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.

El Salvador presidency 2019–a president from a different party?

El Salvador holds the first round of its presidential election today. If no candidate obtains more than half the votes, a runoff between the top two will be held on 10 March. El Salvador holds nonconcurrent elections (usually), with the presidency elected for five years and legislative assembly for three. The expected winner of the presidency comes from one of the smaller parties, the optimistically named Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA). Given that there will not be a new assembly election till 2021, the new president may have some difficulties governing. While no president has had his party in a majority in the assembly since the 1980s (before the settlement of the civil war), all presidents since the mid-1990s have come from either the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) or the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN). Thus El Salvador may be entering a new political era.

It might be misleading to call the expected winner an “outsider”, as Reuters did. Not only is Nayib Bukele the candidate of one of the existing (smaller) parties, but also he is the mayor of San Salvador, which would be considered the second most powerful and visible elected post in the country. He was originally elected mayor as the FMLN candidate, but was expelled from the party. He joined GANA to bolster his presidential ambitions. So some degree of “outsiderness”, perhaps, but it is not as if he’s not held important office before or is running on his own campaign vehicle apart from the party system. (The Wikipedia article says he tried to register a new party but was barred from doing so.)

So what about GANA, the likely next president’s adopted party? The most recent assembly election was in 2018, and GANA won only 10 of the 84 seats, although its 11.5% of the vote was its highest to date. GANA resulted from a split from the ARENA, which occurred after the FMLN won the presidency for the first time in 2009. It remains an essentially right-wing party, and I wish I knew more about the policymaking process under two FMLN presidencies to know what sorts of policy compromises the formerly radical-guerrilla left and a right-wing splinter made. Whatever their alliance might look like in substantive terms, it was strong enough politically that GANA did not even put up a presidential candidate in 2014.

In the 2018 election, the parties of the ruling alliance (FMLN and GANA) lost seats, as is entirely predictable from a late-term election. Thus President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has spent the past year of his term in quite a lame-duck situation, with his own party having only 21.4% of the seats and the erstwhile ally with another 11.9%. I say “erstwhile” because, while I do no know what, if any, legislative alliances the president has been working with in the last year, it is evident that GANA and the FMLN have split up their alliance: the latter party has its own candidate in today’s presidential election. (There are four candidates, including one for an alliance of ARENA and the Christian Democrats and the really old ruling party, PCN.)

A problem with an electoral cycle like the one El Salvador uses is that it allows some presidents a honeymoon election, while others do not get an assembly election till near or after the middle of their term. As we know, honeymoon elections tend to give a large boost to the party or alliance supporting a just-elected president (see France 2017 for an absolutely classic case study). Bukele will have to figure out how to govern with an assembly in which his own party has only 10 of 84 seats until the next assembly election, in 2021. And that date is 40% into his term, meaning the normal working of electoral cycles will not likely benefit him much.

I have been fascinated by El Salvador’s unusual electoral cycle for a long time, and it just keeps on delivering. However, were they to ask, I’d tell them to amend their constitution and make elections concurrent.

One thing is for sure, the Salvadoran party system, which I have long characterized as rigid, is no more–a fact already foreshadowed by the 2018 assembly result, as I noted at the time.

Brazil, 2018

Brazil has voted today in presidential, congressional, and state elections (governors and assemblies). The far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, has obtained 46.8% of the presidential vote. The runner-up, Fernando Haddad of the Worker’s Party (PT), is on 28.3%. Given that the leading candidate did not win a majority, there must be a runoff. However, as we know, it is very rare for a first-round candidate with over 45% of the votes to lose the second round, and less likely still when the opponent is so far back.

As results come in for Chamber of Deputies, Senate, and state contests, I hope readers will add detail in the comments.

And if anyone has serious basis for hope that Bolsonaro can be defeated in the runoff, please tell. Because the idea of his being President of Brazil is just too depressing to contemplate. Then again, it seems to be both the hemisphere and the era of too-depressing-to-contemplate presidents.

