Our Absurd Nomination System

By Big Tent Democrat

Jay Cost of Real Clear Politics has a learned piece on what is wrong with the Democratic nomination system. It provides a strong basis for questioning the new CW that the pledged delegate lead is the designed be all and end all for choosing the nominee. My earlier take is here. As for Cost's piece, I will skip the social science, and get to what I deem the heart of the argument:

The problem for the Democrats might seem small at first. Obama has won about 53% of the delegates, and about 51% of the popular vote. That is a pretty small difference. The problem is that the difference is systemic. The nominating system seems to contain several biases that favor Obama.

. . . Voters in larger states are not as well represented as voters in smaller states. Thus, the states form a band that move from the bottom-left to the top-right. Look carefully at it, and you'll notice a curiosity. States at the top of the band are almost always strong Kerry states, while the states at the bottom are almost always strong Bush states. This implies that Bush states are better represented at the convention than Kerry states, independent of population.

MORE . . .

. . . There is the caucus bias. We already know about this. Caucus participation is much lower than primary turnout - but the DNC does not take this into account when it allocates delegates to states. Accordingly, caucus state delegates have fewer Democrats "behind" them. For instance, for every one pledged Obama delegate from Minnesota, there are 2,862 pro-Obama caucus-goers. For every one pledged Obama delegate from Wisconsin, there are 15,381 Obama primary voters.

So far Cost tell us everything we already know with the math to back it up. The long story short is that the pledged delegate selection system does not NECESSARILY represent the will of the people. But "so what?" you might say, as long as it does THIS TIME. But it might not. Obama could very well be the popular vote loser of this nomination contest. Who could have designed such a system? Why Democrats of course. And right now two of the biggest and most important states remain excluded from the process - Florida and Michigan. Thanks to the DNC. Doing severe harm to the Democratic chances in those states in November. But back to the will of the people question. Cost writes:

At its core, the nominating system is a logically inconsistent hybrid. Both parties changed their fundamental orientation to how nominees should be chosen in the 1970s - but they did not bring fundamental change to their nomination systems. Instead, they added openness requirements to the old scheme. State parties still send delegates to a convention that decides on a nominee. The difference now is that they must have open selection methods. What we have then is a Progressive Era variation of a Gilded Era system. There is no internal logic, no answer to the question: if the voters should decide, why retain delegates and conventions?
(Emphasis supplied.) PRECISELY!! Why in the world do we have super delegates? Why do we have delegate selection? Just count the votes and the candidate with the most votes wins. The system of pledged delegate selection is a travesty, it is not something to be sanctified. If the will of the people means anything, it is the popular vote winner who has the moral legitimacy to claim the nomination. That is what the Super Delegates should be looking at. The Media and the blogs are, in some cases deliberately, making cliams for the pledged delegate count that simply are false.

Cost continues:

This year, Barack Obama is benefitting from several of these biases. So, there is the potential for this kind of "perverse" result. It could happen that Clinton wins the votes while Obama wins the pledged delegates. It need not be this way. No system is perfect, but if Democrats had been forward-thinking about their system - they might not be in such a bind.

That is true. But the super delegates can, should and must focus on who gets the most votes, the popular vote winner, as the choice of the people. If the Super Delegates pick the popular vote loser, they will have some splainin' to do. They may have good reasons, but splainin' will be necessary.

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    Yeah but how do you decide the popular (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by Florida Resident on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:21:32 AM EST
    vote winner when you oranges and apples in the same basket.  Caucuses and Primaries?

    It's the best count we have (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:24:31 AM EST
    I know it is but it's a lousy count. (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by Florida Resident on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:28:41 AM EST
    Caucuses disenfranchise a lot of the same voters that constantly vote for the Democratic Party.

    IT is a better count (5.00 / 1) (#15)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:44:09 AM EST
    than the pledged delegate count.

    In the land of blind men, the one eyed man is King.


    Well (none / 0) (#32)
    by badger on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 09:49:38 AM EST
    In the HG Wells short story based on the "one-eyed man is king" cliche, the populace of the Valley of the Blind put out the eyes of the sighted interloper.

    It may be the best count we have, but that doesn't mean in any way that it's a useful count. In fact it's so inaccurate as to be capable of leading to wrong conclusions and disastrous consequences.

