On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Half-way review of the US presidential primary rules

(As at 29 March 2016)


With the US presidential primary season now over the half-way mark, we can begin to review how well-designed the respective systems of the Democratic and Republican parties are proving to be.

Both systems are based on elections in each state to award delegates to national conventions, which actually determine the presidential candidates. The conventions take place in July.

The state elections use various methods. While most are ordinary public elections, while some are ‘caucuses’, which have much lower rates of participation. Some are open to all voters, but some are limited to registered supporters of the parties.

Overall, in each event the relevant voters have been able to exercise choice between clearly distinct candidates. Perhaps the most striking feature of this process is that the longer it goes on, the less choice voters get, as candidates drop out of the race.


The Democratic contest

The contest for the Democratic nomination could hardly be simpler. Despite some earlier alternatives, from the commencement of the contest in early February there have been just two predominant candidates – Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders.

Clinton’s dominance of the lead-up in 2015 may have had the effect of deterring rivals, but the unexpected and impressive performance of Senator Bernie Sanders has made it a real choice for voters.

The Democratic primary system is fundamentally based on proportional allocation of delegates between the candidates. It is mathematically fairly simple to allocate delegates proportionally between just two candidates. At the district level, there can be a modest mathematical advantage to the lead candidate, but across all states this effect should naturally balance out.

As at the end of March the grand total of votes won by the candidates so far is 9.008 million for Clinton (57%), 6.499 million for Sanders (41%). (The remaining 2% of votes have gone to a small number of alternative candidates, but no delegates have been awarded to any of these campaigns.)

In fact, Bernie Sanders has received a slight advantage in the delegate allocation. If the 2,273 delegates awarded so far were awarded exactly in proportion to national vote totals, Sanders would have 936, but in fact he has won around 100 additional delegates.

Clinton is, of course, well in the lead, with over 200 more elected delegates than Sanders. But it happens to be Sanders who has benefited from the aggregate of local disproportionality effects, probably gaining about 50 delegates that would have been Clinton’s in a direct allocation based on the national vote total.

On the other hand, Clinton derives a big advantage from a final aspect of the Democratic convention system. 710 of the convention delegates (around 15% of the total) are not elected, but consist of party members of congress, governors and state officials. The convention is thus a composite assembly, party elected and partly appointed.

This approach partly undermines the direct democratic approach of the Democratic nomination process, although of course all these delegates are themselves elected politicians or are chosen internally by party members.

Around a third of the unelected delegates have already announced their intention to support Hillary Clinton, and only a handful have backed Bernie Sanders. They can change their minds before the Convention. And of course two-thirds of them have yet to declare a position.

Overall, Hillary Clinton has to date secured 30.6% of the delegates to the party convention. Sanders has secured 21.7%. The remaining primary elections will award 37.3%, and 10.3% are the remaining undeclared official delegates.

For Sanders to win from here, he will need to more than reverse the public vote totals achieved so far, and achieve around 61% of the vote in the remaining states, up from his current performance of 41%.

Even if he were to win the support of all of the undeclared official delegates, his vote target would still be over 50%. He would need to win around 75% of the vote from here to render the official delegates’ position irrelevant.

Overall, Senator Sanders has run a remarkable campaign, but 41% is a respectable, but not a winning, total. Hillary Clinton is rightly regarded as the clear favourite

The Democratic party’s rules have functioned in a satisfactory manner and Clinton’s lead has legitimacy.


The Republican contest

The Republican primary race is very different, and in key ways their voting system has proved to be less satisfactory.

The Republican system for allocating delegates in each state is more complex than that of the Democratic party.

The Republicans do not reserve any delegates for party politicians and officials, as the Democratic party does. However, their actual delegate awarding rules are not proportional between the candidates.

To start with, around 34% of Republican delegates are won in ‘winner take all’ contests. This approach obviously heavily favours the leading candidate

The party rules allowed South Carolina and any state voting after March 15 to use this approach. It will be heavily influential in the second half of the primary season.

Even the states with ‘proportional’ approaches are not genuinely so. These states all allocate delegates partly in congressional districts awarding 3 delegates each, and partly in statewide pools. The 3-delegate district allocations are obviously difficult to allocate proportionally, because the possible results are almost all 2-1 between the top two candidates, or 1-1-1 between three candidates.

