the Democrats' End Game
by Tad Devine & Anthony Corrado
Super Tuesday 2008 was the largest single day of primary voting in American
history. Democratic Party candidates competed for 1,678 delegates that day,
and when all the votes were counted, the two frontrunners
-- Senators Clinton and Obama -- were
separated by a handful of delegates. This equal division of delegates after
a nationwide primary is a testament both to the closeness of the contest and
the workings of proportional representation, the Democratic Party’s formula
for delegate allocation.
But the most important consequence of this close contest for the nomination
is that the Democratic nominee will be picked by the party’s
almost 800 unpledged party leaders and elected officials who are given
delegate status by virtue of the positions they hold rather than by the
votes cast in primaries and caucuses. This close contest will unfold in the
weeks ahead, and several factors will influence the outcome.
Our essay looks at several process and political issues that we believe will
affect the outcome and may help decide who the next nominee of the
Democratic Party will be. We hope this analysis will help to make some sense
of the mess.
Solomonic Impact of Proportional Representation
Americans are learning a new phrase this primary season:
"proportional representation." This
formula, the only permissible method of delegate allocation under Democratic
Party rules, essentially divides the delegates between two candidates who
are close to one another in the voting.
All of the 22 states that held contests for the Democratic nomination on
Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, were required to use proportional representation to
allocate delegates to the candidates. Most of the more than 1,600 delegates
at stake that day were allocated by voting results in individual
congressional districts. Overall, 1,094 delegates were allocated by the
district-by-district results; but 584 delegates were decided by the overall
statewide voting results.
Most of the delegates were therefore selected based on district voting
results. The number of delegates assigned to each district is set by party
rules and most of the districts have 4, 5, or 6 delegates at stake, with the
largest number of districts having either 4 or 6 delegates. In other words,
about half of the more than 200 districts that voted on Super Tuesday had an
even number of delegates (4 or 6).
Under proportional representation, it is very difficult to achieve a
significant delegate margin, especially in districts with an even number of
delegates. In order to qualify for a delegate, a candidate has to receive a
threshold share of the vote, which is set at 15%. So only a candidate who
receives at least 15% of the vote is eligible for delegates. Only two
candidates broke the threshold in Super Tuesday voting, Senators Clinton and
Obama. If the vote of the candidates who do break threshold does not equal
100% (for example, candidate A gets 47%, candidate B gets 43%, and 10% is
scattered among candidates who have dropped out but are still on the ballot
or minor contenders), then the vote shares of the two candidates who break
threshold are adjusted to equal 100% and their relative shares of the vote
used to decide the delegate allocation. Figures are rounded to the nearest
The Math of Proportional Representation
To amass a significant delegate margin, a candidate needs to win 3 of the 4
delegates in a 4 delegate district (thus a 3-1 advantage) or 4 of the
delegates in a 5 or 6 delegate district (thus a 4-1 or 4-2 advantage).
Otherwise there is little relative advantage, since districts will divide
2-2 or 3-2 or 3-3. The reason the delegate race remained close on Super
Tuesday is that a candidate has to win a district by an extraordinarily
large margin in order to gain a significant delegate advantage. Proportional
representation is the main reason why two strong candidates divided the
delegates almost evenly, after half the nation voted.
Here’s the way the math works in the world of delegate counting:
• Four Delegate
District: In a 4 delegate district with two candidates breaking the
threshold, the district will usually split 2-2. Where the top two candidates
get 100% of the total vote, the winning candidate has to receive at least
63% of the vote in order to win 3 delegates. In other words, a candidate has
to win by a margin of 25 points to get a 3-1 split. (If Candidate A gets
more than 62.5% and Candidate B gets less than 37.5% of the vote, then
Candidate A wins 3-1. If Candidate A gets less than 62.5%, then the district
splits 2-2, even if Candidate A has more votes than Candidate B.)
Even if the top two candidates garner only 90% of the total vote (assuming
some votes are cast for others), the winning candidate, Candidate A, has to
win more than 56% of the vote and win by a margin of more than 22 points to
get a 3-1 split.
• Five Delegate
District: In a 5 delegate district with two candidates, the district
will usually split 3-2. In order to win another delegate and get a 4-1
split, the winning candidate would have to garner 70% of the district vote
or win by a margin of 40 points (where the top two candidates total 100% of
Even if the top two candidates only garner 90% of the total vote in a
district, the winning candidate, Candidate A, has to win at least 63% of the
vote or win by a margin of 36 points in order to get a 4-1 split.
