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US primaries an arms race between states

Super Tuesday has been run and won; Mitt Romney continues on his somewhat unsteady road to the Republican nomination. It’s a good opportunity to step back a bit and see what the process is telling us about the Republican Party and the state of democracy in America.

Primary contests can be thought of as a sort of arms race — not between candidates, but between states. Each state wants to maximise its influence: that means allocating its delegates on a winner-take-all basis so candidates will find it worth more effort to compete, and holding its primary as early as possible while the contest is still fluid.

But the more states try to do this, the less it works in the party’s interests. Winner-take-all contests distort the process, and the effort to get ahead of other states just keeps shifting the calendar ever earlier. That’s why the New Hampshire primary, which traditionally was held in March, now happens in early January.

For this year the Republican national committee, to its credit, tried to do something about this problem. It adopted a rule that states voting early in the piece — a phase that we’re still in, even though it seems to have been going on forever — had to allocate their delegates on a proportional basis.

So the score in Republican delegates so far should roughly reflect the proportion of votes each of the candidates has received, right? In reality, it’s nothing like it. Front-runner Romney has well over half the delegates (415 out of 745 according to The New York Times tabulation), but in the popular vote so far he’s running at maybe about 40% (RealClearPolitics has running totals, but there is no official tally).

Proportional allocation doesn’t mean what it sounds like; it just means something a bit better than straight winner-take-all. And the departures from a genuinely proportional result aren’t random: they have been systematically advantaging Romney and concealing the strength of support his opponents have.

Take Ohio, the most important of this week’s races. Romney won 38% of the vote, about 1% ahead of Rick Santorum. But Romney will take at least 35 of the state’s 63 pledged delegates, and Santorum will get the rest — Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, who had almost a quarter of the vote between them, will get none. Most of the delegates are allocated to the winner in each congressional district, and even for the statewide proportional ones there is a threshold of 20%, which only Romney and Santorum reached.

Or look at Georgia, which also has a 20% threshold. Santorum, who got 19.6%, therefore misses out on the statewide delegates, winning only two (out of 76) for being runner-up in two congressional districts. Gingrich, with less than half the vote, wins about 60% of the delegates.

Romney, who has finished in the top two almost everywhere, benefits most from these anomalies. Consider Ohio again: on a truly proportional result, Romney and Santorum would have won 24 delegates each, Gingrich nine and Paul six. If it came to a vote at the convention, Gingrich’s delegates would be likely to back Santorum (or vice versa), putting Romney in the minority.

That’s a reflection of the more general fact that if Gingrich and Paul were not in the race, reducing it to a straight fight between Romney and Santorum, Romney would quite possibly be losing. Gingrich’s voters would tend to support Santorum, and while Paul’s might lean to Romney, they would be more likely to just stay home and there are fewer of them anyway.

And this is, if you think about it, a truly extraordinary thing. The fact that Romney, a successful governor and former candidate with multiple endorsements and huge reserves of cash, is at best only marginally preferred by Republican voters to Santorum, the wingnut from central casting, speaks volumes about the sort of organisation that the Republican party has become.

It also hurts Romney in his eventual battle with Barack Obama. As Josh Marshall put it last month in Talking Points Memo, “running around the country in a long twilight struggle with Rick Santorum is just … how to put it? inherently demeaning and diminishing. It’s like struggling to land a one pound fish or searching for the way out of a paper bag.”

And the fact that no one much seems to care about the discrepancy between delegate mathematics and actual support tells us something else about American democracy, and that affects more than just the Republicans. A system that was, as I’ve said before, state of the art in the 1830s has drifted a long way from democratic norms, and nothing that happens in the current contest looks likely to drag it back.

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  • 1
    Peter Ormonde
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Have you noticed how white these self-congratulatory “democracy fests” are? The only place you see a black or hispanic face is on the stage … a token presence for the cameras.

    I still can’t anyone at all who professes an interest in this sludge to give me any real difference between the contenders… the trick it seems is to be as similar as possible - but more god-fearing, more patriotic, more apple pie than the other two. Good teeth, a nice haircut a photogenic family and no history of major scandals with illegal housemaids…

    It’s about marketing - packaging - rather than politics. All box but no cereal. Like the X Factor but with less singing and dancing. Even the journalists covering the thing seem incapable of injecting any political or policy content into the circus. It’s about votes and winning - not about ideas. And that is deliberate.

