California primaries: Myth of the ‘independents’

By JD Mussel

Paul Mitchell of Capitol Weekly’s CA120 column tells the rather farcical story of the more than 100,000 Californian voters who thought they were registering to vote as independents and ended up voting in the American Independent Party’s presidential primary.

The American Independent Party is the far-right outfit originally established by Alabama segregationist George Wallace for his 1968 presidential run (which was aimed at sending the election to the House of Representatives). They ended up choosing Trump as their nominee this year, though he didn’t even appear on the ballot for the primary. I didn’t know California allowed electoral fusion before I noticed this dual nomination on the sample ballot I got in the mail last week[1].

[1] Yes, I have moved! I have now joined MSS at the University of California, Davis where I started my graduate studies last month.

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.

Primary reform and a weekend runoff?

Fair Vote has sketched a proposal to reform the US presidential nomination system. It is meant to be a “best of both worlds” proposal, with state-level contests early in the process, culminating in a runoff among the finalists on a single day nationally.

Following is their synopsis, but as the bloggers’ union requires me to say, read the whole thing.

The entire political universe, from the heights of the Washington establishment to the depths of the grassroots, agrees that our presidential nominating process needs to be reformed. But while there is broad consensus that a problem exists, there are myriad diagnoses as to what actually needs fixing. As the parties begin internal and interparty discussions about what elements need tweaking, it‘s time to take a serious look at more extensive and comprehensive reforms that will truly fix the process. The parties should begin to debate a plan that includes traditional state-based nomination contests culminating in a final, decisive national primary.

I am not going to comment, for now, on the substance of the proposal. However, I am going to single out seemingly small item for criticism:

More specifically, we like the idea of making that primary a set day in early June – perhaps the first Tuesday, or, more daringly, the first Saturday.

OK, but why Saturday? Please don’t be so “daring”! Expect (and deserve) lots of push back on that idea form the Jewish community, if the proposal becomes “serious.” Why not Sunday? Yes, I know that is a rather important day of the week to a rather larger segment of the population than us Jews. But most Christians do not have anything like the restrictions on Sunday activities that observant Jews have on Saturdays. Presumably that is why most of the world’s Christian-majority countries regularly vote on Sunday. We should do so, too.

What if the date had not been changed? (Alabama edition)

Steven Taylor, writing in the Press-Register, asks whether it was, in retrospect, a mistake for the Alabama legislature to have advanced the date of this year’s presidential primary. His conclusion is similar to mine with respect to California (and he kindly cites a planting here on that question).

Steven’s argument in favor of the ‘Super Tuesday’ primary points out that the Republican race was still very much in flux at the time, whereas mine concerned only the Democratic race, where proportional representation really meant every vote counted, and even more so (I argued) when cast early to help shape the race.

Republicans, on the other hand, are quite content to simply throw out a lot of votes. Alabama was quite a case in point, with Hucakbee getting nearly all the delegates despite beating McCain only 41%-37%. Republicans had a number of such early outcomes (South Carolina and Missouri, both ‘won’ narrowly by McCain, were even more egregious). If you would rather have your vote thrown out in February than in June, if you happened not to side with the one-third (or so) minority of your state that favored the candidate with the most votes, then, yes, it was also good for Republicans to vote early.

Something to watch for in South Dakota

As I just alluded to in the previous planting, exit polls have not reported vote breakdowns for indigenous (Native American) voters, and this makes South Dakota hard to call. Silver notes that there is some evidence that Obama has performed well with that demographic group.

I would add that Oklahoma, another state with a large indigenous population, was one of the early states where Obama most over-performed his late polling estimate (from a limited number of polls). See the graph.

Although Obama lost Oklahoma by a big margin, he outperformed his polls substantially.

We may be well past the point at which this contest can produce surprises, but maybe Obama will surprise in South Dakota, a state with 10% indigenous (and very little polling).

Montana primary districting quirk

Remembering the good old days in Montana:

Montana’s delegate allocations are a little funky, with the state divided up into two pseudo-CDs based on Montana’s old congressional districts from the 1980s (it has just one now). Each district has five delegates…

Given the vast territory, this actually makes sense. Or at least it would if delegate candidates themselves actually did the campaigning.

