Leave the Electoral College Out of the Primaries

I just read that Hillary Clinton might be winning in “the only count that matters.” Really? And what innovative accounting method is this? Apparently, Hillary would be ahead if we were counting the electoral votes in states she has won. This winner-take-all system is now the system that “makes sense” and Hillary should be winning. Let’s do ourselves a favor and kill this argument before it wastes anybody else’s time. We’ve seen a number of innovative counts to explain why Hillary’s campaign isn’t dead in the water—and this is the dumbest yet.

We keep seeing new electoral accounting methods because the Democrats have these shadowy figures called stupid-delegates (or something like that) who can tip the election one way or another. Many of them may be myopic enough to actually try to exercise this power—but enough of them are sentient enough to realize that party insiders thwarting the will of the people will look particularly undemocratic and would hurt the winner in November. This group will vote for the winner of the actual contests.


That’s where the funny counting comes in. Obama has a commanding lead in pledged delegates. Obama has won more states. Obama even leads in the poorly counted popular vote.

This is not the first novel counting method we’ve seen. For a while the Clinton campaign talked about how she was winning “the big states.” It was a shaky story because it counted uncontested Michigan, uncampaigned Florida, and home-state New York while discounting Illinois. Then it arbitrarily drew the line between Massachussetts and Georgia. And it counted the Texas primary but not the Texas caucus. Even more perplexingly, it did not explain why one “big” state should count more than a couple medium-large states.

Then we heard about the “states that matter.” Apparently states that routinely voted Democratic mattered—but Republican states did not. Perhaps the implication is that the Democrats should only care about the states that vote for them? Or perhaps this one wasn’t very well thought out. Sure, Texas is likely to vote Republican. But does anybody seriously think Obama can’t beat McCain in Massachusetts? This metric was quickly retired in favor of something less offensive to half of the country.

We heard about how Hillary is polling higher in the swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and probably Florida. That sounded pretty credible until somebody counted other swing states. Oregon, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Virginia. Additionally, Obama won by such great margins in some of the red states that they too might be in play if he is the nominee. As a small example, Obama received over three times more votes than McCain in solidly-Republican Alaska. It could happen.

The latest count is who would be winning in the electoral college. For the sake of the national dialogue, this argument should die an early death.

The electoral college

Democrats haven’t forgiven the electoral college for Gore’s 2000 loss. It’s a hard sell to argue that the bizarre-yet-Constitutionally-enshrined system of the electoral college is a more democratic system than the relatively proportional system in place today.

Sean Wilentz writes, “Democrats in primary states choose their nominee on the basis of a convoluted system of proportional distribution….” I’ll grant that the system is convoluted with open and closed contests, primaries and caucuses, and the mysterious superdelegates with the voting power of 15,000 mere mortals—but what is so confusing about proportional representation? That’s a bedrock principle of democracy, not, as Wilentz writes, an “eccentricity in the … Democratic nominating system.”

The current system started with the one-Democrat-one-vote ideal. It’s far from perfect—but it’s much more progressive than the winner-take-all-regardless-of-margin system that the electoral college offers. Superdelegates might accept a gigantic step backwards on the grounds of practicality—but it’s certainly not any sort of moral high ground.

A bare win in a state Democratic primary has little to do how many electoral votes that candidate is likely to win in November. The relevant question is not who won California on February 5, but who is most likely to win California in November. Clinton won California by a fairly narrow margin in February. But California will almost certainly vote for either Clinton or Obama over McCain in November. So will New York. Similarly, neither Clinton nor Obama is likely to win in Texas. Thus, for electability purposes, New York, Texas, and California are not the three most significant states. They are functionally irrelevant. In contrast, the mountain West in which Obama has won by gigantic margins has recently elected a spat of Democratic governors. Perhaps this block of states would be in play.

We can understand the electoral college as a compromise system. Each of the states decides how to award its delegates. To get maximum impact, all the states except new Hampshire chose a winner-take-all system. In the general election, the unit apportioning the delegates is the state. In the primary, it is the national party. The Democrats chose the system best for the national Democratic party, not the system that maximizes the influence of individual state parties. They are selecting the candidate with the most support across the country. To do anything else would hurt them in the general election.

Yet the biggest reason that all of these creative methods of determining the leader are counterproductive is that both campaigns were given the same set of rules in the beginning. They proportioned their resources according to that system. Were the rules different, the campaigns would have campaigned differently. Obama might have skipped New York entirely and focused on California. Obama’s campaign might have written Ohio off entirely but won Texas. We don’t know how things would have gone in an alternate reality where the election happened differently. We do know who is doing the best with the rules as they are established. Perhaps we can extrapolate from that. In the meantime, let’s leave the talk of the electoral college out until sometime when it’s relevant.