    Personally, I'd hope the superdelegates have a better sense of whose more likely to win the election and govern under Democratic principles and will act from those motivations (although they are Democrats, and as the DNC proved with FL and MI, almost any kind of idiocy is possible).


    shoud say you have (none / 0) (#3)
    by Florida Resident on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:21:54 AM EST
    And there's a very good chance ... (5.00 / 2) (#8)
    by Robot Porter on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:31:51 AM EST
    that Hillary will lead in the popular vote and Obama the delegates by the end of this process.

    I've heard Obama supporters argument against going with the popular vote.  I'm not sure I quite follow it.  But they say "it's a meaningless metric" because there's no "national primary."  The contests are state-by-state.  And the delegates are the way we determine winners in states.

    Anyone else as confused by that argument as me?

    That argument (5.00 / 2) (#11)
    by Coldblue on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:43:09 AM EST
    sounds very similar to the one made by Bush supporters in 2000. You know, the one that the 'progressives' railed against for years.

    Progressives rallied against shenanigans (none / 0) (#35)
    by Knocienz on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 10:01:36 AM EST
    Of race based voter suppression, of stopping the recounts, of blocking some votes based on lack of postmark but not others.

    The popular vote vs electoral vote issue was raised as a reason to change the system, but I didn't see a strong push from progressives to ignore the electoral vote.

    I think caucus to primary vote count comparisons in the current election make no  sense whatsoever.


    What about when Primary and caucus (none / 0) (#40)
    by hookfan on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 10:29:35 AM EST
    that occurs in the same state, like washington? Obama won by a large margin in the caucus, but squeaked by in the primary. But the caucus counts even though the expresed will of the people was for a primary.
       I don't think we will see much change on this no matter how much we scream about legitimacy and fairness because I think the lack of clarity serves the self styled "leaders" too well. I think the current situation will continue because it gives the appearance of legitimacy while retaining the actual power of determination in the hands of the long time power structure that considers maintaining their power as vastly more important than any perceived or real "will of the people".
       That is true on both the national level and the local level in washington state. Proof for this can be found in the apparent "capitulation strategy" in congress on fisa, war funding, etc., even though high percentages of the population oppose those nationally, and from the fact that locally the Democratic state party ignored the expressed will of the people for a primary and elected that the caucus would alone count.

    In a single state (5.00 / 1) (#46)
    by Knocienz on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 10:50:26 AM EST
    You can compare the results, but you can't really use that elsewhere. Surely you don't suggest we simply subtract X% from Obama's projected popular vote in all caucus states to project what he 'would have gotten'?

    I think that some super-delegates in Washington and Texas would easily be able to defend voting for Hillary however based on 'equalizing' the delegate count to the popular vote however.

    As for ignoring the will of the people on FISA and the war. Well that's based on the perception that there is not a better choice. You aren't going to vote for a Republican, so they defend themselves from the uninformed voter who might believe the fear-mongering adds. Primaries are the only way to force compliance on these issues.


    I agree that primaries (none / 0) (#48)
    by hookfan on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 12:23:56 PM EST
    are the only way to force compliance. But that is why we have a confusing, nonreliable mix of primaries and caucuses--it avoids accountability to the will of the people and allows the powerbrokers to be determinative. I suspect the "leadership" knows exactly what they are doing,i.e., giving the appearance of legitimacy while all the time keeping the real determinative power to themselves.\
      It seems the only other way to understand this mess is that the party leadership is totally moronic, stupid, self defeating, and ignorant to know what is going on. A case can be made for that, I suppose.

    I think it is a state electoral issue (5.00 / 1) (#49)
    by Knocienz on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 01:52:36 PM EST
    Rather than a national leadership problem. The idea is that while states elect the President (electoral votes is based on population, not number of people who actually show up to vote) the states should get to choose the nominee.

    Thus, the states are given the decision as to how to choose to allocate their delegates (to a certain degree)

    Personally, I think states should all be allowed to have caucuses and primaries, but caucuses should be limited to 25% of the delegate apportionment while primaries would have to go later in the year. Thus, you get an initial burst of organizing and ground game creation, followed by a popular vote. If states didn't want to caucus, then 100% could get set in the primary, but it would have to start later.


    Why count the delegates then? (none / 0) (#13)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:43:22 AM EST
    The logic of that argument applies to the delegates too.

    It makes no sense.


