The Democrats' Undemocratic System

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The wonder, really, is that the nomination train wreck confronting the Democratic Party didn't happen years earlier.

The stage was set for the current stalemate over five marathon days of negotiations in June 1988. In the fifth-floor conference room of a Washington law firm, representatives of Michael Dukakis, the party's nominee, and Jesse Jackson, his unsuccessful challenger, hashed out a new set of delegate selection rules.

Jackson felt aggrieved that he had not amassed as many delegates as his popular vote total would have suggested. In the 1984 primary campaign, for instance, Jackson won 19 percent of the popular vote but received just 10 percent of the delegates. So Jackson's rules guru, Harold M. Ickes, insisted on adopting proportional representation rules that would award insurgent candidates a bigger share of delegates in future contests.

Twenty years later, the rules Ickes advocated seem to be working against his current candidate, Hillary Clinton, reducing the impact of her wins in delegate-rich states such as California, New York and New Jersey. But Clinton could be saved by an unintended consequence of the move to proportional representation: Because the system tends to produce a stalemate between two strong candidates, it ends up supersizing the role of party pooh-bahs known as superdelegates.

All this was predicted long ago by Tad Devine, the Democratic Party operative who represented Dukakis in the rules negotiations. In a prescient 1991 article, Devine and Anthony Corrado explained the paradox:

"The move to strict proportional representation, which was adopted to ensure that delegate outcomes would better reflect the will of the electorate," they wrote, may instead "have produced a system in which party leaders and elected officials will hold the balance of power in determining the outcome of nomination contests."

In short, the Democratic Party has come up with a characteristically muddled method of choosing presidential nominees, with rules that are simultaneously overly and inadequately democratic.

The overly democratic part involves ultimately giving too much weight to the losing candidate's vote. Under the rules, three-fourths of the pledged delegates are allocated by congressional district, the remaining one-quarter according to the vote statewide.

This leads to bizarre "everybody wins" results in the many congressional districts that have an even number of delegates. As a result, campaigns devote inordinate resources to districts that happen to have an odd number of delegates.

Consider a four-delegate district. For a candidate in a two-person contest to get three of the four, he would have to win a daunting 62.5 percent of the vote. The more likely outcome is that the winner and loser get two delegates each.

To obtain more than a one-delegate edge in a five-delegate district, the winning candidate would have to take 70 percent of the vote. The upshot: In a close race, it's extraordinarily difficult for one candidate to get very far ahead of the other.

The impact of this was clear in California, the biggest delegate prize. Clinton won43 of the state's 53 congressional districts, and 52 percent of the popular vote to Obama's 42 percent. But under the proportional representation rules, and with 32 of the districts offering an even number of delegates, she received 207 delegates to Obama's 163. Had Democrats used the Republicans' formula in California -- with delegates awarded on a winner-takes-all basis by congressional district and statewide -- Clinton would have received 316 delegates, Obama just 54.

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