Thursday, March 6, 2008

Texas Provides the Smoking Gun (Naturally)

For Hillary Clinton, the best part of winning three of the four primaries held this week is that it allows her a chance to re-frame the discussion about the nomination process. During her eleven state February losing streak, she knew that any complaints she offered would have been quickly dismissed as poor sportsmanship by the Obama camp and its media cheerleaders. But now is her chance to make the case against her rival's claim that delegate counts are somehow equivalent to the popular will.

Indeed, one of the results from March 4 places the speciousness of Obama's argument into stark relief. Just look at Texas. For reasons that could only make sense in a state where grown men still wear cowboy hats, Lone Star Democrats chose to select their delegates through both a primary and a caucus. It is, to be charitable, an idea that obviously did not emerge from one of Texas's dry counties. Nevertheless, it provides us with a naturalistic experiment by which to judge the impact of caucuses on the Democratic race for president.

For quite a while, it has been fairly clear that Barack Obama does better in caucus states than he does in primaries. Until now, however, it has been impossible to demonstrate empirically that his success stems, at least in part, from the unrepresentative nature the caucus electorate. Texas provides us with the proof. As everyone knows by now, Clinton won the state's primary by about three percentage points. But with about 40% of the vote counted in the caucuses (can Texans do anything quickly other than firing weapons?), Obama has a twelve point lead.

Assuming that these results hold up after our Lone Star loafers get around to counting the other three-fifths of the vote, it will be clear that the caucuses, in this case, distorted the relative support of the two Democratic candidates to the tune of about 15 percent. In the end, Obama will likely end up with more Texas delegates than Clinton despite losing the real election. This, of course, will be celebrated as democracy in action by the liberal bloggers who now reflexively defend any system which favors Barack Obama. (Yeah, Daily Kos, I'm talking about you.)

Out of curiosity, I decided to run a few numbers. I took all the caucus states except for Iowa and Nevada, and redistributed the delegates based on a less one-sided result. In general, the assumption I made was probably overly generous to Senator Obama. I assumed that he won each caucus by a tally of 55%-45%, a fairly wide margin. The only exceptions were Washington State, where I used the vote shares from the non-binding February 19 primary (more about that in a moment) and Hawaii, Obama's native state, where I allowed the senator a 60%-40% edge.

Hillary Clinton, under this scenario, wins additional delegates in every state I analyzed, from a high of +11 in Washington to a low of +1 in North Dakota. All told, she picks up 47 delegates from her opponent's tally. Using CNN's current estimates, that would change the pro-Obama margin of elected delegates (we're not counting the Super Friends here) from 1,321-1,186 to 1,274-1,233. By this count, then, Barack Obama would lead Hillary Clinton by only 41 pledged delegates, with several states left to choose.

And remember, my calculation assumes that Senator Clinton would have lost every single one of those states, and lost all but one of them by ten points. In all likelihood, she would have done better than that. Indeed, she might have even won a state or two. Thus, if every state had been required to hold a primary election, it is altogether possible that Clinton would currently lead the delegate race.

Actually, Washington provides a counterfactual almost as useful as the one we're getting from Texas. On February 9, Senator Obama won 21,629 caucus votes in the Evergreen State compared to Senator Clinton's tally of 9,992, a whopping 68%-31% margin. For some reason, however, our northwestern friends then decided to hold a "beauty contest" primary (with no delegates awarded) ten days later. Despite the fact that Obama had already won the state's caucuses, and was enjoying the positive publicity generated by that result, he was still able to muster only a five percentage point victory over Clinton. More tellingly, the combined Clinton/Obama vote in the caucuses (31,621) was positively dwarfed by the two-candidate vote recorded in the primary (642,317), despite the fact that primary voters knew that their ballots would not even count.

If Hillary Clinton wants to make the case that she, and not Barack Obama, is the legitimate choice of the people (or at least those people who are Democrats), she needs to stop making the distinction between big states and small states. That argument has an air of desperation to it, as though places like Minnesota and Colorado don't matter, which they sure as heck will in November. Instead, she should concentrate on the unfairness and distortions of the caucus system and how it provides her opponent with a margin of elected delegates that cannot be described as democratic in any meaningful sense of the word.

The Texas results provide her with that opening. And her victories in Ohio and Rhode Island give her a platform from which to make this argument without sounding like another loser who wants to change the rules in the middle of the game. But that window is about to close. Wyoming holds their caucuses in two days. And we all know how that's going to turn out.

No comments: