would have won Texas by 7 delegates. Instead, President Obama left Texas with 5 more delegates than Secretary Clinton.
Third, the current delegate counts are based on the 2010 census and the 2012 election rather than the 2000 census and 2004 election. Some states will have an extra delegate or two compared to 2008 and others will have lost a delegate. In addition, the 2016 convention will have a delegation from the Northern Marianas (which did not have a delegation in 2008).
Finally, states have shifted around somewhat on the calendar. In 2008, the first four (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) went in January along with two states that jumped the line (Michigan and Florida). Super Tuesday was in February and several states that traditionally voted later in the process moved up to that date. This cycle, the first four are in February and Super Tuesday is in March. Most of the states that were in March in 2008 are still in March with many of the Super Tuesday states moving back to March (including Florida and Michigan). Some of the 2008 Super Tuesday states (mainly New York and California), however, opted to move back to their regular place on the schedule. That creates a weird split in the calendar. Twenty-one contests will take place in February or the first week in March. Of those twenty-one contests, the “field” won sixteen of the twenty-one. (Secretary Clinton only won a majority of the delegates in Arkansas, American Samoa, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.) In those contests, President Obama and Senator Edwards won 173 more delegates combined than Secretary Clinton did. Thirty-five contests (and the new contest for the Northern Marianas) will occur after March 7. The split in these thirty-five contests was much closer than the early states, with President Obama winning eighteen to Secretary Clinton’s fifteen and two ties. More importantly, Secretary Clinton picked up 69 more pledged delegates than the combined totals for President Obama, Senator Edwards, and uncommitted.
In short, the front part of the contest are the states where Secretary Clinton needs to gain more delegates than she did in 2008 and Senator Sanders needs to hold onto the delegates that went to President Obama and Senator Edwards. In the back part of the contest, Secretary Clinton will be the one trying to hold onto the delegates that she won in 2008. This is not to say that the two campaigns do not have places where they hope to gain delegates in the other parts of the contest. Senator Sanders clearly hopes to do better than President Obama did in Massachusetts. In the latter part of the campaign, Secretary Clinton certainly hopes to do better in Illinois (one of her home states) than she did in 2008 when another candidate from Illinois carried the state by a large margin.
So far, with three states in, Secretary Clinton seems to be doing what she needs to do in the front part of the schedule. In 2008, in Iowa, President Obama and Senator Edwards combined to beat Secretary Clinton 31 to 14. In 2012, the current tentative numbers have Secretary Clinton up 23 to 21. That is a swing of 19 in favor of Secretary Clinton. In 2008, President Obama and Senator Edwards combined to beat Secretary Clinton 13 to 9. In 2016, with two more delegates at stake, Senator Sanders beat Secretary Clinton by 15 to 9. In 2008, President Obama won Nevada 14 to 11. At the time of this posting, the count looks like Secretary Clinton has won 18 delegates to 15 for Senator Sanders and is leading for the last two delegates. If the current results hold up, that would be a swing of 8 in favor of Secretary Clinton, for a net to date in favor of Secretary Clinton of 25 delegates. More importantly, in these three states, in 2008, the field had through these three states in 2008 had 58 delegates to Secretary Clinton’s 34. This cycle, it is a dead heat in the pledged delegate count with (depending on the last Reno and Clark County precincts) Secretary Clinton either ahead by one delegate (if the current numbers hold up) or down by three delegates (if the numbers go Senator Sanders’s way).
Over the next two weeks, we go from small states to a medium sized-state (South Carolina) to some big states (Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Virginia) and one huge state (Texas). That means a lot of room for even bigger swings from 2008.. Whether Secretary Clinton can make proportionately similar gains in these states (and even win some of them) will have a significant impact on whether the race is over in March or if we will still be talking about the race in May.