Mexico, 2018

Mexico has its elections for President, Chamber of Deputies, and Senate on 1 July. It has been clear for a while that, barring a big surprise, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (popularly known as AMLO) will win.

AMLO’s support has risen steadily out of what looked like a tight three-way contest some months ago into a strong lead. When voters responding “no preference” are removed, it even looks likely that AMLO could win a clear majority of votes. Mexico elects its presidency via nationwide plurality, and no Mexican president has earned half the votes since 1994 (at a time when most experts still considered the regime authoritarian, albeit increasingly competitive).

Assuming AMLO wins, it will highlight the competitive three-party nature of the system. When the center-right National Action Party (PAN) won the presidency in 2000, it broke decades of continuous control by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PAN won again in 2006, on less than 37% of the votes in a very tight race, with AMLO close behind (and refusing to acknowledge defeat). The PRI returned to the presidency in 2012, and now AMLO will give the left its chance. (AMLO was with the Party of the Democratic Revolution, PRD, but in recent years has set up a new party, MORENA, while the remnant PRD is backing the PAN candidate this time.)

I would be very interested in seeing an analysis of AMLO’s own manifesto (and his party’s, if separate). There is much hand-wringing over his leftist “populism”. However, when he ran in 2006, he staked out a centrist economic platform well to the right of his own party–a clear case of what “presidentialization” does to parties. (See the discussion of the general point, and also the 2006 Mexican campaign, in my book with David Samuels, Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers). Is he doing so this time? I can’t claim to have followed closely enough to know.

As for the Chamber of Deputies, if the pattern of recent Mexican elections holds, the party winning the presidency will win fewer votes for its congressional candidates. That could mean MORENA (and pre-election allies) will not have a majority of seats. On the other hand, as noted above, these previous presidents have not themselves won majorities. Moreover, the electoral system is mixed-member (with the voter having a single vote). It is sometimes erroneously categorized as mixed-member proportional (MMP), but it is actually leans much more to the majoritarian category (MMM). Seats won based on nationwide votes for party are added to single-seat districts won (by plurality).

The allocation is not compensatory, but it is also not strictly parallel. There are caps on allowable over-representation (unlike in a “pure” MMM system). The most important cap is that no party can have a final seat percentage that is more than eight percentage points above its vote percentage. Thus if a party wins under 42% of the votes, it is unable to have a majority of seats. If it gets over 42% it is not guaranteed a majority, but a majority becomes likely, due to the non-compensatory nature of the allocation. This cap kept the PRI from retaining its majority in the midterm election of 1997, and I believe it has been hit in several subsequent elections, as well. This is what I will be watching most closely: Will MORENA (and allies) get a Deputies majority?

The Senate is also elected in a mix of regional and nationwide seats. Each state has three senators, elected by closed list, limited-nominations plurality. The largest list gets two seats and the runner up gets one. Then there are 32 seats elected by nationwide proportional representation (allocated in parallel, not compensatory manner).

These provisions, combined with the regionalization of party support in Mexico, make it difficult for a party (or alliance) to win a majority of the Senate’s 128 seats. AMLO is unlikely to have majorities in both houses, but it is worth noting that the federal budget must clear only the Chamber. There is no Senate veto on the spending side of the budget, although both houses must pass all other types of bills. Thus the left will be in a strong, but not unchecked, position to implement its program for the first time in Mexican democratic history.

Turkey, 2018: Unusual alliance behavior

On 24 June, Turkey has concurrent presidential and assembly elections. These will usher in the new constitution, under which Turkey becomes a presidential system. (The current system is premier-presidential, having changed from parliamentary with the adoption of direct presidential elections.)

The election was called earlier than necessary in an attempt by the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to catch the opposition unprepared. However, unexpectedly, several opposition parties have assembled joint lists an alliance (see clarification below) to contest the assembly elections. Polling suggests that they could win a majority.

