The Super Tuesday narrative from the Clinton camp seems to have won fairly widespread acceptance in the American media, and thence in Australia as well. It goes something like this:

Clinton was the clear winner; she won the big, important states, and would have walked away with a big lead in delegates if it wasn’t for the Democratic Party’s weird practice of allocating them proportionately, which deprived her of the legitimate fruits of victory. That’s all that’s keeping Obama in the race.

It’s true that Clinton’s eight victories included the two biggest states and four of the big five. If they were all decided on a winner-take-all basis – as they will be in November, and as most of the Republican contests were yesterday – she would have won 1,216 delegates to Obama’s 810. (I’m using the New York Times’s figures; New Mexico, with 38 delegates, is still undecided.)

But if you look at how people actually voted, a different picture emerges. On my calculation, Clinton won 7,439,916 votes to Obama’s 7,393,827 — a virtual dead heat. And that understates Obama’s performance slightly, because he did better in states that had caucuses rather than primaries (Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota and North Dakota), where the turnout is lower.

For another measure of how close it was, if you assume the delegates were all allocated exactly in proportion to votes — that is, just multiplying the available delegates in each state by each candidate’s percentage of its vote – Obama comes out very narrowly in the lead, 1,053 to 1,011. That makes Clinton’s actual delegate result, which AP estimates as 845 to 765, look generous to her rather than the reverse.

What makes the difference is that although the states Obama won were generally smaller, he not only won more of them (13) but he won them by much larger margins. Only one of Clinton’s wins, Arkansas, was with more than 58%, whereas Obama carried eight states with more than 60%.

But the United States is so deeply and unreflectively attached to first-past-the-post voting that this sort of argument barely registers.

The idea of proportional representation, which the Democrats’ system half-heartedly implements, is quite alien, whereas in the rest of the world it’s part of what we mean by democracy.

The American electoral system was state-of-the-art in the 1830s, but it’s now urgently in need of an update.

Peter Fray

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