Source: Nate Silver’s projection (which, by the way is: Obama 59.1%, Clinton 40.9%; Obama 9 delegates, Clinton 7).

Also relevant today: The South Dakota projection, and the attendant tricky demographics (all the trickier because exit polling has not asked about indigenous people’s preferences, even in other states where they are a substantial minority).

California primary date: Would it have mattered?

California holds its primary election this Tuesday. But, wait, didn’t we do that already? Yes, and no. For what I think is the first time in state history, our presidential and legislative primaries are on separate dates. ((Such practice is typical in some other states, especially those that routinely vote earlier in the presidential nominating cycle.)) We had the presidential primary on ‘Super Tuesday’ (5 February). Legislative and many local races are 3 June.

With no US Senate race this year, and this not being an election year for statewide constitutional offices, primaries will be held only for congressional, state-legislative, and other sub-state entities. This is evidently also unprecedented.

Turnout will be low. Really low. And, of course, this being California, there are statewide ballot measures being voted on, ((Two of them, both concerning eminent domain. We can’t ever seem to have just one measure per issue. I’ll do what many voters do when they don’t understand the issues and strongly suspect some organized interest is trying to pull one over on me: Vote no on both.)) allowing a potentially unrepresentative sample of the state electorate to make public policy for all the state’s residents.

Inevitably, the separate dates and the expected low turnout for this election have led to lots of “what ifs.” That is, what if California had kept its usual June primary for presidential nominating delegates? With the Democratic race having extended throughout the whole primary season, imagine the impact California would have had!

How much impact? Less than it actually had.

The “what if” scenario–which I have heard or read numerous pundits state–rests on the assumption that there would have been frantic competition between Clinton and Obama for such a BIG PRIZE at the end. The problem with this claim is that it rests on an implicit winner-take-all logic, as well as on the notion that only the “decisive” votes count. ((The same logic by which the closer makes more money than the set-up man. The ninth inning is clearly more important, right?)) Sure, if California used winner-take-all, and no other state did, and we had this close race… Then it would be quite a prize indeed. But with the proportional allocation of delegates–the only democratic way to do it ((And, in any event, one state is not going to be allowed to deviate from the proportional rule applied elsewhere. And if most or all states used winner-take-all, the contest would have been over long ago))–a contest this late would have had much less impact than it had back in February.

When we went to vote in February, we genuinely did not know the outcome of the contest. With 370 delegates at stake, and 81 of them decided statewide, about every 1.2% of the vote for a candidate meant another statewide delegate, and local swings between the candidates also would shift some number of the district delegates between the candidates (depending on magnitude of the district and how much of a local swing).

Now the race is over, and it has been (effectively) over for some time. The pledged delegate count (after the Florida/Michigan adjustment), according to Real Clear Politics, stands at:

    Obama 1736
    Clinton 1620.

Without California, it would be

    Obama 1570
    Clinton 1416.

A deficit for Clinton of 154 rather than the actual 116.

Chances are she would have done no better in California in June that she did in February. In fact, I suspect she would lose if we were voting this week. Suppose the result of the two candidate race (55%-45%) were to be reversed–probably an unrealistically large swing relative to the real result. Obama would pick up 38 delegates at her expense. We would be at 1774 to 1582. Not exactly race-altering. Of course, if we add in the ex-oficio delegates under the assumption they would have been declaring at the same rate and same proportions even if California had not voted yet, then we probably would be looking at a clinch for Obama in California on 3 June. ((RCP shows him at 2065 as of today, and if he won 38 more in California than he actually did, he’d be 15 short. But with polls closing in South Dakota and Montana earlier on 3 June than in California, the Golden State would deliver the decisive vote. But the assumption on ‘supers’ is probably unrealistic. With the biggest state not having voted yet, it is likely that fewer of the unelected delegates would have declared by now. And if so, California still would not be decisive.)) But, again, the notion that such a scenario implies more meaningful votes for Californians than the ones they actually cast in February rests on a dubious logic. It requires the belief that it is better to give a candidate the clinching delegate in a race that is clearly all but over than it is to have voted early when almost every vote counted in affecting the balance of delegates in a race that was just developing. The latter is certainly closer to the “every vote counts” democratic ideal. It certainly made me feel my own vote was more meaningful than if I had to wait till this week to weigh in at last.