Democratic Party Delegate Proportional Representation

Democratic Party Delegate Proportional Representation

ad Devine is a Democratic political consultant and president of Devine Mulvey, Media/Message. Anthony Corrado is Dana Professor of Government at Colby College.

This article appeared in the Feb. 18, 2008, edition of The Polling Report.

Playing by the Rules

Delegate Selection and

the Democrats' End Game

by Tad Devine & Anthony Corrado

Super Tuesday 2008 was the largest single day of primary voting in American history. Democratic Party candidates competed for 1,678 delegates that day, and when all the votes were counted, the two frontrunners -- Senators Clinton and Obama -- were separated by a handful of delegates. This equal division of delegates after a nationwide primary is a testament both to the closeness of the contest and the workings of proportional representation, the Democratic Party’s formula for delegate allocation.

But the most important consequence of this close contest for the nomination is that the Democratic nominee will be picked by the party’s "superdelegates," the almost 800 unpledged party leaders and elected officials who are given delegate status by virtue of the positions they hold rather than by the votes cast in primaries and caucuses. This close contest will unfold in the weeks ahead, and several factors will influence the outcome.

Our essay looks at several process and political issues that we believe will affect the outcome and may help decide who the next nominee of the Democratic Party will be. We hope this analysis will help to make some sense of the mess.

Solomonic Impact of Proportional Representation

Americans are learning a new phrase this primary season:"proportional representation." This formula, the only permissible method of delegate allocation under Democratic Party rules, essentially divides the delegates between two candidates who are close to one another in the voting.

All of the 22 states that held contests for the Democratic nomination on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, were required to use proportional representation to allocate delegates to the candidates. Most of the more than 1,600 delegates at stake that day were allocated by voting results in individual congressional districts. Overall, 1,094 delegates were allocated by the district-by-district results; but 584 delegates were decided by the overall statewide voting results.

Most of the delegates were therefore selected based on district voting results. The number of delegates assigned to each district is set by party rules and most of the districts have 4, 5, or 6 delegates at stake, with the largest number of districts having either 4 or 6 delegates. In other words, about half of the more than 200 districts that voted on Super Tuesday had an even number of delegates (4 or 6).

Under proportional representation, it is very difficult to achieve a significant delegate margin, especially in districts with an even number of delegates. In order to qualify for a delegate, a candidate has to receive a threshold share of the vote, which is set at 15%. So only a candidate who receives at least 15% of the vote is eligible for delegates. Only two candidates broke the threshold in Super Tuesday voting, Senators Clinton and Obama. If the vote of the candidates who do break threshold does not equal 100% (for example, candidate A gets 47%, candidate B gets 43%, and 10% is scattered among candidates who have dropped out but are still on the ballot or minor contenders), then the vote shares of the two candidates who break threshold are adjusted to equal 100% and their relative shares of the vote used to decide the delegate allocation. Figures are rounded to the nearest "whole"delegate.

The Math of Proportional Representation

To amass a significant delegate margin, a candidate needs to win 3 of the 4 delegates in a 4 delegate district (thus a 3-1 advantage) or 4 of the delegates in a 5 or 6 delegate district (thus a 4-1 or 4-2 advantage). Otherwise there is little relative advantage, since districts will divide 2-2 or 3-2 or 3-3. The reason the delegate race remained close on Super Tuesday is that a candidate has to win a district by an extraordinarily large margin in order to gain a significant delegate advantage. Proportional representation is the main reason why two strong candidates divided the delegates almost evenly, after half the nation voted.

Here’s the way the math works in the world of delegate counting:

Four Delegate District: In a 4 delegate district with two candidates breaking the threshold, the district will usually split 2-2. Where the top two candidates get 100% of the total vote, the winning candidate has to receive at least 63% of the vote in order to win 3 delegates. In other words, a candidate has to win by a margin of 25 points to get a 3-1 split. (If Candidate A gets more than 62.5% and Candidate B gets less than 37.5% of the vote, then Candidate A wins 3-1. If Candidate A gets less than 62.5%, then the district splits 2-2, even if Candidate A has more votes than Candidate B.)

