Voices & Choices

Primary Focus: Proportional Primaries Respect All Votes

Primary Focus: Proportional Primaries Respect All Votes

Zoom In: Five States Vote on Tuesday

After last night’s primaries in several big states, the delegate count in the Democratic race has Hillary Clinton leading Bernie Sanders in pledged delegates 1,139 to 825. Clinton won Florida by a large margin and won closer margins in North Carolina, Ohio, and Illinois, with Missouri still too close to call. Given Democratic requirements for proportional representation, however, winning is less important than simply earning votes -- a fact that both limits how many more delegates Clinton earned than Sanders last night, and makes it harder for him to catch up simply by winning states going forward. 

In the Republican nomination contest, Donald Trump padded his lead at 646 delegates after winning Florida, Illinois, North Carolina and, apparently, Missouri. Ted Cruz is in second place with 397 delegates, John Kasich has 142 after winning his home state of Ohio, and Marco Rubio suspended his campaign after losing his home state of Florida. Republicans' inconsistent use of proportionality was on grand display. Trump won 29 of 72 delegates with 40% of the vote in North Carolina, yet is poised to win 37 of 52 (71%) delegates in Missouri with 41% of the vote and a near tie with Cruz.

Zoom Out: Split Field Hints at A Contested Convention

John Kasich’s win in his home state of Ohio virtually ensures that he will continue his campaign through the Republican Convention in June. The Trump and Cruz campaigns both may have hoped to come out of the March 15th contests as the last remaining candidates, to battle for a majority of delegates throughout the Spring. Splitting the remaining delegates between only two candidates would have significantly increased the chances that one would reach a majority before the convention. Kasich’s continuation in the race, however, means the field will remain split three ways, and candidates will be able to take future winner-take-all primaries with only a plurality of the vote. Trump has only won 47% of the delegates awarded so far, and will need to earn 54% of the remaining delegates to secure the nomination before the convention. He has yet to win more than half the vote in any primary.

Focus: Proportional Primaries Respect All Votes

Last night, the Republican party held their first winner-take-all primaries in Ohio and Florida, while Democrats continued with strictly proportional contests in all five of their voting states. The differences in these delegate allocation methods have major ramifications on how the nomination race is unfolding for each party. In the Republican field, we have written in the past about how delegate allocation rules prevent many states from achieving accurate proportionality. In South Carolina, we noted, high qualifying thresholds and proportionality rules by congressional district allowed Donald Trump to take all of the delegates despite winning only 32.5% of the vote in a functionally winner-take-all contest. Without ranked choice voting, supporters of candidates who did not reach the threshold for delegates essentially had their votes wasted.

Even when all candidates meet the threshold, however, the GOP’s winner-take-all and winner-take-most systems misrepresent the will of the voters. Most notably in Missouri, Trump won only 40.8% of the vote and edged out Ted Cruz by a minuscule 0.17%, but will receive 42 out of the 52 available for that state, about 80% of Missouri's delegates. For a state that supposedly allocates delegates proportionally, this breakdown is a poor reflection of voters’ preferences. The disparity between delegate allocation and voter support is even more stark, of course, in official winner-take-all states like Florida, where Trump will take all 99 delegates with only 45.7% of the vote.

In contrast, the Democrats use a strictly proportional allocation method that better captures the will of voters and respects every vote cast in their primaries and caucuses. While candidates may “win” states by leading the final vote count, they always split the delegates based on their earned percentage of the vote. This has ensured that Hillary Clinton’s pledged delegate count reflects her sizable lead in the popular vote which she has gained with large margins of victory in several southern states, despite the fact that Sanders has narrowly won a few states, and enjoyed a few larger victories in states with small populations.

The differences in these rules continue to have tremendous implications for each candidate’s path to victory. On the Republican side, Trump need only continue to win by the slimmest of margins in many of the coming states to strengthen his delegate lead considerably in the coming months. If both Ted Cruz and John Kasich continue to stay in the race and split the anti-Trump vote, Trump could clinch the nomination without ever surpassing 40% support. Bernie Sanders, in contrast, will need to win states with convincing margins of victory (likely an average of 8 percentage points) to reduce his delegate deficit. The Democratic rules mean an uphill climb for Bernie Sanders throughout the spring, but do better capture the principle of respecting every vote.

Image Source: North Country Public Radio 

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