Proportionality is such a difficult concept

I expect the mainstream US media to struggle with the concept of proportionality. But even FiveThirtyEight, which prides itself on brining quantitative methods to election coverage, can’t get this right.

Sure, far more delegates were at stake on Super Tuesday (595) than will be awarded March 15 (367), but the Super Tuesday delegates were all awarded proportionally. 
If that was the case, then I’d like to ask how it is that Ted Cruz got 2/3 of the Texas delegates on 43.8% of the votes. Or how Donald Trump got 73% of delegates in Alabama on 43.4% of votes. There are several other examples, but I hope these two suffice to make the evidently very difficult point.

11 thoughts on “Proportionality is such a difficult concept

  1. They still use ‘proportional’ as shorthand for ‘not winner-take-all’ from time to time, but I’ve seen much more subtlety in their and other outlets’ primaries coverage than four years ago. The use of the term ‘winner-take-most’ has greatly increased, and I certainly have not encountered congressional district-level WTA allocation being referred to as ‘proportional’, which happened quite a bit last time around. So my scorecard says significant progress.

    • Ditto. We Americans don’t (yet) swim in the waters of permissive PR. It’s still alien.

      As a further example of this, take a look at very recent scholarly work in urban politics. All the regressions are firmly rooted in a districts/at-large dichotomy. It’s increasingly common to construct “proportion elected in districts,” but that’s about it.

  2. It would have been more correct to use the term “semi-proportional”. But 538 really was not far off.

    Other articles on the site gave fairly detailed descriptions of the delegate allocation process, which varies a good bit by state. For the Republicans, a standard formula was to assign some delegates to each congressional district, and a larger amount to be allocated statewide. If a candidate got a majority of the statewide vote, he would get all the statewide delegates, otherwise they were awarded pretty proportionally. The same formula would be used with each congressional district, except with only a handful of delegates per district, a candidate would have to get over a high “threshold”, usually 20% of the vote, in a district to have a chance to get any delegates in the district. And some states kept it simple, three delegates per congressional district, the winner would get two and the runner-up one, with the winner taking all three if he got a majority of the vote.

    This is much more proportional than the norm in American elections, and crucially as far as 548 is concerned, more proportional than what will be happening on Tuesday, where the plurality winner in two large states will get all of those states’ delegates.

    • Sounds as the semi-proportional system is using the Single Non Transferable Vote. That system rewards cohesive discipline plurality winners. It would be kind of cool if the primaries were using the Single Transferable Vote for awarding delegates or in the winner take all states using preferential votes to get a good compromise candidate that gets support from a variety of preferences.

  3. It’s possible that Iowa set the ‘standard’ for insufficient understanding and the rest has just followed. Iowa awards by precinct and many precincts are so small that only one or two delegates awarded in them? Proportionality is impossible in such situations, and then of course there were several ‘coin flips’.

    • That was in the Democratic caucuses. The Republican Iowa caucuses have switched to completely proportional allocation based on statewide vote totals with no threshold.

  4. If primaries are about building a consensus around one candidate through the different stages, then is there a pattern of proportional in the early states but winne take all at the end?

  5. Bancki,

    For the Republicans, yes. This year, states were generally not allowed to do plurality-WTA until today (though majority-WTA was permissible). For the Democrats, it’s proportional, with a 15% threshold, throughout the process — though I haven’t read the rules closely enough to know whether/where it’s proportional by congressional district vs. proportional by statewide vote. But the always-proportional nature of it is a major reason that the back-and-forth between Obama and Clinton in 2008 went on for so long.

    I should note that for the Republicans, even though WTA is allowed from today onward, it’s not actually required anywhere. So tomorrow, we will get this somewhat incongruous/amusing spectacle:

    Ohio and Florida (and the Northern Marianas Islands) will award their delegates statewide under plurality-WTA rules

    Missouri will award its delegates under WTA-plurality rules within each congressional district, with leftover delegates (of which there are 12) being awarded statewide under plurality-WTA statewide.

    North Carolina will share out its delegates under Netherlands-style proportionality rules (…..well, almost Netherlands-style; the rules for rounding are different; but at least it would pass muster as proportional under almost any definition I can think of!).

    Illinois will award its delegate through a faintly-(very faintly)-German/Kiwi mixed system, in which presidential candidates take the place of political parties. Voters have two votes, one to choose a specific individual delegate to the convention from their congressional district (happily, the name of the presidential candidate that the delegate is supporting is included) and one to choose a presidential candidate. The victory rules for individual delegates (of which there are 54) are SNTV, based on the results of the individual-delegate votes. Leftover delegates (of which there are 15) are awarded statewide under plurality-WTA rules, based on the results of the presidential-candidate votes.

  6. US presidential primaries are very difficult even for campaign professionals to understand. In 2008 the proportional nature of the Democratic delegate awarding process wound up working to the advantage of Obama, who got seems to have gotten fewer votes overall than Hillary Clinton. Obama won the handful of states which used a less democratic process to award delegates. This gave him enough as an edge to overcome the slim Clinton lead in the more democratic contests. Also the campaign combined the features of going on a long time, being very close, and lacking drama because the Democrats put their winner take all contests up front, instead of at the end as the Republicans are doing this year.

  7. It does appear that many Democrats especially are instinctively in favor of proportional elections, after seeing the uproar over the super delegate issue. This non-proportional aspect of the voting has become an issue because it changes the mathematics of proportionality, which people seem to have adopted without fully understanding it. Of course, some of the hoorah is partisan in nature but…

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