Even if the top two candidates garner only 90% of the total vote (assuming some votes are cast for others), the winning candidate, Candidate A, has to win more than 56% of the vote and win by a margin of more than 22 points to get a 3-1 split.

Five Delegate District: In a 5 delegate district with two candidates, the district will usually split 3-2. In order to win another delegate and get a 4-1 split, the winning candidate would have to garner 70% of the district vote or win by a margin of 40 points (where the top two candidates total 100% of the vote).

Even if the top two candidates only garner 90% of the total vote in a district, the winning candidate, Candidate A, has to win at least 63% of the vote or win by a margin of 36 points in order to get a 4-1 split.

Six Delegate District: In a 6 delegate district, 3-3 or 4-2 splits are typical. In a two candidate race, in order for the winning candidate to gain a 5-1 split, the winning candidate would have to take 75% of the vote or win by a margin of 50 points.

Even if the top two candidates only garner 90% of the total vote in a district, the winning candidate would have to receive more than 67% of the vote or win by a margin of 45 points to win a 5-1 delegate split.

The Problem of Building Delegate Margins

As these examples indicate, it is very difficult to develop a big delegate advantage under proportional representation. That is especially true when there are two strong, well financed candidates competing for the nomination, as is the case in 2008.

So a combination of proportional representation and a heavily front-loaded system (many big states like California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey moved up to the first day of permissible voting under party rules to follow on the heels of the four early delegate selection events in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) led to the even split of delegates on Super Tuesday. The Solomonic impact of proportional representation was experienced by the campaigns and witnessed by the voters. But that fact does not mean that the Democratic Party cannot still render a clear decision soon, or that the uncertainty that the process has produced is the inevitable end result.

The Stages of the Nominating Process

Each nominating process takes on a life of its own, and 2008 is a vivid example of that truism in American politics. This year, the nominating process of the Democratic Party has gone through three distinct stages, and is now in the midst of the fourth stage, which may or may not be the last.

The first stage of the process was last year when two candidates -- Clinton and Obama -- separated themselves from the pack by each raising $100 million and generating broad political support. Stage two consisted of the four early "pre-window" primaries and caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina that, like the stage before, produced split results. Little wonder that in stage three -- the coast-to-coast primary on Super Tuesday -- coming fast on the heels of the pre-window events, the delegate results would be as closely divided as the voting in the early states and the fundraising in the year before.

But after Super Tuesday, we believe that the process entered a fourth distinct stage. This is the period of sequential state voting, where the elusive momentum that both Clinton and Obama have worked so hard to capture in stages one, two and three is now available again.

In a momentum phase, a candidate who wins becomes the candidate with momentum, and that momentum can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Senator Obama’s case, the momentum of early stage four voting has seemed to feed on itself, as coverage and interpretation of his wins is generally positive, while coverage of Senator Clinton’s post-Super Tuesday defeats likewise affects what voters see and hear about her in upcoming contests.

A momentum phase is a dynamic, not static, process. Winning campaigns get the aura of victory, while losing candidates are seen and covered through the prism of defeat.

We’ve seen momentum campaigns in past nominating contests. Gary Hart’s post-New Hampshire momentum carried him to victory in a broad swath of Super Tuesday states in 1984, and it took full-force political maneuvering by the Mondale campaign -- which capitalized on party"winner take all" rules that made it possible to rack up big victories in post-Super Tuesday states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- to hold off Hart’s insurgent candidacy. Senator Ted Kennedy rode a wave of momentum late in the process in 1980 but an early Carter lead and proportional representation held Kennedy back and a party rule (which bound delegates to vote for the candidate for whom they were elected, and has since been repealed) kept the Kennedy delegate count in check. Al Gore and John Kerry built momentum the old-fashioned way -- they earned it -- by winning both Iowa and New Hampshire.

