Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Is The System Really Rigged Against Bernie?

A top candidate from a major party complains that the nominating process is rigged against him.  Violence breaks out on the campaign trail among his supporters.  More is threatened at the upcoming convention in July.  The candidate refuses to temper his followers and the threat of disorder hangs in the air. 

The GOP sure is a mess, right?  Well, maybe, but that paragraph actually describes the Democratic Party, who is now blowing its chance to be the one dignified and unified party in the mix.

The simmering feud between Bernie Sanders and the Democratic National Committee broke out into the open last week at the Nevada Convention.  That convention ended in mayhem that included chairs being thrown by Sanders supporters and threats by those supporters on the life of the state party chairwoman. 

For those lost in the arcana behind the headlines, here is the simple version of what happened (if there is such a thing).  Apparently a number of Sanders’ delegates (delegates to this convention, not to be confused with awarded delegates) were ruled ineligible to participate because they had not filed as Democrats by May 1, as the rules stipulate.  A lesser number of Clinton delegates were also ruled ineligible for the same reason.  

Nevada has 35 delegates and 23 were awarded in the caucus in February (Clinton won it and received 13 delegates to Sanders’ 10).  The brouhaha was around how to properly allocate the other 12 delegates.  And, as best as I can tell, we are talking about the difference between a 7-5 split versus 5-7.  To a numbers person, this is the essence of immateriality.  But to the rabid conventioneers, this was their reason for being, and they were not to be denied.

Whatever happened in Vegas may ultimately stay in Vegas, but more likely it will seep out to Philadelphia at the Democratic National Convention, where Sanders supporters are already organizing protests.  This will certainly do the Democrats harm in a year when unity and dignity are at a premium.

But what of the Sanders’ campaign’s central argument, that Bernie has been treated poorly in this nominating process?  I took a look at that premise, based on the numbers.  We start with the base case, the current process that, however flawed, has resulted in Hillary Clinton amassing 1,722 pledged delegates to Sanders 1,479 to date.  I would propose that the current system, which by all accounts leads to disproportionate influence held by the more extreme wings of both parties, favors Sanders considerably.  To wit: 
  • Sanders of course did extremely well in the caucuses, an aberrant form of an election if ever there was one.  Where else does one have to sit in a gymnasium for hours before raising your hand to vote?  If the Democrats ran all primaries and no caucuses, I estimate Clinton would now have 1,779 delegates to Bernie’s 1,422, a swing of 57 delegates.  This assumes both candidates would have won their caucus states by a 55/45 margin that is more typical for primaries, versus the extreme margin we have seen in many caucuses.
  • If the Democrats ran a “winner take all” process, which arguably more closely hews to how most elections are decided – when you win, you win outright – Clinton would have a 2,214 to 987 lead over Sanders, a swing of 492 delegates in Clinton’s favor.
  • Thus far, 13.2 million voters have opted for Clinton versus 10.1 million for Sanders.  That translates to a 55/43 margin.  If the delegates were awarded purely proportionately in that manner, Clinton would have 1,776 delegates to Sanders 1,367, a swing of about 50 delegates in Clinton’s favor.
  • A number of states also allowed Independents to vote in the Democratic primary.  Obviously that obscures the notion that a party should select its own nominee.  I have not gone back and counted but it is no secret that Sanders does very well among Independents in those “open” primaries. 

I’m not advocating any one of these systems over another.  I’m merely pointing out that among a set of methods of nominating a candidate, our current system is the one that most favors Bernie Sanders.

But even in this Sanders-favoring system, Clinton has emerged with a clear majority of victories, votes and, accordingly, pledged delegates.  In short, the primary/caucus system frankly favors more extreme candidates, a well-known fact.  Far from being treated badly by the process, Bernie has benefited from it dramatically and disproportionately.  Any other “fairer” system would have resulted in Sanders achieving fewer delegates than he has to date.

Finally, a word about superdelegates, the absolute bane of the Sanders campaign, since they have overwhelmingly lined up behind Clinton.  If the GOP followed the same process and held aside a material proportion of delegates for party regulars, it is highly unlikely Donald Trump would have won the nomination.  He would never have secured a terribly large number of such insiders, and conventional candidates would have been bolstered, and the #StopTrump movement would have likely succeeded.  I short, the Democrats’ system is a check that prevents a demagogue from emerging.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Sanders is a demagogue – he is certainly a legitimate candidate and, if he was ahead in pledged delegates, he would have every claim on the superdelegates and the nomination.  What I am saying is that there is a purpose to having superdelegates, and one only has to look at the GOP to see a process gone badly awry; the lack of superdelegates was one cause.

People forget that political parties used to select their nominees in “smoke-filled” rooms and primaries were not a significant part of the landscape until reforms in the early 1970’s in the wake of the madness of the 1968 Chicago convention.  While hardly democratic, those smoke-filled rooms produced reasonable nominees.  Certainly it is welcome to have “the people” participate more directly in the process, but our current system -- on the GOP side -- left the door wide open for a demagogue to barrel through.  I am comforted that the Democratic Party does not offer such a side door.


Well, we did get it right in that Clinton and Sanders split the two primaries held yesterday; unfortunately we got them reversed as Clinton won Kentucky and Sanders took Oregon.  Such are the travails of forecasting with limited polling and, in Oregon’s case, a whole new election method, mail ballots only (is anything done by “only mail” in this world we live in except the Oregon Democratic primary)?

BTRTN Prediction
BTRTN Prediction

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