Democratic primary: Don’t understate Biden’s dominance

The fragmentation of the US Democratic Party’s field of presidential pre-candidates exaggerates the weakness–real though it is–of the clear front-runner, Joe Biden.

Taking two poll trackers, Economist and FiveThirtyEight, here are those polling at five percent or more:

Pre-candidate Economist FiveThirtyEight
Biden 26 27.3
Sanders 17 17.8
Warren 16 14.7
Buttigieg 8 8.0
Bloomberg 7 5.0
(Sub-)total 74 72.8

It is noteworthy that even with so many candidates and different methodologies, the two trackers agree on the order. The only really substantial difference between them is in the estimate for Bloomberg. Not shown here, the two trackers also agree in the order of the next three: Yang, Klobuchar, and Booker. After that they diverge on the farther trailing candidates. (Economist has both Gabbard and Steyer at 1% but lists her ahead of him; perhaps we could say they agree on the order of the top ten.)

In the Economist tracker, the full list of all candidates who are given a vote percentage includes five listed as “<1%” (trailing two estimated at 1%). If we assumed all these five averaged 0.5% (which is probably too high) we still get to only 88.5% as a “total”. So that leaves too much for the thirteen who were running but have dropped out; the tracker does not report a percentage undecided. If we take Biden’s percentage over all those with at least 1%, he is just over 30%. Still pretty weak for a front-runner. But the one in second place, Sanders, would rise only to just under 20%. That’s a large gap.

Applying the same exercise to the FiveThirtyEight percentages–which have six candidates over 1%–we get a “total” of 86.3% and the top two at 31.6% and 20.6%.

The Democratic Party obviously does not use a nationwide two-round majority rule. But if it did, where would a top two 30–20 finish rank? How likely would it be that the second place candidate would win the runoff? I looked at this question in 2016; the graph at that post shows rather few real-world presidential contests with approximately 30–20 for the top two. But if one were to draw a line on the graph marking the region in which the gap is ten percentage points or more, no second-candidate comeback shows up with this large a gap until the leading candidate is around 35% (Austria 2016, the case that prompted the post). That is, even with a first-round candidate as weak as a third of the vote or less, comebacks occur only when the two are rather closer than Biden and Sanders are at this point. And this is, of course, before one even considers ideological placement of the candidates.

What I am getting at, in case it is not obvious, is that it is hard to imagine Biden not being the winner were there a hypothetical direct two-round primary–and even if the field stayed this fragmented up till the first round (which is itself unlikely). Perhaps Warren’s chances increase slightly if this nationwide primary were run under the alternative vote. She might pick up enough from eliminated candidates to surpass Sanders in the final two when calculated this way. It still seems a stretch that she could end up with a majority after reallocation of preferences.

Now, let’s try a different hypothetical. The primary actually uses proportional representation to allocate delegates. Sort of. There is a 15% threshold, and the rules consist of a mix of statewide delegate allocation and allocation in congressional districts using varying district magnitude. If it were a single-shot affair rather than sequential across states and regions, only three candidates look like they would get any delegates (generously granting Warren what she needs to get over 15% in the FiveThirtyEight tracker or allowing for regional variance even if she stayed at 14.7%). In this scenario, Biden has 44% or 45% of the above-threshold vote. That might just be enough to win a majority of elected delegates or close to it, given a medium district magnitude on average. It would certainly put him close.

(There are 3,836 “pledged” delegates; 435 congressional districts plus separate statewide districts for the states that have more than one congressional district, DC, and various territories means ~480 districts, so an average magnitude of about 8.)

None of this is to say Biden can’t be caught by someone. And in the real and strange world, Iowa and then New Hampshire get to go before anyone else. According to FiveThirtyEight, Biden is in a tight three-way fight in their Iowa estimate, with Buttigieg still clinging to a slight lead over Biden and then Sanders (19.7–19.1–18.3), with Warren at just 13.4%. The New Hampshire estimate is similar, only with Sanders the one clinging to a narrow lead over Biden and Buttigieg (18.0–17.3–15.6) and Warren at 13.9%. (Gasp–the fifth place candidate is Tulsi Gabbard, on 4.9%.)

The odd (I am being kind) procedure the party uses in the real world could still produce a surprise, if Biden fails to get a plurality in either Iowa or New Hampshire, and if the pre-candidate (or two or more) beating him were to surge nationally afterwards. It looks unlikely to me. I think Biden has it, barring an occurrence of something even stranger than the method by which the party selects its nominee.