But now, in 2008, the test case for momentum will be Ohio and Texas. Senator Obama goes into those contests after reeling off ten straight post-Super Tuesday victories, and this nomination may be decided once and for all in the four contests holding events on March 4th: Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island. Certainly, voters in most or all of those states, especially the mega states of Ohio and Texas, will effectively end Senator Clinton’s run for the nomination if Obama wins three or four of the March 4th contests. Then "big mo' will still be king of the Democratic nominating process. But if Senator Clinton is able to move ahead in Texas and Ohio and the pendulum process of 2007 and early 2008 returns, the Democratic Party will face a test that may be even tougher than the showdowns in Chicago in 1968, Miami in 1972, and New York in 1980.

The Cloud that Hangs Over the Nominating Process

In recent years, the Democratic nominating process has been a relatively settled affair. After the turmoil of the 1960s, a series of Rules Commissions devised a set of party rules that govern the delegate selection process and convention proceedings. In recent years, rules and credentials challenges seemed relegated to the dustbin of history.

But all of that could change with potentially shocking consequences. A dark cloud hangs over the Democratic nominating process this year in Florida and Michigan, and that cloud could have important consequences for the Democrats in determining the nomination and the general election in November.

Michigan and Florida’s decision to hold primaries before the beginning of sanctioned voting under party rules has led to serious, even draconian sanctions from the party, and has cast a dark cloud over the nominating process. Since the primaries were not sanctioned by party rules, those events held on January 15th and January 29th did not allocate convention delegates, notwithstanding the fact that over 1.5 million people voted in the Florida primary and almost 600,000 voted in the Democratic primary in Michigan.

The issues raised by this break in the orderly process of recent decades could not have occurred at a worse moment for the Democratic Party and the campaigns involved this year. For the first time in two decades, the Democratic nomination is truly contested, and the closeness of the race means that the delegates from those two states, 156 in Michigan and 210 in Florida, could easily provide the difference in determining the outcome of the nominating process.

But what can be done? Certainly Democrats from those states will attempt to challenge the current status quo --which effectively says that no delegates can be seated from either state. That challenge can take the form of a credentials challenge, the likes of which the party has not seen in over three decades.

The committee with jurisdiction over the seating of delegates -- the Credentials Committee -- is one of the three standing committees to the national convention (the other two being the Rules Committee and Platform Committee). It will be composed largely of members elected on the basis of the results of state primaries and caucuses. In this inside fight, should it come to that, Senator Obama enjoys an important advantage. In total, 161 of the 186 members of each standing committee are selected from states, and 20 states and the District of Columbia have only one representative on each of the committees.

By winning so many states and thereby controlling so many state delegations, the Obama campaign can weight their selections towards the Credentials and Rules Committees, the places where a procedural or credentials battle will be fought in the maneuvering prior to the convention. By picking Rules and Credentials seats in state after state where his campaign will be entitled to 2 out of 3 standing committee seats, Obama can gain an important and possibly decisive advantage in the pre-convention skirmishing.

The other player in this unfolding drama is Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. Under the rules, the chairman can make 25 at-large appointments on each standing committee. In the past, the party chairman’s at-large appointments have been worked out with the putative nominee’s camp, so that they effectively became the choice of the nominee, not the chairman. In 2008, the chairman announced his selections early in the year and the nominees were approved at the January 11th DNC Executive Committee meeting. Thus, even under a scenario where Obama’s campaign moves forcefully to put as many of their appointments as possible on the Rules and Credentials Committees, Chairman Dean’s appointees may still hold the balance of power. So the chairman may be able to exert enormous influence over whether or not delegates from Florida and Michigan are represented on the convention floor.


This eventful year in Democratic politics is a testament to the power of rules and the impact that the nominating process procedures can have on the outcome.

Whether or not this close contest, with its unprecedented turnout and unbridled enthusiasm, is good for the Democratic Party remains to be seen. What is clear is that in the age of the Internet, 24-hour cable news, and opinionated blogs, whatever solution the Democratic Party achieves in determining the nomination and resolving the issues of Michigan and Florida, the best answer will be a transparent process that stresses fairness and impartiality. The party that lost the 2000 general election by a little more than 500 votes in Florida and a single vote on the Supreme Court can hardly withstand a fierce internal fight where everything Democrats complained about in that defeat seems to be playing itself out again -- only this time, within our party itself.

Copyright © 2008 POLLING REPORT, INC.