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.

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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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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