    Playing devil's advocate again ... (none / 0) (#23)
    by Robot Porter on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 09:05:28 AM EST
    I think they're also saying that the purpose of the contest was to collect delegates, and not votes, so holding a candidate to a vote standard is "changing the rules."

    But the problem with this argument is that it's not about getting more delegates, it's about getting 2025 delegates.

    And I cannot find a single line in the Democratic Party rules that says the person with the most delegates should be given the nomination.

    For example, if we had three candidates with near equal delegate totals (making Supers irrelevant),  and none of them would drop out, I think the only resolution for that would be second ballot at the convention.

    In such a scenario, I could see the candidate in third place getting the nomination, if he was seen as most palatable to the supporters of the top two.


    Sure (none / 0) (#24)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 09:09:50 AM EST
    There is that argument - that the Super Delegates have the right to vote as they wish.

    I take the argument to be basically one for what the Super Delegates should do - in their construct, vote for the pledged delegate winner.

    In mine - they should vote for the popular vote winner.


    Right ... (none / 0) (#29)
    by Robot Porter on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 09:23:55 AM EST
    And to argue that no one is paying attention to popular votes is disingenuous.

    Clearly, this is what the press reports on.

    And I think most voters believe that they're casting a preference vote for a candidate, not signing off on some near arbitrary delegate slate.  

    I think arguing against the popular vote will be very hard, especially if Obama's pledged delegate margin is narrow.


    If the super delegates should (none / 0) (#33)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 09:56:38 AM EST
    vote for the popular vote winner, why have them?

    We shouldn't (none / 0) (#38)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 10:12:33 AM EST
    The supers have a role, but it's overweighted now (none / 0) (#45)
    by jerry on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 10:43:04 AM EST
    The supers have a legitimate role as tiebreaker.  In the case of a tie, having party leaders decide the winner is better than flipping a coin.  And the question is what is a tie.  Since this isn't an election for President itself, it is reasonable and good to determine a tie is anywhere within some range of results, say 49-51% of the popular vote, or 49-51% of the delegates.  Acknowledging that the voting system is flawed due to systemic bias, or the fact it's on a Tuesday not a weekend, or during a terrible snow storm, having the superdelegates break ties is not an unreasonable role.

    In such a system, superdelegates might vote twice: as normal citizens in their state's primary, and then in case of a tie, in a limited primary within the convention, a primary between the holders of the tie.

    They might only vote once, as citizens, and never again if there was no tie to resolve.

    I would like to believe that if we discussed this in terms the two candidates having tied, and both having failed to obtain the delegates needed, the superdelegates role would be more understandable and the claims they must vote for either popular or pledged delegates would seem as hollow as they are.

    Given the change in technology and communications, I see no reason to have the normal pledged delegates.  If you want a convention, that's fine.  Let the entire states delegation put in their states vote and let the states vote be counted as the popular vote.


    I think they're a reasonable check on the system (none / 0) (#47)
    by Robot Porter on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 11:00:01 AM EST
    Since the nature of the nominating contests are decided by state legislatures and state parties a national party check on this seems reasonable.

    In most instances, they should just work as a rubber stamp.

    But in rare instances, perhaps this election, they can provide some check on abuses in the system.

    Super Delegates it should also be noted play a valuable role in helping shepherd new delegates through the process.  

    However, they wouldn't necessarily need a vote to play this role.  Though I'm not sure how you get them to play this role otherwise.


    After growing up with grandma Vera (5.00 / 2) (#17)
    by Militarytracy on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:49:52 AM EST
    I didn't fear the nominating system.  It hadn't blown up yet but it's blowing up now and with every passing day the race between Obama and Clinton is exposing how flawed the system is.  I have no fear that we will survive this, but we don't want to have to survive this again.  When this is done that possibility must to be removed.

    Yes (5.00 / 2) (#20)
    by Bob In Pacifica on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:50:55 AM EST
    Yes, the nominating system in the Democratic Party is not absolutely level. It's better than the Republican system of winner take all. It's better than the U.S. Senate, where voters in small states are more represented than in larger states. Imagine if you took the population of the smallest state, then divided up California into that many equal-sized states and apportioned that many pairs of Senators for them.

    Having a system where all states had primaries and each person's vote was absolutely equal to another's, that is, that the results of all primaries were added up and at the end that the total produced the winner, would theoretically be the most level way.

