Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Distorting Power of Caucuses

During the coverage of yesterday's presidential voting, one of the cable networks—it may have been CNN—displayed two maps of the United States, each with a number of states shaded. The first represented the primary election and caucus victories achieved by Hillary Clinton; the second did the same for Barack Obama. The visual impression was unmistakable: not only did the Obama map depict many more shaded states, it also indicated a much wider geographical sweep.

If the point of the dueling maps was not immediately apparent, the announcer helped to fill in the gaps. Clearly, she said, Senator Obama enjoyed support in every corner of the nation, even in those states where the African American constituency was relatively small. She did not directly say so, but she clearly implied that the differences between the Clinton and Obama maps spoke to the relative electability of the two candidates.

I have always found this sort of lazy analysis highly irritating. Displaying states without regard for their population nearly always misleads the viewer. In 2000, when the presidential election essentially ended in a tie, the visual impression of 20 blue states and 30 red states suggested to the eye that George W. Bush had won easily over Al Gore. The distortion was increased by the fact that many of Bush's wins came in states that were rich in land mass but lacking in population. I remember, too, a popular poster from the 1980s, back when Democrats enjoyed a healthy majority in the House of Representatives, that featured a map of congressional districts, some colored green and others red depending on which party held the seat in question. Because urban Democratic districts were compact, while many GOP districts were not (think, for example, West Los Angeles vs. Wyoming, each with one representative), a quick glance demanded the conclusion that Republicans overwhelmingly ruled Congress.

The Obama-Clinton maps, of course, suffer from the same distortion. Although Obama has won more states, Clinton has captured the lion's share of those with the highest population. Of states with ten or more electoral votes, Barack Obama has won five; Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has prevailed in eight, including the three largest that have weighed in as of February 9 (California, New York, and Florida). Aside from his home turf of Illinois, Obama has won only a single state—Georgia—with as many as 15 electoral votes. Clinton has won five.

The distortion, however, does not end there. Senator Obama's geographical sweep is also tainted by the fact that most of his biggest victories—especially outside the South—have taken place in caucus states. A win is a win, of course, and there is nothing shady about Obama's triumphant march through the caucuses (he has won nine of ten). Nevertheless, given their sometimes arcane rules and relatively low turnout, one simply cannot infer broad support from even a string of caucus victories.

Perhaps at one time, presidential caucuses were designed to keep the delegate selection process in the hands of the party pros and faithful, long-time supporters. But in practice, this no longer occurs. Instead, caucuses give the edge to whichever candidate has the most fervent devotees, those motivated not just to drive to a polling place and cast a ballot, but instead to gather at some designated location for a significantly longer period of time.

If we have learned anything over the past month, it has been that Barack Obama's fans, liberal, activist, and wired, will crawl through broken glass to help their man win the Democratic nomination. Obama's caucus victories have not only been common, they have also been, for the most part, lopsided. Consider this: in Louisiana, a state with a large African American population, Obama won yesterday's primary by 21 points, a sizable victory. But in Nebraska and Washington, under far less demographically favorable circumstances, he beat Clinton by 32 and 37 percent, respectively. According to CNN's estimates, Obama leads Clinton by 105 delegates in states that have held caucuses, but trails him by 126 in those that have not. And this does not even count Senator Clinton's victories in the Florida and Michigan primaries, in which no delegates were awarded.

There is, obviously, nothing wrong with a candidate having deeply passionate supporters. Indeed, in one sense, it bodes well for the fall campaign, when thousands of organizers and doorbell ringers and financial contributors will be needed to help defeat the Republicans. But we shouldn't mistake depth for breadth. Mike Huckabee, with an equally committed army of Christian conservative activists, has also done especially well in caucus states. Pat Robertson finished a strong second in the Iowa caucuses in 1988. Impressive caucus performances simply do not mean the same thing as sweeping primary victories.

Barack Obama may, in fact, provide the Democrats their greatest hope of recapturing the White House this year. But he has emerged as his party's frontrunner largely on the basis of his overwhelming success in states holding presidential caucuses. We have no idea how Hillary Clinton would have fared in a Washington or Nebraska primary yesterday, but she almost certainly wouldn't have gone down to 30 point defeats. Consider, too, the fact that several of Obama's primary victories have come in states—Alabama, Georgia, Utah—that Democrats have no realistic chance of winning in November.

Eight years after Al Gore won the popular vote and lost the presidential election, the same thing may occur in the race for the Democratic nomination. Hillary Clinton may win a majority of the votes, primary and caucus, cast during the first six months of 2008 and still see Barack Obama give the acceptance speech at the party's Denver convention in August. If that happens, Democrats can only hope that he has one more speech to give on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in January, 2009.

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