23 thoughts on “Democratic primary: Don’t understate Biden’s dominance

  1. I’ve tried to make as much sense as I can of the Iowa caucus system, but as an Australian I think the task is impossible. With 96 per cent of the precincts reporting, the mayor of a very small city gains 11 delegates and 550 state delegate equivalents for 26.2 per cent of the vote, a person who is not even a member of the Democratic Party gains 11 delegates and 547 state delegate equivalents for 26.1 per cent of the vote, an elderly senator gains 5 delegates and 381 state delegate equivalents for 18.2 per cent of the vote, a former vice president who “has it” gains 0 delegates and 331 state delegate equivalents for 15.8 per cent of the vote and another senator gains 0 delegates and 255 state delegate equivalents for 12.2 per cent of the vote. I know there is a 15 per cent viability rule applied at each precinct rather than across the whole state. I even know how the state delegate equivalents are created. I also know that there are county conventions and then state conventions and then a national convention, but nothing seems to relate anything else, and no amount of Googling reveals a document that explains the strange processes that produce such a disproportional result.


    • The system will be defended by the same “Spectator” columnists who insisted in 2011 that an electoral system that isn’t “simple” and doesn’t always elect the candidate with the most votes, cannot be tolerated.


      • Tom,

        I guess you are referring to the United Kingdom’s alternative vote referendum – and didn’t that produce some weird arguments?


  2. If the denizens of this blog were invited to design a nomination process for the Democratic primary (and assuming a national primary is off the table), how would you do it?


    • Statewide PR allocation, 15% statewide threshold, approximately four times as many elected delegates as federal CongressReps + Senators (ie, around 2,150), but any State that holds its primary before, say, 1 April is capped at, say, 50 delegates maximum, at 100 maximum if it holds its primary in April, at 200 maximum if in may, after that no maximum. No primaries before 1 March.
      D’Hondt allocation (not Hare quota with largest remainders!).
      Having smaller States vote earlier (counted roughly per capita, but not drowned out by NY and California) is a good idea, but there’s such a thing as too small.
      Also some way that the early canaries in the coalmine be a bit more diverse?


      • Tagarong

        The only threshold would be the Droop quota, as stated previously.

        The election would be by STV, not by notional tallies or other reinventions of the wheel, as stated previously..

        Each campaign would nominate a slate of delegates for the primary who would be labeled as Yang delegates or whatever.


    • DC,

      I’d use the single transferable vote system. I’m open to argument on the number of delegates per electorate and what the electorates should be. You could use each state, but the quotas for election would vary widely from California to North Dakota. You could have one delegate for every, say 30,000 Democratic votes in each congressional district in the previous presidential election, but that too would produce a marked variation in quotas from district to district. You could ignore congressional districts and divide the country or each state into electorates of just under 300,000 Democratic voters each, to produce a standard quota of 10.0003 per cent.

      I don’t know if I would keep caucuses at all, but, if I did, they’d follow the same principles as the primaries above.

      I’d keep super-delegates and let them vote at the convention at a certain stage. The candidate with the lowest vote at the convention would have to drop out at each stage.


      • Allocating numbers of delegates is problematic, but not essential to a reformed primary plan, so let us leave that to one side. Convention delegates should be directly elected by Hare-Clark STV. There should be no threshold except the Droop quota. The convention itself can use exhaustive ballot.

        There should be no intervening delegate elections by shire, barony, canton, circuit, district, province, county, county-palatine, or state conventions. There should be no bizarre notional units like state delegate equivalents. Broadly, as with most North American electoral reform efforts, there should be no attempt to reinvent the wheel. If a feature of the electoral system cannot be explained to a randomly selected eighth-grader it should not exist.

        Caucuses should end, except perhaps as beauty contests in Iowa and New Hampshire that do not determine delegates.

        Primary states should be selected by random draw each year with numerical limits to ensure that small states are overrepresented in the first 2 or 3 primaries. The first primary would be in states aggregating 5% of the electoral college votes, then 10%, then 20% etc etc.


      • I don’t really see the point of using STV to elect delegates, though. Individual delegates are essentially anonymous figures who serve only for a few weeks. STV adds complexity to a process that is, for most voters, really about picking a presidential candidate only.


