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Old Math, New Math, and the Dispute Over the "Popular Vote"

A Commentary By Larry Sabato

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Give Hillary Clinton credit. She has shown toughness, stamina, and persistence in one of the longest presidential campaigns in American history. She has fought hard and come back time and again in the 2008 primary season, defying the pundits who insisted on writing her political obituary prematurely. She has held the charismatic phenomenon named Barack Obama almost to a draw in the fight for votes and delegates in the Democratic Party's nominating battle.

As some of Obama's weaknesses become more apparent -- and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright continues to bask in the spotlight -- her arguments are drawing new attention, and Democratic leaders are considering them. It's easy to see why. Imagine if John F. Kennedy's priest or bishop had proven divisive and taken the public stage in 1960, claiming the campaign had become an attack on the Catholic Church, just as Rev. Wright has insisted that the controversy over his sermons are an assault on the "black church". There would have been no JFK presidency.

All that being true, the odds remain long that she will not overcome Obama's lead. With just seven states (plus Puerto Rico and Guam) remaining on the primary schedule, Obama is ahead by close to 160 elected "pledged" delegates and, overall, by about 130 delegates, once the superdelegates are included. This may not sound like many in a convention that will host more than 4,000 delegates, but the party's strict proportional allotment regimen makes it difficult to gain a sizeable number of delegates quickly. (Incredibly, a candidate can win a big state and net a mere handful of delegates. The Democrats have developed a system so fair that it is unfair.) Despite their name, pledged delegates are not truly bound to back their candidate, but they have been carefully chosen by the campaigns and are highly unlikely to shift allegiance.

Here's the basic dilemma for Hillary Clinton: How can she convince senior Democrats to turn their backs on their most party-loyal constituency, African-Americans, who regularly give 90 percent of their votes to party candidates, and who have been backing Obama with 80 to 90 percent in most primaries? For the first time, an African American has a real chance to become the presidential nominee and the occupant of the White House. The anger in the black community would be palpable and potentially long-lasting if Obama is sent packing despite having more pledged delegates. No doubt Clinton would cite her strong record on civil rights in the fall, but black turnout could be problematic. While some Democratic women would be displeased if Clinton loses, as a group they appear unlikely to respond in the same fashion if the first serious woman candidate were to be turned aside.

Worry among superdelegates about Obama's viability in the fall is probably not enough. The only conceivable scenarios that might change the present nominating math are (1) a campaign-ending scandal or gaffe by Obama, (2) a series of victories by Hillary Clinton in primaries she is expected to lose (such as North Carolina and Oregon) and a large win in the supposedly tight Indiana primary on May 6; or perhaps (3) a raft of polls showing Clinton defeating McCain handily while Obama is losing to McCain decisively. Most current polls show relatively little difference in the Obama-McCain and Clinton-McCain national match-ups, though a recent AP/Ipsos survey is manna from heaven for Clinton. Released Tuesday, it shows Clinton dispatching McCain by 50 percent to 41 percent while Obama is statistically tied with McCain, 46 percent to 44 percent. Clinton must hope that this is the beginning of a trend.

How can it be that Clinton appears so unlikely to prevail, especially close on the heels of her solid, impressive 9.2 percent victory in Pennsylvania on April 22nd? Why wouldn't that victory generate significant momentum for Clinton, just at the moment when the remaining superdelegates prepare to make their decisive choice? Didn't her 214,000-vote plurality in the Keystone State vault her into the popular-vote lead nationally, as she claimed?

The size and breadth of Clinton's triumph in Pennsylvania certainly demonstrated the emerging limitations of Obama's appeal, not least the disaffection of many whites, blue-collar workers, and low-income Democrats. It will be one of Obama's challenges in the general election to find ways to attract those groups to his standard. But it almost certainly will be Obama, not Clinton, who is on the November ballot under the Democratic label.

Take Clinton's claim about the popular vote. On the morning after Pennsylvania, she insisted that she had taken a narrow popular-vote lead, about 15.12 million to nearly 15 million for Obama. But this is classic "new math," where the numerical answer obtained is often less important than the agile mental gymnastics used to get there.

Clinton's total relies on two very dubious assumptions. First, one must incorporate the primary results from Florida and Michigan, two January contests excluded by the Democratic National Committee for violating the scheduling rules set by the party. This is no minor sum of votes -- 2,344,318, to be exact. Even if one could argue that Florida's inclusion is semi-legitimate since both candidates were on the ballot and reasonably well known by that time (January 29th), no evenhanded person would contend that Michigan, whose primary occurred on January 15th, should be part of the equation. Barack Obama's name was not even on the ballot. (An "uncommitted" delegate slate received most of the anti-Clinton votes in the Wolverine State.)

The vote total cited by Clinton conveniently excludes three caucus states won by Obama: Iowa, Maine, and Washington. (Nevada, won by Clinton, is also left out of the tally.) No one knows the exact number of votes cast for each candidate in these four states since the state parties, by tradition, refuse to release the data. The polite fiction is that voters are showing up to elect delegates to the state conventions rather than to nominate specific presidential candidates. An estimated hundred thousand votes, or more, netted by Obama is thus banished from the Clinton vote total.

Eliminating Michigan, the Obama-Clinton match-up shows an Obama edge of a couple hundred thousand votes. Striking Florida brings it to about a half-million-vote Obama plurality. And again, the unknown caucus results would add at least a hundred thousand to his lead.

Therefore, the national vote total is heavily skewed to the states holding primaries, and this total mixes primary apples and caucus oranges in an unenlightening way. The concept of the national popular vote is borrowed from the general election, where it makes more sense. However, in the nominating season the idea is dubious, and it is not a particularly useful measure for the undecided superdelegates. Nevertheless, it has been bandied about so much by the campaigns and news media that it has now become an inescapable yardstick of electoral validity for Clinton and Obama.

Other questions about the vote mathematics are also compelling. Should the voting results in November's likely competitive states -- the ones we often call "purple", a mixture of Republican red and Democratic blue -- be given special weight in the popular-vote formula? After all, the purpose of the nominating contest is to pick a candidate who can win the general election. Hillary Clinton has pushed this interpretation, but only up to a point. She wants her wins in competitive, significant states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania to be determinants for the superdelegates, yet she ignores Barack Obama's victories in medium-sized toss-up states such as Colorado and Virginia.

With apologies to George Orwell, all states are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Overall, though, this game is pointless since both Clinton and Obama have won states that would be critically important to a Democratic Electoral College majority in November. The flaw in the state-based argument is also fundamental. Party primary electorates do not resemble the November electorates in the vast majority of states, so primary results tell us surprisingly little in most states about how a party presidential nominee will fare in the general election.

Think of it this way: perhaps 35 million Americans will have voted in all the Democratic primaries and caucuses by June, but the November voter turnout could reach 135 million people -- and those extra 100 million voters are different, both in ideological and partisan terms, than the 35 million early-birds.

An ancillary issue is whether the U.S. territories, none of which has Electoral College votes in November, should even be included in the party nominating system. In an extremely close race, their delegates could decide the outcome of a presidential nomination, and potentially the Presidency itself. Should Puerto Rico, voting on June 1st, have more delegates than half the American states, as the Democrats have assigned? Neither Clinton nor Obama will raise this concern, of course, but unbiased observers ought to do so. In most conventions, the territorial votes are a harmless matter, but every now and then, the unintended consequences of their inclusion could become enormous.

The long and short of the debate over the "popular vote" is this: No one is likely to agree on exactly what it is, or how it should be counted. There are considerable flaws inherent in the concept. The popular-vote notion ought to be shelved -- but naturally, in this endlessly contentious campaign season, it will not be.

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