With a “front runner” who so far is not mustering more than a quarter of the vote in polling aggregates (e.g., both Fivethirtyeight and Economist), and four other candidates in the 10%–20% range (here with some variation between different aggregators), it is a good thing the Democratic Party uses proportional representation to choose its nominating-convention delegates. Right?
Well, not this “proportional” system. I will now leave aside those zany rules of the Iowa caucus or the marginally more rational rules of the Nevada caucus, and focus on the closest thing we will get to a national primary: “Super Tuesday”. Specifically, I will focus on California for the the obvious reason that it is the biggest. And happens to be where I live and vote. Other states have broadly similar systems, but for smaller numbers of delegates.
This is one awful example of “proportional representation” (PR). Why? First, because it is not really PR due to the high threshold. Second, because it is ridiculously complex. Third (and flowing from the first two), because it is nearly impossible to know how one should make effective use of one’s vote.
My premise is to assume a voter wants to vote against Sanders. (Any resemblance to any particular actual voter may be coincidental. Or not.) With so many candidates still in the mix, one could at least feel good that it in a big state with a lot of delegates, the proportional allocation will mean your vote is not wasted. It could help select some delegates for whichever non-Sanders candidate the voter selects.
But that is not the case at all.
First, there is the threshold. It is set at 15%, which is extremely high. It is all the worse when, as noted already, so many trailing candidates are at risk of falling below 15%. It is not out of the question that all of California’s delegates could go to Sanders even if he has just 32% of the vote, as in a recent PPIC poll. That poll has Biden in second with only 14%. A delegate sweep is not the most likely outcome (8% are undecided, and many might be weakly supportive of their current choice and thinking strategically, like our hypothetical voter), but it is possible. One hundred percent of the delegates on a third of the vote certainly would not be a “proportional” outcome!
Then there is the districting. Obviously, we know from studies of electoral systems for actual proportional representation systems that having many districts, and low-moderate district magnitude (number of seats–here, delegates–per district) reduces proportionality. On the other hand, if a candidate is just below 15% statewide, the districting might help that candidate, to the extent that there is regional variation in support. Failing to clear the statewide threshold does not preclude getting delegates in a district, as long as the candidate is above 15% in any given district, and that the magnitude of that district is large enough for the candidate to get a delegate with whatever his or her vote share is in the district.
The statewide delegates amount to around 35% of all the delegates awarded in California: 144 of the 415 total. In electoral system terms, the allocation is in parallel, not compensatory like many two-tier proportional systems. That is, a candidate who clears 15% gets a “proportional” share of the statewide delegates and adds on to this whatever number of delegates he or she has won in districts.
A statewide district of M=144 seems huge, right? Well, this being the Democratic Party, they have to make it further complicated. There are two statewide districts, in parallel with each other as well as with the many sub-state districts. The magnitudes are still large, at 54 and 90. (The former are the PLEO, or pledged leaders and elected officials.)
The districts for delegate selection are the state’s districts for the US House. They vary in magnitude for delegate purposes according to recent Democratic voting history in the district. California has 53 districts, and they vary in magnitude from 4 to 7. There are only two districts (numbers 12 and 13) that elect 7. The mean magnitude is 5.1. See the California Democratic Party Delegate Selection Plan (pp. 14-15 of the linked PDF) for the number per district.
(The Plan has no description of the specific allocation formula that I could find, but maybe I missed it; see also GreenPapers.)
So what should our totally hypothetical anti-Sanders voter do? Ideally, figure out which of the other (acceptable) candidates is above 15% in his or her district. Better yet, figure out which one might be marginal for a delegate. That would be a strategic vote based on local support and the district’s magnitude. But it is not as if such information is widely available. One can guess off district demographics, or noisy signals like local offices for the campaigns or yard signs, etc.
The PPIC poll has a regional breakdown within California. But the “regions” are blunt categories–Los Angeles, Other Southern California, SF Bay Area, and Other. There is some considerable variation, even with the caveat that we have 53 districts but four regions. Sanders leads in Los Angeles with 36% and the next up is Biden, at 16%. In Other Southern California they are on 41% and 15%, with Buttigieg also on 15% (the latter supposedly has just 9% in LA). SF Bay Area also has Sanders leading with only 31% and the next closest is Warren at 18% and then Bloomberg at 14%. If, like me, you are in “Other” it is really a mess! We have Warren 18%, Biden 17%, Sanders 16%, Buttigieg 14% (also 11% unknown, higher than other regions). Of course, a lot of these are in the margin of error of the threshold, and each other, and further district-level variation within each region is likely.
So maybe the best is just to figure out which ones are likely to be close to, or “securely” above 15% statewide. Forget the district, and focus on those two large magnitudes at the state level, in which small vote shifts for above-threshold candidates actually could change the delegate totals.
The previous numbers are based on only one poll, of course. There is too little polling of this state. The FiveThirtyEight estimate for California is a little different: 27% Sanders, 16% Bloomberg, 14% Biden, 11% Warren, 10% Buttigieg. (The total for all listed candidates gets us to 89%, so 11% undecided.) Given the paucity of polling, these estimates are based not only on polls, but also on national trends adjusted for state demographics. And, as noted earlier, it risks no one but Sanders being over the threshold, even if that is not in the end a likely scenario, in part because allocating or removing undecideds likely puts at least a couple of other candidates over 15%. Plus, as mentioned, there will be some degree of regional variation that can make a sub-15% candidate statewide be well above that level in a district. But also, remember: many districts have a magnitude so low that even 15% locally would not be enough for a district delegate!
Or there’s voting sincerely. What a concept. Since I don’t like any of these candidates, that would mean staying home. But I don’t want to do that!