      • I am astonished that you do not see it as self-evident. Primary voters need the right to express a full range of preferences because many of them in fact are not Sanders voters (to pick one example) but Sanders/Warren voters or even Sanders/Warren/Yang voters. Many Biden voters are arguably only voting for the candidate they think most electable and will have second preferences for other centrist figures like Buttigieg or Klobuchar. Primary elections are beset with coordination problems for voters and only STV can cure those problems.


      • hschechta,

        Miraculous though it is, I find myself in almost 100 per cent agreement with Alan. List systems of PR exclude some, even many, voters from any say by random thresholds. STV keeps them in the count until either they have elected someone or all quotas are used up. if there are 9 positions, under STV, no more than 9.99? per cent of the voters can elect no one. Under list systems, that percentage could be much higher: e.g., if 30 per cent of voters spread their votes more or less equally across six candidates, none of them would have a say in the result. Those who really want Andrew Yang or Tulsi Gabbard are not just thrown on the scrapheap under STV but get to express a preference for more widely supported candidates. That’s important in identifying which candidate really has support across the nation.

        Given that the president is elected by an electoral college, it also makes sense for the primaries to take some account of the geographic spread of support. That is an argument for smaller district magnitudes rather than, say, statewide electorates.

        Of course, this is all academic. I can’t get the ALP to take the slightest notice of my years-old proposal for delegates to party conferences to be allocated according to ALP votes in each electorate rather than how many people factional warlords can stack into local branches, so why on Earth would the US Democrats listen to me?


      • My problem with STV being used to elect delegates is this: the levels of support for individual delegates would be highly arbitrary, making any vote beyond a straight-ticket vote for your preferred candidate a risky one. Let’s say you support Bernie and then Warren. If you vote 1 for Bernie Delegate A and 2 for Warren Delegate A, and for whatever reason (and there would only be arbitrary reasons for this, given that delegates are bound on the first ballot) Bernie Delegate A is excluded very early and Warren Delegate A is quite competitive against Bernie Delegate B, our voter will find their vote working against their order of candidate preferences. As such, if you actually wanted to vote effectively for a particular candidate, the only way is to vote for all of their delegates-hence, STV would add an additional layer of confusion to a simple process (rank the candidates in order) . To add to this, using a method of list PR would allow larger districts to be used, thus balancing out some potential loss of proportionality. I would be open to some combination of list PR and STV (like that used in the Iowa caucuses at the precinct level, but with ballot papers) but pure STV is a bad idea.


      • Voting 1 for Bernie Delegate A and 2 for Warren Delegate A is an extremely unlikely strategy. I have scrutineered a large number of elections in Australia and I never recall seeing that strategy employed. In any case, Australian senators and New MLCs are somewhat anonymous figures, although not as much as US convention delegates, but we still find it valid to elect them by STV.


      • The obvious solution, to me, is “Above the Line Voting.” Ask voters to rank the national candidates in order of preference. Treat each candidate as a list when counting. A vote of Sanders 1, Warren 2, Buttigieg 3 may help Sanders get three delegates or keep Warren in the race for the her first, depending on the precinct and district.


      • I’m curious about the idea of electing the delegates by STV. Would the delegates themselves be running in their own named (as part of a slate)? Or would the delegates be allocated based on the final tallys of a notional vote for the presidential candidates (Biden 1, Sanders 2, etc.)? How would the 15% cone (or would there be no threshold as such?)


    • Alan,

      I concur with your responses to hschlechta and Tagarong.

      If the Democrats wanted a 15 per cent threshold, they could get close enough by having six delegates per electorate and thus a quota of 14.3 per cent. I think that quota is too high, but it would winnow the current large field effectively.

      I’d bind all elected delegates for all ballots in which the candidate they were pledged to was still running.

      My understanding is that the conventions vote on policy too, so a particular voter may have a reason for not putting Bernie delegate 2 second but would be more likely to put Bernie delegate 3 than Elizabeth delegate 1 second instead, but it would be totally up to voters.

      I don’t think the chances of the US adopting sensible electoral systems is very high at all. It’s not alone in that. The current Victorian government is proposing to remove the single transferable vote from almost every local council in the state for totally spurious reasons, even though the party in power is the one that brought STV to the Senate, to the Legislative Council and to local councils in the first place and that uses it for internal elections. Every advance in human history has to be fought long and hard for – and I don’t’ mean to imply that every “advance” is really an advance.


