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If You Proportionally Allocate, They Will Come

by Paul Fidalgo // Published August 27, 2009

This is our latest edition of Innovative Analysis, released minutes ago.

How Winner-Take-All Rules in Presidential Primaries Squash Turnout

A FairVote Innovative Analysis

Facts in Focus:

  • Average turnout of all eligible voters for 2008 Republican presidential primaries through February 5: 12.6%. After February 5, when John McCain effectively secured nomination: 8.4%.
  • Average turnout for 2008 Democratic presidential primaries through February 5: 17.7%. After February 5: 23.6%.
  • Share of popular vote won by John McCain through February 5: 39%. Share of delegates won by McCain through February 5: 75%. *

Our Analysis

Turnout between the major parties for the 2008 presidential nomination cycle was disparate, to say the least. Democratic turnout nearly doubled those of the Republicans over all, and nearly tripled the Republicans’ turnout post-Super Tuesday, February 5th. But up to then, turnout rates were much closer. Of course, this is largely because John McCain effectively secured the GOP nomination that day, while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fought on until June. The contest was over for the Republicans, so there was no reason for their voters to keep showing up. But was such an early end to the GOP contest a good thing? Was it inevitable? And what about the Republican nomination process allowed for such a quick wrap-up?

FairVote research has found that turnout rates are directly tied to the method states use to allocate delegates in primary contests. In this latest report by Laura Kirschner and Rob Richie, we show that the Democrats’ system, one in which delegates are proportionally allocated, better reflected the will of the primary electorate, and gave incentive for voters in states with later contests to keep coming out to affect the outcome of the race. The Republicans, on the other hand, mostly used a winner-take-all method so that a candidate could eke out a narrow win in a state and still take home every one of that state’s delegates. McCain had won only a small plurality of the popular vote up to February 5th, but was able to collect almost 75% of the available delegates, versus Obama and Clinton whose delegate totals roughly matched their popular vote shares. So Republican voters had no reason to come out and support their preferred candidates because the nomination had been decided, most candidates had dropped out and there was no hope of adding to any other candidate’s delegate totals.  Instructively, however, those Republican states using proportional allocation after February 5th had a somewhat higher turnout, likely because in those states, there was at least something to be won by supporters of Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul.

For many of those who wish to see reform of the presidential nomination process, the sticking point is often about timing. Some cycles have been too short, some too long, but few seem to settle into that Goldilocks area that is “just right”—a calendar that allows candidates to make their cases to as many voters as possible while not dragging the battle out until everyone is bloody and exhausted.

But in terms of turnout, it looks like the calendar is not the issue many think it is. Surely, the fight between Obama and Clinton seemed endless, sapping every ounce of energy from their eager young staffers and volunteers and worrying Democrats that their nominee would emerge bruised and vulnerable. But that didn’t happen, and it can be argued that Barack Obama came out of the primaries stronger for having faced such a long process, having his party dominate media attention in the spring and having established a national network of support. John McCain, on the other hand, clinching the nomination in February, seemed to have no momentum coming into the summer. So even though both parties’ calendars were frontloaded within an inch of their lives, it was truly the difference in delegate allocation rules that made the difference in turnout and possibly in long-term enthusiasm.

Click here to read the full report (PDF), Turnout and Delegate Allocation in the 2008 Presidential Primaries, to see how it all went down. This report, along FairVote’s recommendations for reform of the nomination process, will be part of official testimony presented to the Democratic National Committee’s Change Commission, tasked with improving the primary system. Also take a look at Rob Richie and Paul Fidalgo’s recent commentary for McClatchy on this issue, suggesting a well-ordered set of state contests culminating in a final, decisive national primary.

And a special note: FairVote joins Americans from across the spectrum in mourning the passing of Sen. Ted Kennedy. His death also has reignited an already heated political debate about how U.S. Senate vacancies should be filled. FairVote has been at the forefront of this debate, arguing that all Senate vacancies should be filled by special election rather than gubernatorial appointment. Nearly a quarter of senators who have ever served came to the Senate as unelected appointees, and once the governors of Florida and Texas make their choices to fill vacant seats in their states this year, nearly 27 percent of the country will be represented by senators no one voted for. Massachusetts is currently one of only four states that mandates special elections to fill Senate vacancies, but allies of the late Sen. Kennedy have been petitioning state lawmakers to change the law to allow for an appointment instead. FairVote opposes this proposal on democratic principle (see our August 21 press release), and continues to support the bipartisan Feingold-McCain constitutional amendment requiring that anyone who serves in the U.S. Senate does so by popular election.

FairVote research was cited this month in a supportive New York Times editorial on this very issue, as well as in commentary in the Detroit Free Press and Scripps Howard News Service, and FairVote staff are featured in articles this month in US News and the Miami Herald. Also be sure to check out Rob Richie’s blog at the Huffington Post on the over-politicization of senatorial succession, the people’s right to choose their representatives and the real culprit – the abuse of a filibuster rule that should only force deliberation, not block majority rule.

These numbers do not take into account caucuses, due to their stricter standards of voter eligibility and other nuances in rules.

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Previous editions of Innovative Analysis can be found here.