    And it escapes me why anyone - anyone at all - is interested in it.

    It’s about time they actually finished the Civil War don’t you reckon?

  • 2
    Arty
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    It’s about power.
    All politics is about power, but dressed up in other clothes.

  • 3
    Peter Ormonde
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Arty,

    Power comes dressed up in funny hats apparently.

    Now speaking of a war between the states… let’s get serious. Wyoming has been considering setting up a task force to look at what to do in the event of the USofA imploding or being taken over by aliens or some such. Sadly the bill was defeated 30-27 last month.

    The proposal - originating in the more cerebral elements of the Republican dominated legislature - was to examine coining their own currency and buying a few fighter aircraft and possibly an aircraft carrier. This raises some issues since Wyoming - at present - has no seaboard. Totally landlocked. Smack bang where the US would have an armpit.

    I’m not sure whether the idea was to expand east or west to the beach through some sort of anschluss with its neighbours or just stick the thing on a lake somewhere. But I very much doubt it was flattening Canada that they had in mind. I’d reckon they’d be looking at a pre-emptive strike on San Francisco myself… keep them queers, hippies and showbiz types out of town. Maybe take out the Mormons in Utah on the way through.

    Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first drive mad.

    Euripedes was supposed to have said that. But he didn’t. It was another O’Bama lie.

    Power and funny hats … a dangerous combination… especially when they’re made of alfoil.

  • 4
    Edward James
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I believe that perhaps fifty percent of peoples who fill out a ballot paper, would if they were capable of focusing in common cause, change the way we Australians are represented. So many voters would rather fight than actually become involved in discussing ways to exercise their votes, which would very quickly change the face of politics by purging dead wood politicians who are all about the party while trampling their constituents. Bread and circus a distraction for the masses which Peter O mentions, has been around for thousands of years. Astroturfing explained by the very instructive for me link AR posted on another string. Reminds me of how our local councils use our rates money to buy the influence of hard working community groups. It is many years since a News Limited publication used half a page above the fold to make fun of my reading Machiavelli the “Prince” in an effort to understand a little better the way politics works. Perhaps I am a bit of a dreamer but I really do miss the old days of Crikey.com Edward James

  • 5
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I find it extraordinary that so few in the US seem to support:

    1 citizen = 1 vote = 1 value.

    And even if it is supported in principle there seems to be so little acknowledgement that the principle can be implemented only by an independent electoral commission, or if you want to be ‘states rights’ about it, by 50 independent electoral commissions.

  • 6
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    The US system is a joke, the amount of money spent just to become mayor of New York is ridiculous let alone the millions being spent byt he republicans just for the honour of running for president.

    Throw in the fact that in Ohio Santorum apparently didn’t get on the ballot in all districts and Santorum & Gingrich didn’t get on the ballot at all in Virginia (when surely the system should be you say you are running for president and you automatically get on every ballot) and that candidates drop out along the way and every state has a different way of voting, counting the votes and distributing the delegates and it’s clealry a mess.

    How hard would it be to have a set campaign phase then every state votes on the same day, using the same method, with the same sytem of delegates and at the end of the day you get a winner!

  • 7
    animaldander
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    i can’t believe how much i keep hearing about the #$#$”n U.S election! sure, they are one of the most influential powers and it’s nice to know what the big bully is doing next but really! lets just wait and see who wins and print that instead of this blow by blow account of why the republican party is retarded. Ask some americans where australia is and they won’t even be able to tell you, and it’s not because they are dumb - it’s because no one gives a toss about australia or what we think. So lets not be such sycophants to the worst country in the world by impressing our dinner guests with how much we know about the U.S primaries (and how little we know about policies being passed under our noses in canberra) it’s so embarrassing to hear it in every news break on “RN”. i bet it’s all over free to air tv too.
    just ignore it and talk to your loved ones.

  • 8
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Meanwhile those damned Dakotans…

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