The coalition behavior of the opposition is unusual in that it features parties running in a pre-election coalition for assembly elections while running separately for a concurrent presidential election. I know of few cases of major parties behaving this way. It makes sense, however, in that Turkey’s 10% nationwide threshold for assembly seats makes for potentially high disproportionality (so much so that I questioned whether it was “democratic” several years before the crackdown that followed the attempted coup). On the other hand, the presidency is elected by two-round majority, meaning first-round divisions do not necessarily prevent a group of parties eventually getting one of their own elected. (See Chile 2005 for another example of such unusual alliance behavior.; also Taiwan 2012.)

The Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), which counts on Kurdish support, is running separately. It cleared the threshold in both elections of 2015 (a, b), and may do so again.

______________

Zeynep Somer-Topcu clarifies, regarding the assembly alliances:

Ballot had each party and then a larger box for the alliance. You could just stamp anywhere within the box for alliance (if no party preference). Threshold applies to alliance but each party’s MPs enter based on their parties’ vote shares once alliance passes threshold.

(via Twitter, presented here with her OK)

I think it is quite unusual for alliances to work this way, allowing vote pooling across separate lists to help drag smaller parties over a threshold.

Costa Rica runoff, 2018: Alvarado (the better one) wins

In Costa Rica’s runoff, Carlos Alvarado beat Fabricio Alvarado. That is a relief. Fabricio ran his campaign mostly around stifling gay rights, and polling had the race very close. In fact, most polls had FA ahead (see the poll summaries at Wikipedia). However, at 60.6% to 39.3% for CA, it was not close at all.

This runoff followed an extraordinarily fragmented first round, in which four candidates had votes between 15% and 25%. FA led the first round, with 24.99% to CA’s 21.63%. The candidates of the two older parties (PLN and Social Christian Unity) came in third and fourth.

Costa Rica’s rules since the current regime was founded in 1949 have required a runoff among the top two candidates if the leader did not clear 40% of the vote in the first round. Because of the country’s historic two-party system (with some additional trailing parties), a runoff was never required until 2002. The party system has changed dramatically in recent cycles. A runoff was narrowly averted in 2006 (winner with 40.9%), and was next required in 2014 (leader with 30.6%, and runner-up with 29.7%, although the runoff contender, from the PLN, quit the race), and now in 2018.

Carlos Alvarado was nominated by the party of the incumbent president (Luís Guillermo Solís), the Citizens’ Action Party. This party has established itself as a major party in that it has passed the test of electing not one, but now two, different presidential nominees. Moreover, it has finished ahead of both of the old parties in two consecutive first rounds and ahead of at least one of them in four straight elections.

The runner-up candidate’s party, on the other hand, is a newer one. The National Restoration Party was contesting only its second presidential election (though it won congressional seats in 2006), and in 2014 its candidate managed under 1.4% of the vote.

The now more fragmented political scene raises the obvious question of how President-elect Carlos Alvarado will be able to govern. The Costa Rican presidency is one of the weaker ones among pure presidential democracies, and as the congress was elected concurrently with the first round, reflects that round’s fragmentation.

The president-elect’s party, Citizens’ Action, has only the third highest seat total in the Legislative Assembly. It won 16.3% of votes and 10 of the 57 seats (17.5%). The leading party will be the old PLN, which won 19.5% of the votes (compared to 18.6% for its presidential candidate) and 17 seats (29.9%). The National Restoration Party finished second (as it did in the presidential first round) with just over 18% of the votes and 14 of the 57 seats (24.6%).  The Social Christian Unity Party won 14.6% and 9 seats. No other party has more than 4 seats, and the total number of parties represented is seven.

Notably, even if he strikes a deal with the PLN, the president will not have quite enough to control the assembly: such a coalition would be two seats short.

The Libertarian Movement–one of the few relatively well established parties anywhere of this family–slipped well back. It will be without seats for the first time since before 1998. (The party won 9 seats in 2010, when its presidential candidate finished third with 20.8% of the vote.)

The election results will pose a governing challenge, but at least the requirement for a second round has led to the better Alvarado being elected.