    But how do you, the theoretician, force Iowa to give up its caucus system, for example? Do you use the power of the party to henceforth not allow caucuses? We've seen how well sanctioning primaries worked this go-round. Or do you get active in each state party and get the individual states to change?

    There are plenty of ways that the current system could be improved but I don't see any easy way to get there.

    Looking back from the present, it is clear that Obama's campaign's work in caucus states and red states and small states has paid off. That Clinton's campaign did not put the same effort into them has put her campaign at the edge of failure. Of course, these were the rules going into the campaign. His campaign saw the opportunity and hers did not.

    Yes (5.00 / 1) (#21)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:56:14 AM EST
    The DNC was not shy about disenfranchising Florida and Michigan - representing 48 electoral votes in November.

    Getting tough on Iowa seems a layup in comparison.


    One could avoid mixing appleas and oranges (none / 0) (#27)
    by Manuel on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 09:18:51 AM EST
    Have separate counts for each of the following

    Open Primaries
    Closed primaries

    Apply a different weight to each count.


    heh (none / 0) (#36)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 10:02:30 AM EST
    It's better than the U.S. Senate, where voters in small states are more represented than in larger states.

    Have we amended the constitution or does each state still get two Senators?


    That's the one part of the Constitution (5.00 / 1) (#44)
    by Ben Masel on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 10:39:09 AM EST
    that's not amendable.

    ...and that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.

    whew (none / 0) (#51)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sun Mar 09, 2008 at 10:05:22 AM EST
    Glad to read that. For a second there I thought we had amended the constitution and no one knew.

    Uh, it's supposed to (none / 0) (#52)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sun Mar 09, 2008 at 10:06:08 AM EST
    work like that.

    Try to explain a caucus (5.00 / 2) (#26)
    by Stellaaa on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 09:12:43 AM EST
    to a non American and why we have them.  Then you will realize how ridiculous they are.  

    good article - Close down the caucuses! (5.00 / 1) (#30)
    by Josey on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 09:46:11 AM EST
    I agree in principle with the idea (none / 0) (#1)
    by Joelarama on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:18:59 AM EST
    that the popular vote winner should get the support of the superdelegates.  But with so many caucuses, what does the "popular vote winner" really mean?  Second choice votes in some caucuses.  Only those who could make it to caucus in the given time frame, on a given night (no absentee ballots) in many (all?) caucuses.

    I don't think the principle that the "popular vote" trumps all is so strong when caucuses are thrown into the mix.  

    Well (none / 0) (#4)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:24:08 AM EST
    We have vote counts. IS it a pure popular vote system? No. But it is closer than the pledged delegate count is.

    Caucuses must be abolished.


    I agree. (none / 0) (#6)
    by Joelarama on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:27:44 AM EST
    The only rationales I have seen for them are tradition and "party building."  The former is ridiculous after reading the RCP article; as for the latter, I have seen no evidence to support it beyond generalizations.

    Party building? (none / 0) (#16)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:45:00 AM EST
    Have you seen a lot of party building in Iowa? It turned Republican in 2004.

    I know. Perhaps I wasn't clear (none / 0) (#18)
    by Joelarama on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:50:16 AM EST
    but I don't buy "party building" as a rationale, though it is always given.  The rationale I have seen put forward is that a caucus is more participatory, so that it gives attendees more of a stake in the party going forward.  I've also seen the claim made specifically with regard to Iowa that the large numbers of new attendees at caucuses will help turn that state purple.

    I've seen no evidence.


    On night of magical caucusing (5.00 / 1) (#22)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:57:36 AM EST
    creates a cadre of activists? In what universe?

    Didn't have a popular vote count in early caucuses (none / 0) (#41)
    by Ben Masel on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 10:30:58 AM EST
    ie Gravel reported 0 votes in Iowa, as he didn't hit 15% in any locality.

    Actually in my opinion a better Party building (none / 0) (#9)
    by Florida Resident on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:31:57 AM EST
    strategy is the 50 state strategy during the Congressional races.  It was in 2006 when I started receiving the Literature on the idea of building from the foundation up that started contributing money to the DNC and started to consider switching parties.

    Superdelegates make Sense (none / 0) (#10)
    by pluege on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:36:23 AM EST
    The party after all has an interest in protecting itself from anomalies of the primary and caucus systems including:

    * non-democrats vote in primaries - why should they have a say, or an equal say as committed democrats in selecting the Democrat's candidate?

