April 11, 2008
POLITICS: A Creation of the System
Left-wing historian and Hillary supporter Sean Wilentz has been going on about this for some time, but his latest in The New Republic does make a significant point:
Obama's advantage hinges on a system that, whatever the actual intentions behind it, seems custom-made to hobble Democratic chances in the fall. It depends on ignoring one of the central principles of American electoral politics, one that will be operative on a state-by-state basis this November, which is that the winner takes all. If the Democrats ran their nominating process the way we run our general elections, Sen. Hillary Clinton would have a commanding lead in the delegate count, one that will only grow more commanding after the next round of primaries, and all questions about which of the two Democratic contenders is more electable would be moot.
Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats in primary states choose their nominee on the basis of a convoluted system of proportional distribution of delegates that varies from state to state and that obtains in neither congressional nor presidential elections. It is this eccentric system that has given Obama his lead in the delegate count. If the Democrats heeded the "winner takes all" democracy that prevails in American politics, and that determines the president, Clinton would be comfortably in front. In a popular-vote winner-take-all system, Clinton would now have 1,743 pledged delegates to Obama's 1,257. If she splits the 10 remaining contests with Obama, as seems plausible, with Clinton taking Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Puerto Rico, and Obama winning North Carolina, South Dakota, Montana, Oregon and Guam, she'd pick up another 364 pledged delegates. She'd have 2,107 before a single superdelegate was wooed. You'd need 2,208 to be the Democratic nominee. That would leave her barely a hundred votes shy, and well ahead of Obama. It is almost inconceivable that she would fail to gain the required number of superdelegates easily.
Now consider the delegate count and its connection to the popular vote. In Nevada, Clinton also won a popular majority, despite pressure from union officials on the rank and file attending the caucuses to vote for Obama. Yet Obama claims, on the primary electoral map posted on his official Web site, that he actually won Nevada -- presumably because rules that gave greater weight to rural than urban votes mean he won a marginal edge in the Byzantine allotment of the state's delegates. Why, in deference to the clear-cut Nevada popular majority, doesn't Obama cede the majority of the state's delegates to Clinton? Because, according to the rules, he's entitled to those delegates. But why are the rules suddenly sacrosanct and the popular vote irrelevant? Might it be because the rules, and not the popular vote, now benefit Obama? And what about Texas, another state where Clinton won the popular vote but has not been awarded the majority of pledged delegates? Once again, for Obama, the rules are suddenly all-important -- because the rules, and not the popular majority, now favor him.
Obama's totals thus far have come in great part from state caucuses nearly as much as from actual primaries. (Eleven out of the 30 states and other entities he has won held caucuses, not primaries. Washington held both, as did Texas, where Obama won the caucuses and lost the popular vote.) Of the two systems, caucuses are by far the less democratic -- which may be why there will be exactly zero caucuses in this fall's general election. By excluding voters who cannot attend during the limited times available, the caucuses skew participation toward affluent activists and students, and against working people, mothers and caregivers, and the military. Clinton's victories, by contrast, have come overwhelmingly in states with primaries, not caucuses. Obama is certainly entitled to the delegates he won in the caucuses. But he can hardly, on that account, claim that he is clearly the popular favorite.
Now, the rules are the rules, and I'm a firm believer that there's no changing them in the middle of the game; the Democrats are stuck with the system they chose. But much as I concluded at the end of the GOP race, the best possible primary system, like the best spring training baseball games, is one that replicates as closely as possible the conditions of the fall election - no caucuses, no proportional delegates. It's no accident that the caucuses disproportionately favored Obama and Romney, two candidates with tons of money and organization and a hard core of committed followers, over the kinds of candidates who have broader appeal of the type that generally prospers in November (this is a general point - I've long since given up trying to figure whether Obama or Hillary is the stronger general election candidate, other than that a Hillary victory under present circumstances would probably be the best outcome for Republicans for the demoralizing effect it would have on several key voting blocs). And that's before we get to the insanity of the superdelegate system, which exists mainly in the Democratic system because the Democrats don't trust their own voters not to get carried away with left-wing nonsense. And have you tried to get an accurate delegate count lately for the Democratic race? It's impossible due to the bizarre opacity of their rules.
There are fair arguments to be made about open vs. closed primaries and the schedule, but it's long past time to bury the caucuses, kill off proportional voting, and otherwise eliminate any obstacle to having the state-by-state winners take an ascertainable, transparent number of delegates at every stage of the game.
I agree with 90% of this. However, especially in early primaries when there are several candidates, I can see value in having proportional delegates awarded. Lets say a party has five candidates who all compete in the first four primaries. Four different candidates come in first place (by popular vote), but one candidate comes in second place in all four primaries. Doesn't that candidate show broader appeal then the others? But if all were winner take all, the constant #2 choice would have zero delegates.
This happened to some extent in the Rep. primaries. And, I think it may have been Florida as a winner take all state, where the winner only won the popular vote by 2-3%, and had well below a majority of the vote. Seems a bit unfair to award all the delegates to a candidate who only garners 25-30% of the vote.
Its difficult to devise a system to choose a party's best candidate, when the voters are only that party's members, that perfectly translates to a general election, when, yes, ability to win a state is the only important factor.
You defeat your own point of agreement with the article when you concede that you dont know which one is more electable. Obama has slaughtered her in the caucus format, yet the primary format, the argument goes, is a greater predictor of general election success. Then why isnt she clearly the better general election candidate? The polls suggest that Obama is, which most prediction markets , including Republican surveys, agree with. The inherent fallacy in TNR's article is the assumption that he can't win over enough of her big blue state voters in the general to carry the states. Who cares that a majority of them prefer her, as long as they vote for him. That's the question begged.
Democrats want the USA to be more like Europe, and lead by example w/ this embrace of parliamentary proportional representation.