• Six Delegate
District: In a 6 delegate district, 3-3 or 4-2 splits are typical. In a
two candidate race, in order for the winning candidate to gain a 5-1 split,
the winning candidate would have to take 75% of the vote or win by a margin
of 50 points.
Even if the top two candidates only garner 90% of the total vote in a
district, the winning candidate would have to receive more than 67% of the
vote or win by a margin of 45 points to win a 5-1 delegate split.
The Problem of Building Delegate Margins
As these examples indicate, it is very difficult to develop a big delegate
advantage under proportional representation. That is especially true when
there are two strong, well financed candidates competing for the nomination,
as is the case in 2008.
So a combination of proportional representation and a heavily front-loaded
system (many big states like California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey
moved up to the first day of permissible voting under party rules to follow
on the heels of the four early delegate selection events in Iowa, New
Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) led to the even split of delegates on
Super Tuesday. The Solomonic impact of proportional representation was
experienced by the campaigns and witnessed by the voters. But that fact does
not mean that the Democratic Party cannot still render a clear decision
soon, or that the uncertainty that the process has produced is the
inevitable end result.
The Stages of the Nominating Process
Each nominating process takes on a life of its own, and 2008 is a vivid
example of that truism in American politics. This year, the nominating
process of the Democratic Party has gone through three distinct stages, and
is now in the midst of the fourth stage, which may or may not be the last.
The first stage of the process was last year when two candidates
-- Clinton and Obama -- separated
themselves from the pack by each raising $100 million and generating broad
political support. Stage two consisted of the four early
"pre-window" primaries and caucuses in
Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina that, like the stage before,
produced split results. Little wonder that in stage three
-- the coast-to-coast primary on Super Tuesday --
coming fast on the heels of the pre-window events, the delegate
results would be as closely divided as the voting in the early states and
the fundraising in the year before.
But after Super Tuesday, we believe that the process entered a fourth
distinct stage. This is the period of sequential state voting, where the
elusive momentum that both Clinton and Obama have worked so hard to capture
in stages one, two and three is now available again.
In a momentum phase, a candidate who wins becomes the candidate with
momentum, and that momentum can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In
Senator Obama’s case, the momentum of early stage four voting has seemed to
feed on itself, as coverage and interpretation of his wins is generally
positive, while coverage of Senator Clinton’s post-Super Tuesday defeats
likewise affects what voters see and hear about her in upcoming contests.
A momentum phase is a dynamic, not static,
process. Winning campaigns get the aura of victory, while losing candidates
are seen and covered through the prism of defeat.
We’ve seen momentum campaigns in past nominating contests. Gary Hart’s
post-New Hampshire momentum carried him to victory in a broad swath of Super
Tuesday states in 1984, and it took full-force political maneuvering by the
Mondale campaign -- which capitalized on party
"winner take all" rules
that made it possible to rack up big victories in post-Super Tuesday states
like Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- to hold off
Hart’s insurgent candidacy. Senator Ted Kennedy rode a wave of momentum late
in the process in 1980 but an early Carter lead and proportional
representation held Kennedy back and a party rule (which bound delegates to
vote for the candidate for whom they were elected, and has since been
repealed) kept the Kennedy delegate count in check. Al Gore and John Kerry
built momentum the old-fashioned way -- they
earned it -- by winning both Iowa and New
But now, in 2008, the test case for momentum will be Ohio and Texas. Senator
Obama goes into those contests after reeling off ten straight post-Super
Tuesday victories, and this nomination may be decided once and for all in
the four contests holding events on March 4th: Texas, Ohio, Vermont and
Rhode Island. Certainly, voters in most or all of those states, especially
the mega states of Ohio and Texas, will effectively end Senator Clinton’s
run for the nomination if Obama wins three or four of the March 4th
contests. Then "big mo'
will still be king of the Democratic nominating process. But if Senator
Clinton is able to move ahead in Texas and Ohio and the pendulum process of
2007 and early 2008 returns, the Democratic Party will face a test that may
be even tougher than the showdowns in Chicago in 1968, Miami in 1972, and
New York in 1980.
