Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Effect of the Party Primaries

The two American political parties have different ways of racking up delegates in their primaries, and it explains why John McCain will get to sit back and watch Hillary and Obama beat one another senseless for some time yet.

Republican primaries are almost all Winner-take-all. If Candidate A gets one single vote more than B, A takes every single delegate. This means that someone who is popular in the first few states can end up with a huge chunk of delegate even before his opponents get more than a handful, even if this candidate will do horribly in the later primaries. Unless two opposing candidates both have regional power bases - one in the Midwest, another in the Deep South, the contest will be decided relatively early. The reason no clear winner emerged earlier this time around was not that there were different bases but rather too many candidates. As they cleared out, McCain began to win. The effect of this system is that it ends the contest quickly, so the Republicans can begin to campaign for President in earnest.

Democrats, on the other hand, have a more proportional system of handing out delegates. If you get 45% of the vote, you get nearly 45% of the delegates in most states (there are exceptions for both parties). This means that unless somebody has a huge power base in the early states, the contest will drag on and on. This is currently happening. Notice that having a base ends the contest for Democrats but prolongs it for the Republicans.

Personally, I don't like the winner-take-all system because it seems undemocratic. If A wins 51-49 in one state but loses 70-30 in another equally sized state, A and B end up tied in delegates, but B is far more popular overall. Meanwhile, I don't like the Superdelegate system the Democrats have either, again because it's undemocratic. It also seems to favor an established candidate (like Hillary) in an elitist manner. If Democratic voters truly want an establishment candidate, can't they vote that way without party moguls acting as Superdelegates?

Personally, I would prefer a primary system for both parties that was like the Democrats' system, but maybe with a small stable of extra delegates to reward the outright winner of each state. But then again, I'd also like to see the popular vote instituted for President, and that's not going to happen right away.

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