It's the Electoral System, Stupid


What a difference a week makes. If the US primaries had ended on Super Tuesday, Hillary Clinton would have been the Democratic nominee and probably the next US president. Despite the spin from the Barack Obama camp, Clinton won the night by taking the bigger states of New York and California, winning both the delegate count and the popular vote.

However this week, following the ‘Potomac Primaries’ in Virginia, Washington DC and Maryland, Obama moved ahead on both counts for the first time. ‘Super Tuesday’, so designed by the Party grandees to pick a nominee and give them all year to campaign, turned out to be inconclusive. Clinton needed not only to win, but to wipe the floor in order to knock out the insurgent campaign that both John Edwards and Obama ran against her all year.

The parallel with the Republican campaign is remarkable. The insurgent vote in the Republicans however was split by Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney right up to Super Tuesday, allowing John McCain to sweep to victory on a little over a third of the vote.

The only reason McCain’s lead is unassailable is the Republican ‘winner takes all’ electoral system in apportioning delegates. If the Democrats had employed a similar system, Clinton’s wins in New York and California would have cemented her lead in a similar fashion. So for all the talk about ‘momentum’ and different campaigns, the single most important factor in deciding the outcome of any election is, as always, the electoral system.

While Huckabee and Romney split the insurgent voters of the Republican Party between them, Obama has benefited from Edwards’s early resignation. It was the departure of Edwards ahead of Super Tuesday that saved Obama to fight another day. Early voting in California for example ahead of Edwards’ departure had Clinton on 55 per cent to Obama’s 33 per cent, with the remainder going to Edwards. On the night however, Obama’s clawed back Clinton’s lead from over 20 per cent to 10 per cent. The story was similar across the board – Clinton’s vote held, but the Edwards vote seemed to transfer wholesale to Obama. This was enough to avoid the knockout blow that Super Tuesday would otherwise have delivered to Obama’s candidacy.

Despite Obama’s wins since Super Tuesday, Clinton is still in the race, but in a teetering position. Having conceded defeats in the small states that scatter the middle of February, she is pouring renewed effort into the pivotal states of Texas and Ohio, which vote on 4 March. The unknown factor in these contests is how Obama’s ‘momentum’ will affect the outcome.

Had these states voted on Super Tuesday, they would likely have gone strongly for Clinton. On 5 February, she won overwhelmingly among Hispanic and blue-collar voters – who figure prominently in the electoral arithmetic of Texas and Ohio. If she wins these two states, then she is likely to win the nomination. If Obama wins there, he is likely to enter the convention as the favourite. Either way, because of the closeness of the race, the issue might not be decided formally until the convention in August – just two months out from the presidential election itself.

The major shift in Obama’s favour since Super Tuesday has been the surge in support for his candidacy among African-Americans of both genders – and amongst men in particular – from 60-80 per cent on 5 February to over 90 per cent in the Potomac Primaries. The ‘momentum’ of Obama’s wins has eroded Clinton’s lead among other demographics, but not enough to sap all hope out of her campaign in Texas and Ohio, which have very different electoral landscapes.

For all the rhetoric about ‘one America’, the electoral landscape from one state to the next is diverse. Obama’s strong performance in February has been aided not only by votes in states with large African-American populations, but by smaller states with caucus elections. Caucuses are nothing like the secret ballots Australians would be familiar with, but rather an eighteenth century-style orgy of shouting and posturing across rowdy and crowded rooms.

Few Americans have the stomach for this kind of process, and hence an insurgent candidate can rally the activist base of the Party to victory in small turnouts. In Washington State for example, Obama won 68 per cent of the vote, from a turnout of only 31,000 in a state of over 3.7 million voters. For obvious reasons, the caucus environment favours the young over the old, men over women, the mass over the individual. Clinton will be relieved that few caucuses remain, as she has polled better in ballot primaries.

The uncertainty, arbitrariness and turmoil of the primary season once more throws a harsh light on the US primary election system. When the primary season began, comedians were quick to call it ‘Indecision 08‘, but the joke is on the American public. After voting in a gruelling election season costing hundreds of millions of dollars, the nomination may yet be decided by Party-appointed ‘super delegates’. What’s more, two million voters in Michigan and Florida may well be ignored because of ‘disputes over scheduling’. The democratic credentials of the Democratic Party look weaker the further the contest lurches, and will be even more severely tested on the convention floor.

The Democrats have 3,253 delegates elected during the primaries who are ‘pledged’ (but not legally required) to support a particular candidate. In addition to this, there are 796 ‘superdelegates’ appointed by the party who may vote as they please. Of the superdelegates, some 400 have not yet declared a position. If one of the candidates wins the pledged delegate count, these super-delegates will be under pressure to accept the democratic legitimacy of the winner. Because she is behind, Clinton is arguing that superdelegates should vote according to conscience. If Obama falls behind again on 4 March however, expect this kind of talk from his camp as well.

But it gets messier than this. Because the governments of Florida and Michigan scheduled their primaries early, these populous states were stripped of their delegates by the central Party. Voting went ahead anyway, and Clinton won both states convincingly. So it is possible that Obama might win more pledged delegates, but only if the more than two million votes of Michigan and Florida continue to be excluded.

This scenario would dent any claim Obama has to democratic legitimacy unless he opens a lead big enough to make up the difference including rather than excluding Florida and Michigan. Florida is a particularly important state given that it is the most important ‘swing state’ and one notorious for deciding close presidential elections. It would be a bad look for Obama to snub his nose at 10 million Floridians before asking them to vote for him in November. Clinton on the other hand has sworn to fight to get these delegates seated at the convention.

By 4 March we may know whether this particular battle will be joined. Or we may not, and the Democrats may continue towards self destruction, and potentially rip defeat from the jaws of victory in November.

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