The Cloud that Hangs Over the Nominating Process
In recent years, the Democratic nominating process has been a relatively
settled affair. After the turmoil of the 1960s, a series of Rules
Commissions devised a set of party rules that govern the delegate selection
process and convention proceedings. In recent years, rules and credentials
challenges seemed relegated to the dustbin of history.
But all of that could change with potentially shocking consequences. A dark
cloud hangs over the Democratic nominating process this year in Florida and
Michigan, and that cloud could have important consequences for the Democrats
in determining the nomination and the general election in November.
Michigan and Florida’s decision to hold primaries before the beginning of
sanctioned voting under party rules has led to serious, even draconian
sanctions from the party, and has cast a dark cloud over the nominating
process. Since the primaries were not sanctioned by party rules, those
events held on January 15th and January 29th did not allocate convention
delegates, notwithstanding the fact that over 1.5 million people voted in
the Florida primary and almost 600,000 voted in the Democratic primary in
The issues raised by this break in the orderly process of recent decades
could not have occurred at a worse moment for the Democratic Party and the
campaigns involved this year. For the first time in two decades, the
Democratic nomination is truly contested, and the closeness of the race
means that the delegates from those two states, 156 in Michigan and 210 in
Florida, could easily provide the difference in determining the outcome of
the nominating process.
But what can be done? Certainly Democrats from those states will attempt to
challenge the current status quo -- which
effectively says that no delegates can be seated from either state. That
challenge can take the form of a credentials challenge, the likes of which
the party has not seen in over three decades.
The committee with jurisdiction over the seating of delegates
-- the Credentials Committee -- is one of
the three standing committees to the national convention (the other two
being the Rules Committee and Platform Committee). It will be composed
largely of members elected on the basis of the results of state primaries
and caucuses. In this inside fight, should it come to that, Senator Obama
enjoys an important advantage. In total, 161 of the 186 members of each
standing committee are selected from states, and 20 states and the District
of Columbia have only one representative on each of the committees.
By winning so many states and thereby controlling so many state delegations,
the Obama campaign can weight their selections towards the Credentials and
Rules Committees, the places where a procedural or credentials battle will
be fought in the maneuvering prior to the convention. By picking Rules and
Credentials seats in state after state where his campaign will be entitled
to 2 out of 3 standing committee seats, Obama can gain an important and
possibly decisive advantage in the pre-convention skirmishing.
The other player in this unfolding drama is Democratic National Committee
Chairman Howard Dean. Under the rules, the chairman can make 25 at-large
appointments on each standing committee. In the past, the party chairman’s
at-large appointments have been worked out with the putative nominee’s camp,
so that they effectively became the choice of the nominee, not the chairman.
In 2008, the chairman announced his selections early in the year and the
nominees were approved at the January 11th DNC Executive Committee meeting.
Thus, even under a scenario where Obama’s campaign moves forcefully to put
as many of their appointments as possible on the Rules and Credentials
Committees, Chairman Dean’s appointees may still hold the balance of power.
So the chairman may be able to exert enormous influence over whether or not
delegates from Florida and Michigan are represented on the convention floor.
This eventful year in Democratic politics is a testament to the power of
rules and the impact that the nominating process procedures can have on the
Whether or not this close contest, with its unprecedented turnout and
unbridled enthusiasm, is good for the Democratic Party remains to be seen.
What is clear is that in the age of the Internet, 24-hour cable news, and
opinionated blogs, whatever solution the Democratic Party achieves in
determining the nomination and resolving the issues of Michigan and Florida,
the best answer will be a transparent process that stresses fairness and
impartiality. The party that lost the 2000 general election by a little more
than 500 votes in Florida and a single vote on the Supreme Court can hardly
withstand a fierce internal fight where everything Democrats complained
about in that defeat seems to be playing itself out again
-- only this time, within our party itself.
Copyright © 2008 POLLING REPORT, INC.
The Solomonic impact of proportional representation was experienced by the
campaigns and witnessed by the voters.
A momentum phase is a dynamic, not static,
process. Winning campaigns get the aura of victory, while losing
candidates are seen and covered through the prism of defeat.
In recent years, rules and credentials challenges seemed relegated to the
history. But all of that could change with potentially shocking
[W]hatever solution the Democratic Party achieves in determining the
nomination and resolving the issues of Michigan and Florida, the best
answer will be a transparent process that stresses fairness and