Saturday, March 08, 2008

Primaries: Symbol vs Reality

One of the odd features of this year's democratic contest is that everyone continues to talk about who won each state, even though the contest is being conducted under rules that make winning a state a matter of only minor importance.

In a winner take all system, someone who gets 51% of the votes gets all of the delegates, so the outcome of the contest is largely determined by who got a majority in each state. This year, however, the Democrats are conducting their contest under rules that (roughly speaking) give each candidate a number of delegates proportioned to the number of votes he got. So whether a candidate got 51% of the votes or 49% is no more important than whether he got 53% or 51%.

Consider two recent contests. Hillary Clinton won the Texas primary by a narrow margin, and as a result will get 4 more delegates than Barack Obama. Barack Obama won the Wyoming caucus by a big margin—61% to 38%—and will get about four more of the Wyoming delegates than Clinton. One candidate winning the primary of a very small state almost precisely balances the other winning the primary of a very big one—because what really matters this time around is not just whether you won but by how much.

To complicate the matter even more, Texas allocates 2/3 of the Democratic delegates by primary and 1/3 by caucus. The caucus process is complicated and multi-stage, with the result that the actual allocation of delegates will not be known for some months. But it looks, judging by the division of votes, as though Obama will get more of the caucus delegates than Clinton, and may end up with a majority of the Texas delegates despite having lost the primary.

Is everyone but me crazy? Probably not. It seems almost certain that the final decision will be made by the "superdelegates," and the symbolism of who won which state may well affect it.

11 Comments:

At 9:25 PM, March 08, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a fun quote from the Star Trek episode "Remember Me":

Dr. Crusher: "If there's nothing wrong with me, then there must be something wrong with the universe!"

 
At 10:39 PM, March 08, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The symbolism matters because it affects media coverage, fund raising, endorsements, etc, which can affect the outcome of subsequent primaries. That's why candidates pour so much effort into winning the early contests, even though in terms of delegates they aren't particularly important.

 
At 7:03 AM, March 09, 2008, Blogger Will McLean said...

It isn't just symbolism. The ability to carry states will matter in the general election.

 
At 11:34 AM, March 09, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

Will Mclean points out that "The ability to carry states will matter in the general election."

That's true. But whether a candidate gets 51% or 49% of the votes in the Democratic primary tells us no more about whether he will carry the state in the election--where Republicans vote too, and where the opponent is the Republican nominee not another Democrat--than whether he got 53% or 51%.

 
At 6:38 PM, March 09, 2008, Blogger Dr. T said...

I got to thinking about this apportionment approach, and I find it very strange that the Democrats do it. THink about it. In a free market, every person's vote counts. If I want to vote for a Ford Focus, and you want to vote for a Mercedes, then we both win. I get my Focus and you get your Mercedes. In democracy, 50%+1 determines what everyone gets. How strange that the Democrats' apportionment approach (which I do like, btw, considering that it does what it has been doing) more closely resembles the free market (which they loathe), while the Republican's primaries approach is, well, democratic.

 
At 10:25 PM, March 09, 2008, Anonymous Jan said...

@Dr. T

In the end, the democrats will not have elected a linear combination of Clinton and Obama but just one of the two (unless one of them runs as vice president).

 
At 10:51 PM, March 09, 2008, Blogger Gil said...

I guess winning a state that's close to a tie between Republicans and Democrats might matter a little.

Perhaps the preferred Democrat is likely to draw a few more voters in the general election, and that might constitute enough to turn a defeat into a victory.

On the other hand, the candidate favored by Democrats in the state might be the one more hated by Republicans in the state (drawing more Republicans to vote against that Democrat), and this fact isn't reflected in the Democratic primary.

So, who knows?

Maybe it's just a show to let the voters think they're choosing a candidate, and it's really just a winnowing process to let the losers (people who can't raise enough money, survive attack ads, debate with composure, etc.) fall away before the party bigwigs pick their candidate.

 
At 8:20 AM, March 10, 2008, Blogger Charles said...

"One of the odd features of this year's democratic contest is that everyone continues to talk about who won each state"

I find it odd that someone finds this odd. What "everyone" talks about is what the mass media talks about. And the mass media lives or dies on excitement, especially the excitement of head-to-head, winner-take-all competition ala sports (more generally, the appealing simplicity of binary thinking).

Besides, the confusion created by the existence of super-delegates makes the real contest of delegate counts completely beyond the intellectual capabilities and attention span of the general public.

- (not at all cynical) Charles

 
At 7:40 AM, March 11, 2008, Blogger Dr. T said...

Yes, in the end it ends up being a democratic election -- but the process has resulted in a much longer primary where many, many more people are involved and get a say-so in the election. The reason, I think, is that their rules make the election more like a market than does the Republicans' rules, which was my point.

 
At 7:36 PM, March 11, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. T wrote:
"How strange that the Democrats' apportionment approach ... more closely resembles the free market ..., while the Republican's primaries approach is, well, democratic."

I don't find this strange at all. Republicans like to rally around a strong leader, while Democrats like to take everyone's opinion into consideration.

 
At 8:07 PM, March 13, 2008, Blogger Will McLean said...

David Friedman writes:

“But whether a candidate gets 51% or 49% of the votes in the Democratic primary tells us no more about whether he will carry the state in the election--where Republicans vote too, and where the opponent is the Republican nominee not another Democrat--than whether he got 53% or 51%.”

On the contrary. Getting 49% of the vote when your opponent gets 51% is trivial. Getting 51% when your opponent gets 53% shows real political skill.

On a more serious note, consider two hypothetical candidates, each with 50% of the popular vote in the Democratic primaries, and each with an equal number of delegates. However, their support is unequally distributed; candidate A has overwhelming and fanatical support in state x, and candidate B wins everywhere else.

This alone doesn’t tell you who has the best chance to win the general election, but it is meaningful and newsworthy. If in addition you knew that state x was so thoroughly dominated by the Democratic party that any Democratic candidate with a pulse was likely to win there, then the Democratic party should prefer candidate B. So who wins what state can matter, even if primary delegates are allocated in line with the popular vote.

 

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