Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler


The Magic Number

With my beloved Patriots falling at the last hurdle, we move from the Super Bowl to Super Tuesday. A recent poll found that 40% of Americans were more interested in Super Bowl Sunday than Super Duper Tuesday – but 37% were more interested in the primaries this week. It's about the best for which they could hope.

If it was ever about votes before, and wins, and states, now it's about convention delegates – 2025 is the magic number for the Democrats, and 1191 for the Republicans – very few have actually gone. In the early races, across small states with few (sometimes no) delegates at stake, it was about momentum – votes, money, media attention, and recognition. The two democrats and two republicans with serious prospects have made it this far – they don't need media attention any more. They don't need wins in the popular vote to gain momentum, they need delegates. Because delegates, not states, not votes, and not media glory, decide presidential nominees.

Delegates were nice before – while his opponents focussed on Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Romney picked some extras up in wins in largely uncontested early races – Wyoming and Nevada – to lead the early delegate race – but small leads in delegate counts don't get you momentum, and Romney couldn't capitalise.

Now delegates are everything. As a follow-up to my earlier piece looking at how caucuses and primaries work, I thought I'd go a bit into the delegate race we'll see tomorrow, and the weeks following.

There are over 20 contests today, and I'm not going to go into all of them – there are caucuses, primaries and conventions again (some open, others closed or in between) and myriad ways of divvying up the delegates.

For the Republicans, a number of states are winner-take-all – whoever gets the most votes getting all the state's delegates. This is expected to favour John McCain: the states he is supposedly certain to win – New York, New Jersey, Arizona, Connecticut, and Delaware – are winner-take-all, while some the states his chief opponent Mitt Romney is expected to win – such as his home state of Massachusetts – are proportional at the state level, or have winner-take-all votes at the smaller congressional district level (which may see the runner-up snare some delegates).

All the Democratic races are proportional – with delegates apportioned between the candidates at district level and state-wide. A narrow win is nice, but it's not necessarily all that much better than a narrow loss.

I'll explain using California.

Each of California's 53 congressional districts (the constituencies for the congressmen in the US House of Representative) has an election, at which between 3 and 6 delegates are up for grabs (most have 4 or 5). Although each congressional district has roughly the same population, they don't all have the same population of democrats – upon which each district's delegate value is largely based.

These district level delegates are awarded proportionately across the candidates reaching 15% of the vote within that district. It's useful to note that with the small number of delegates available, achieving real proportionality isn't always that easy. In a district electing four delegates, a 59% - 41% vote sees each candidate get two delegates (which may seem wrong, but it's closer to true proportionality than three delegates to one would be: my opponent got less than 50% more votes than me, why's that 200% more delegates?).

For California, that's how 241 delegates are given out. A further 81 at-large delegates are awarded proportionally across the whole state to candidates receiving 15% state-wide, and another 48 are awarded proportionally (again to candidates receiving 15% state-wide) to state party officials who make their preference known (democratic mayors and state legislators etc. – called party leader and elected official delegates or PLEO delegates). These are all pledged delegates, who promise to vote for their candidate in the first round at the convention.

This system, even though it's technically proportional, can lead to anomalies. It will usually even out, but a similar system saw Barack Obama win more delegates in the Nevada caucuses than Hillary Clinton, despite her state-wide triumph in the vote.

Each state in the Democratic process is basically the same – 75% of their pledged delegation is awarded proportionally at the district level, 25% is awarded at-large across the state, and 15% is awarded to pledged PLEO delegates (yes – the Democratic Party rules actually use these percentages).

There are unpledged PLEO delegates too, the superdelegates we looked at last time, but when you're trying to work out who's winning Super Tuesday, it's the pledged delegates at which you should be looking. The proportionality across the Democratic race means they're less likely to have a presumptive nominee at the end of the day, but there's a reasonable prospect of a true front-runner emerging in the Republican race – small victories in the popular vote can lead to large victories in delegate counts in some states which can quickly add up.

Super Tuesday has grown in size over the years, and this year sees it at new heights – in size, importance, and spectacle. The national primary is an institution – almost as American as the Superbowl, which bookends this post. An integral part of the spectacle of the Superbowl for the millions watching it at home are the advertisements, and this – embracing another great American tradition – the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade – is the pick of the bunch. I misted over, and it even got props from the folks at Cartoonbrew – despite the presence of an arch enemy:

Repeat after me: In America, as in New Zealand, it's only an election.

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