The aggregate of these results is not necessarily proportional, but overall will favour the leading candidate in any state.

Moreover, both district and statewide approaches use a variety of rules relating to thresholds or special results if the lead candidate reaches 50% or some higher figure.

Overall, the Republican rules favour a single leading candidate if they are consistently ahead of their rivals. And that is exactly the position Donald Trump has been achieving.

The Republican race started with a wide range of choices (at least 11 campaigns were in the field in early February.) Categorization of these candidates can – with caution – see them allocated to four distinct streams: an establishment group consisting of serving governors or congress members; a conservative or ‘religious right’ group; a libertarian group; and outsiders.

Previous contests since the 1970s were generally between the establishment and the conservative wing, and were always won by a candidate of the first group. The libertarian element of the party was always a small minority movement.

The rise of Donald Trump has of course created a massive new ‘outsider’ category. Technically the now-withdrawn candidates Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina might be added to this group.

In the voting so far, the establishment candidates have won around 6.5 million votes (31%) and candidates associated with the religious right (Ted Cruz as well as withdrawn candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum) around 5.8 million votes (28%).

The sole libertarian candidate Rand Paul withdrew early and the less than 1% of the votes he won understates this group’s likely true share of the party’s voters.

The outsider category, consisting primarily of Trump, has won 8.5 million votes, or just under 41% of the total. Trump’s own share is 37% of the total vote.

So overall the party’s voter base is deeply divided, with the emerging Trump supporter base leading the field but falling significantly short of 50% of voters.

Trump argues that he is bringing new supporters into the party’s voter base, but analysis of this claim is difficult at this stage.

Against the background of these voter numbers, the party’s delegate award rules have not been providing a particularly fair result. As foreshadowed above, the leading candidate – Donald Trump – is benefiting from a disproportional award of delegates compared to his support base.

With 37% of voter support, Trump has so far been awarded around 48% of the delegates. Clearly he is very close to achieving a majority at the convention, which he would not deserve if the system were proportional. The presence of several winner-take-all states in the latter part of the primary season may well assist him in getting over that target.

The conservative religious right is winning roughly the share of delegates it deserves, with 28% of the vote and 30% of delegates so far.

It is the establishment group that is suffering the most unfair result, with 31% of votes but only around 20% of delegates won. Their position is further damaged by the fact that it’s vote successes have been divided between two candidates (John Kasich and the now-withdrawn Marco Rubio). This category also suffered from further division among other candidates in the early weeks of the season.

The irony that the current rules were written by establishment figures four years ago specifically to contain the prospects of the conservative wing of the party is not lost on party insiders.

There are other issues with the Republican system, such as the rules about which candidates can be considered in the first round of balloting of the convention, and a highly complex variety of rules about the loyalty of the delegates to their campaigns at all. All these complexities will come under extreme pressure at the 2016 convention.

This years event is simply the first time this complicated system has been seriously tested, as all previous conventions have seen either a single predominant candidate endorsed without straining the rules, or at worst a simple fight between two closely-positioned candidates.

The Republican rules are not fair to the party’s voter base in that the influence they give the voters varies sharply from state to state. Moreover even the underlying apportionment of delegates to states is not itself proportional to populations or voter numbers.

In choosing a presidential nominee, the Republican party is in the awkward historical position of needing to accommodate multiple internal movements. Solving such a problem inevitably requires some system of internal brokerage.

A narrow win for Donald Trump based on just over 50% of the delegates, chosen by the complex, unfair and unsatisfactory system used this year, will not leave the party in a satisfactory condition.

A brokered result that overturns Trump’s position in favour of any alternative, based on such an inappropriate assembly of delegates, will look even less satisfactory.

The party is entitled to reject a controversial figure such as Trump, but the convention which assembles in Cleveland in July 2016 will not be well-representative of the voter base, and therefore will lack legitimacy to resolve the issue.

Overall, the Republican nomination system used in 2016 deserves a variety of technical criticisms. How these will be reconsidered in the future – or even altered at the last minute in July 2016 – is far from clear.

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