How to Watch Tuesday's Returns Like a Data Geek
Watching primary and caucus results roll in on Tuesday night is going to feel like drinking from a firehose. Nearly a dozen states ranging from Vermont to Alaska (with the greatest concentration in the South) will hold contests for both parties. If you’re not a veteran political journalist or a data geek, it might be tough to digest that cascade of information.
That’s why RealClearPolitics has put together these tips to help you understand the results on Super Tuesday – think of it as the data geek’s guide to watching the returns.
On the Republican Side:
Watch the thresholds. In order to win the GOP nomination, a candidate has to win a majority (1,237) of the delegates to the Republican convention in Cleveland. Each state basically sets its own rules on how primary results translate into delegate counts, and on Tuesday those rules generally point towards two key numbers – 15 percent and 20 percent.
Most Super Tuesday states allocate their delegates proportionally with a threshold of either 15 percent (Arkansas, Oklahoma) or 20 percent (Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Vermont) of the vote. In other words, the state divides up its delegates proportionally between the candidates who surpass the threshold.
For Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Ben Carson, these rules are bad news. Neither of them is consistently polling above the threshold in those states – meaning they may get zero delegates despite winning a modest number of votes.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz appear to be close to or above the threshold in a number of these states. Obviously, neither one wants to fall below those numbers and miss the opportunity to win delegates.
Donald Trump leads in almost all of the Super Tuesday states, and it would benefit him significantly if Cruz and/or Rubio fall under the thresholds. Not only would that limit his chief competitors’ gains, it would also mean that Trump gets to split up the delegates with one rather than two opponents. Put differently, if Trump wins 35 percent, Cruz gets 25 percent and the others fall below the threshold in a state, the real estate mogul would get about 58 percent of the delegates. But if Trump, Cruz and Rubio get 35 percent, 25 percent and 20 percent, respectively, in a state with a 20 percent threshold, Trump earns roughly 44 percent of those delegates. Both are wins, but in the second scenario Trump gets about 14 percent fewer delegates even though his vote total remains the same.
Margins matter. Tuesday’s contests are proportional, so obviously the more votes the winner gets the more delegates he gets (unlike the winner-take-all primaries later in the calendar). But the margins also matter because a big win by any candidate could net him a large number of delegates from the congressional districts.
According to RNC rules, each congressional district gets three delegates to the national convention. And in many states (including Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, among those voting Tuesday) those delegates are allocated based on the results in each district. If a candidate wins a state by a large margin, he’s more likely to rack up delegates in more of that state’s congressional districts. We saw this in South Carolina – Trump beat Rubio 32.5 percent-22.5 percent, but that was enough to carry every congressional district and net him all 50 of the delegates.
In many states, congressional district delegates make up a large portion of the state’s overall total. In Georgia they’re 42 of the 76 delegates and in Texas they’re 108 out of 155. So if a candidate wins by a large margin, he might get a substantial delegate haul.
Keep an eye on Texas. Texas is probably the most important Super Tuesday state for two reasons – it’s Cruz’s home base and it allocates more delegates than any other that day.
If Cruz loses Texas, it might be the end of his campaign. It’s hard for any candidate to rebound from losing despite having a home-field advantage, and mainstream Republicans are anxious to coalesce around a consensus candidate in time to stop Trump from getting the nomination. On the other hand, if Cruz wins Texas by a convincing margin he could gain momentum along with a large number of delegates.
Additionally, a Texas win for Cruz could blunt the front-runner’s delegate advantage in other states. Texas’ delegate total is more than Oklahoma’s, Arkansas’ and Tennessee’s combined. In other words, if Cruz has a good showing in the Lone Star State, it could help offset disappointing showings elsewhere. And if Trump wins convincingly there, it’ll be much harder for Rubio or Cruz to catch him.
On the Democratic Side:
Geography might help Sanders. If you’ve been keeping up with the wonky world of political data journalism, you probably know that Super Tuesday looks like a firewall for Hillary Clinton. A plurality of the states are Southern and many have large African-American populations – a group that Clinton polls very well with. She is expected to rack up some big wins over Bernie Sanders in these states, but the rules might let the Vermont senator blunt her delegate lead a bit.
In the Democratic primary, delegates are also awarded to the winner of each congressional district (or sometimes smaller political subdivisions). And due to a combination of the Voting Rights Act, African-Americans being clustered in cities and some creative district drawing by Republicans, Southern African-Americans are often concentrated in a few congressional districts. This gives Sanders an advantage. If Clinton wins a state by driving up her margins in a few heavily or significantly African-American congressional districts, Sanders could still pick up a modest haul from the more numerous districts that are whiter and more rural.
Clinton will almost assuredly win a substantial majority of the votes cast on Super Tuesday, but the data nerds will be watching how much those pad her delegate lead.
The cross-tabs: white voters and young voters. If Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, he would likely have done so by keeping the race close with Hispanics, losing African-Americans by a large margin and driving up his margins with whites enough to offset those losses with blacks. So if you’re interested in whether Sanders has a path to the nomination, you should probably take a look at how well he does with those groups in the exit polls.
On Both Sides:
Pay attention to for exit polls and election returns, not entrance polls. Here at RCP, we love polls – they’re one of the most important tools for understanding politics and public opinion. But not every survey is done for the same reasons, and if you’re not careful you can misinterpret the results.
Entrance polls are conducted as voters arrive at their polling places or caucus sites. They’re usually done in waves, and they often help news networks and websites get an early idea of which candidate will win the race.
But they’re not always right and they’re not always precise. Less than a month ago, early entrance polls showed Trump ahead in Iowa, but Cruz wound up winning. Additionally, these polls often don’t include enough people to get precise reads on how different demographic groups voted – thus the recent nerd fight over whether Sanders actually won Hispanics in last weekend’s Nevada Democratic caucuses.
So, if an entrance poll shows your favorite candidate losing (or winning), take it with a grain of salt and wait for real results or exit polls to come in. Data from those sources will emerge later in the night, but it’ll likely be more informative than the entrance polling.
What websites to watch: Some of the best elections-related content is exclusively on the Web, so I would recommend having multiple tabs of your favorite browser open on election night. Specifically, the RCP team – Tom Bevan, Carl Cannon, Sean Trende, Alexis Simendinger, Caitlin Huey-Burns, Rebecca Berg, James Arkin and I – will all be tweeting throughout the night and RCP will constantly update results. If you’re looking for good maps updated in real time, check out the Upshot. FiveThirtyEight also runs a great liveblog. And if you want high-quality content from a partisan outfit, check out Daily Kos Elections (on the left) and Ace of Spades Decision Desk (on the right). These are just a few of the sources I would recommend, but if you keep these tips in mind and check out even half of these sites, you’ll be watching the results like a true data nerd.