      • I would probably vote 1 Yang 2 Warren 3 Buttigieg. No doubt that looks like a fairly eccentric vote.

        What it would mean is:

        I vote for Yang because I approve of his signature issue, despite disapproving of his institutional conservatism on matters such as the electoral college.

        If Yang cannot be nominated (as I already know) I vote for Warren because i like her mix of competence and reform.

        If Warren cannot be nominated I vote for Buttigieg’s mix of competence and reform because, despite some questions about his mayoral record, would be closest to my position among the remaining candidates and i approve of his institutional radicalism on the supreme court and the electoral college.

        Now the major part of my vote would almost certainly rest with Warren in that scenario, but any excess would be distributed to Buttigieg. and the mere fact that there are Yang/Warren/Buttigieg voters would give a quite different picture of the process.

        The biggest advantage of a uniform system for selecting delegates is that it takes away a major transaction cost. The Iowa Democratic Delegate Selection Plan is 70 pages long. It is not immediately obvious how democracy is served by requiring campaigns to be on top of 50 different plans of that length, and given the NA habit of reinventing the wheel when to comes to voting, of purely arbitrary rules like the 15% viability rule.


  3. I have to admit, this planting has been looking a little less like it is thriving as of this week.

    I mean, Biden still leads national polls, but “dominance” is not the correct word for it as of now.


    • Matthew,

      I have been keeping a file of predictions for more than 40 years, and my one prediction is that predictions will more often than not turn out to be wrong, but it doesn’t stop me making them. We really shouldn’t be extrapolating anything about a whole country from the poll in one somewhat unrepresentative state, particularly when one possibly major candidate is not even on the ballot, so Joe Biden might gain the lead in South Carolina or on Super-Tuesday.


  4. Updated Iowa results, based on 99 per cent of precincts, are more proportional to votes cast, except that Amy Klobuchar gets only one delegate for 12.3 per cent of the vote. I suspect this is due to the operation of the 15 per cent threshold precinct by precinct or county by county or district by district or side of the street by side of the street.


  5. Pingback: About that post on the Democratic race… | Fruits and Votes

  6. This recent proposal – “Proposition D in St. Louis would implement a top-two primary using approval voting; which would allow all voters, regardless of party affiliation, to pick as many candidates as they want in local elections”
    Now, I’ve seen plenty of proposals to use Approval Voting in party-line primary elections (tick as many candidates as you like, but they have to all come from one party, and the top candidate from each party advances to the general election). But I’m not entirely sure how top-two would work with Approval. In something like the 2008 presidential primaries, if (say) 45% ticked Barack Obama, 44% ticked Hillary Clinton and 43% ticked John McCain, would the final contest be between two Democrats? California Senate 2016 all over again – but even more likely because it doesn’t rely on the largest party polling in the 60%- 70% range? Indeed it could happen even with a low plurality in the 30-35% range.
    It might work if tweaked – the candidate with the most votes goes into the general election, but then you set aside every ballot with a tick for that candidate and select, as the general election opponent, the candidate with the most votes from those ballots still remaining. In the example above, it is highly likely that more than 2 out of every 45 Obama supporters would have also ticked Clinton, so the final race would be between Obama and McCain.
    But then (again!), there may well be a polity where one party is so dominant that it does deserve both slots in the main contest, not by accidental vote-splitting but on a proportional basis. Perhaps then a ballot with a tick for the highest candidate should be marked down to 0.5 value, so that – eg – if South Africa were to move to direct presidential elections, the runoff would be between two ANC candidates if the ANC had over twice as much support as the DA, but not if it were, say, 70% ANC to 15% DA.
    But at that point of fine-tuning I’d start to despair of getting a referendum passed in a world where the League of Women Voters of Alaska thinks “AV gives some electors two votes and others only one”.


    • Looking at their own poster, I see an approval primary as exactly reproducing the scenario of “3 out of 5 voters prefer a different candidate.” All it does it let voters choose between two candidates supported by the plurality instead of just electing a candidate from a plurality.

      There seems to be an American failure to recognize in that nonpartisan voting doesn’t mean that voting blocks still exist. I realize it is technically different, but block voting, whether for a Top 2 Primary, or for three candidates to the at large town council, is not at all that different from winner take all voting in the Electoral College. The largest group gets all of the seats.


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