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 presences.

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.

“Winnowing works”–or does it?

I keep seeing political scientists–among those who focus on the US case–using a hashtag that says, “winnowing works”. It has got sufficiently under my skin that I decided to rant about it just a little. Honest, just a little.

I take it they are indicating that it is a good thing that the process set by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has led to several presidential precandidates dropping out already. Sure, in that sense, winnowing works–by definition. That is, the field is smaller than it was a few weeks ago.

But is it working at the task that is presumably the one we should judge it by–producing a strong nominee? I have my doubts. I have very serious reservations about the current top three (Biden, Sanders, Warren). This is (somewhat) independent of their specific policies or track records. They are all old, and each one brings some significant baggage or potential problems with electability.

Maybe I am just unhappy that candidates I disliked less than the rest of the field, like one emphasizing an issue that should be front and center and was one of the few governors in the field (Inslee), one I just happen to find appealing (Booker), or one who seems especially well positioned to win Great Lakes area states lost in 2016 (Klobuchar) are all languishing. But that’s the point. Some of these currently lesser know candidates might have been better choices (Inslee is already out). But they have been, or likely soon will be, winnowed out months before anyone actually casts a vote.

The DNC is doing something very strange here. On the one hand, it continues to pander to the insistence of certain small and unrepresentative states to go early in the process of voting, on the theory that voters seeing a candidate up close are better able to make choices than the rest of us. On the other hand, it has created these big media events (“debates” is not really an appropriate term) and qualifications based on national polling and contributors, which make mass-media name recognition especially important. Am I wrong to see this as a fundamental contradiction?

There are many, many things I do not like about the US process of presidential selection. But I am just not convinced that winnowing is working at delivering a good nominee, vetted by actual voters whether in little states or the Democratic electorate at large.

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).