    * The vulgarity of the caucuses is becoming well documented.

    * A straight-up voter elections leaves it to Big Media to pick our candidate - they already denied us 2 of our best (better than Obama or Clinton in my opinion): Gore and Edwards.

    * Democrats have a clear track record of picking unsuited candidates due to the ability of campaigns to game the selection process.

    The party needs to have the last say (in an open manner to reduce their shenanigans) and the superdelegates are as good a means as any.

    The problem is that "vulgarity" and (5.00 / 1) (#14)
    by Joelarama on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:43:44 AM EST
    "shenanigans" are in the eye of the beholder.  Ultimately it's the appearance of legitimacy that matters, and whose PR shop has done the better job of convincing the voters (and the press, which has its biases) that the shenanigans are on the other side.

    Obama's team has done the better job, and that, coupled with the perception (IMHO encouraged by the Obama campaign) that his supporters will bolt the party, gives him a leg up at the convention if he is ahead in the "pledged" delegate count but slightly behind in the popular vote.

    I really think they should all be straight primaries.  I go back and forth on whether it's better for the party to have open or closed primaries.


    Suspicions confirmed (1.00 / 0) (#34)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 09:59:47 AM EST
    Democrats have a clear track record of picking unsuited candidates due to the ability of campaigns to game the selection process.

    Well, we can't let people vote for and elect who they want, can we? After all, we know what's best for them!


    In my view (none / 0) (#19)
    by Coldblue on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 08:50:32 AM EST
    the only process that makes sense is a national primary based upon the popular vote.

    I'm sure there is a good argument against that, but I haven't seen it yet.

    It is not too late (none / 0) (#25)
    by Manuel on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 09:12:22 AM EST
    There could be a Democrat only by mail national primary to resolve the tie.  It would turn every registered democrat into a superdelegate.

    Cost is a strong argument against this but it is hard to beleive that the money could not be raised.

    Recounting only FL and MI is like Gore not asking for a whole FL recount in 2000.


    In some states (none / 0) (#28)
    by TeresaInSnow2 on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 09:18:55 AM EST
    like Washington state, you don't register a party preference when you register to vote.  You only do it when you vote in a primary.

    You could have all Parties primary on (none / 0) (#31)
    by ding7777 on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 09:47:01 AM EST
    the same day.  That would cut down on the cross-over throw-away votes.

    In MO We Do Not Register By Party Affiliation (none / 0) (#39)
    by MO Blue on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 10:29:11 AM EST
    When we get to the polling place we just ask for whatever party ticket we want or a split ticket.

    Independents (none / 0) (#42)
    by utahdem on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 10:32:54 AM EST
    I think that it is useful to have independents vote in the primary so long as we can keep track of the votes.  We need to know how they are likely to vote in the GE and so it is better find this out during the primaries.

    We have 2 issues (none / 0) (#37)
    by hitchhiker on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 10:02:34 AM EST
    One is how to have a legitimate winner in this season, and the other is how to have a process for changing the way we choose our candidate next time.

    I'm one of those who thinks only a joint ticket will get us out of the current mess.  The way to a joint ticket is some form of a re-vote in MI and FL, which I'm betting will go a long way toward making it clear that we win with the 2 of them and lose with either of them alone.

    The process for revising the system must be led by the DNC, and it must be transparent and tough-minded.  Iowa and NH will lose their holy place; caucuses will be a thing of the creaky past; a new set of unforeseen issues will be the subject of arguments like this one when our grandchildren are worrying over 2072 election.

    Superdelegates (none / 0) (#50)
    by USAsince1680 on Sat Mar 08, 2008 at 07:42:19 PM EST
    No, No, No.  It has never been more important than in this race that the superdelegates stay true to their intended purpose and base their votes on knowledge, experience and their own independent research. The current trend toward biased and idealistic voting makes for good entertainment but the outcome may not be what is best for our country or the Democratic party.  The final decision should be left in the hands of the superdelegates and it is imperative that they be free of intimidation.  Obama's claim that they should vote with their constituents shows a total disregard for their intended purpose.  In place of intimidation, he should be man enough to stand up and explain that he understands the purpose of the superdelegates is not to support the popular candidate but to support the best candidate for the Democratic party and he and his followers will abide by and respect their decision.