No, Our Primaries Are Not Rigged

No, Our Primaries Are Not Rigged
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Among Donald Trump backers, Bernie Sanders supporters and the pundit class, it has become fashionable to trash the two parties’ presidential nomination processes as undemocratic. “It’s a system rigged against voters,” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough fumed last week, “in favor of the rich and the powerful and the politically connected.”

The critics have various examples designed to stoke outrage. But their argument has two main flaws. 1) anecdotes are not data; 2) there is no one democratically pure method for choosing party nominees.

The seemingly ridiculous anecdotes are endlessly repeated: Sanders won New Hampshire and Wyoming yet failed to come out ahead in the two states’ delegate counts; Trump won Louisiana but Ted Cruz may come out ahead in the delegates. Colorado Republicans scrapped its caucus and gave Cruz all its delegates without any statewide vote.

But these are anomalies or exaggerations that obscure the big picture. Actually, both Trump and Sanders have a bigger percentage of pledged delegates than their percentage of the popular vote.

MSNBC’s Ari Melber crunched the Republican numbers and found Trump has won 37 percent of the votes cast to date, yet possesses 45 percent of the delegates. I did my own calculation of the Democratic side, taking the RealClearPolitics popular vote tally and giving Sanders a 100,000-vote bonus based on Politifact’s estimate of his margin from caucus states that don’t report raw vote totals. Sanders has received about 43 percent of the popular vote, but a slightly higher 45.6 percent of the pledged delegates.

The results are rooted in different dynamics. Trump has a disproportionately higher delegate haul because, under Republican rules, many states have “winner take most” systems that magnify victories. Democrats strictly follow a “proportional allocation” system that is more generous to runners-up, preventing Clinton’s delegate count from outpacing her popular vote (but also giving her a minor boost in Wyoming). And Sanders, unlike Trump, mostly wins low-turnout caucus states, so he earns a big bushel of delegates from a smaller pool of voters.

The delegate boosts Trump and Sanders have received get overlooked because of oddities in the non-electoral aspects of the process. Trump and his supporters fear state parties are assigning the candidate disloyal delegates who would abandon him on a second ballot, and finding other ways to pad Ted Cruz’s delegate total. The Sanders team complains that the 15 percent of the Democratic delegate pool who are unpledged “super delegates” are tilting the race to Clinton and in some cases negating Sanders’ primary wins.

These concerns are overstated or premature. For example, several news reports have asserted that Cruz now has more Louisiana delegates than Trump despite Trump’s popular vote win. But the delegates in question are actually unbound and most have not pledged fealty to Cruz. (As The Hill noted, “neither campaign has an incentive to clear up the misunderstanding.”)

On the Democratic side, there is no question that super delegates – most of whom have signaled their preference though nothing is official until the convention vote – are largely backing Clinton. And her disproportionately large super delegate hauls in the tiny states of New Hampshire and Wyoming give an appearance of subverting democracy in those states.

But it appears that the super delegate impact on the ultimate outcome will be negligible. Even if the candidates received all the super delegates from winning a state or territory, Sanders would pick up an additional 80 from his victories, but give up 11 from his tally. That would only trim Clinton’s delegate lead from 676 to 538. Furthermore, the super delegates aren’t throwing the race to Clinton; she leads the pledged delegate race without them by more than 200.

As the race heads to Tuesday’s New York primary, the Sanders campaign is lodging a new complaint: closed primaries in which only registered Democrats can vote, disenfranchise independent voters who have been gravitating toward Sanders. “I think it's crazy,” said Sanders’ wife, Jane. “We're running a national election, we should have same-day registration, open primaries and caucuses and allow the people to vote. … [Some] are not even able to vote in this election because they didn't change their registration to Democrat last October when they hadn't even heard of Bernie Sanders.”

But only 11 states truly close their primaries to non-partisans (some others are nominally closed but allow for party-switching on Election Day). And only New York demands party registration by October, the underlying logic being to ensure that the voter was in the same party for last year’s municipal elections.

Still, is that 11 too many? Only if you believe that a voter who is unattached to a party has a right to determine a party’s nominee. Not everybody does. Some are unnerved by outside infiltration foisting a nominee on the party who is out of step with party principles, or want to prevent mischief by voters from an opposing party. Recall that in 2008, Rush Limbaugh launched “Operation Chaos” in hopes of sowing Democratic division, which some argued helped Hillary Clinton win the Indiana primary when Barack Obama was close to sealing the deal.

For the Sanders campaign to complain that closed primaries limit turnout is self-serving. If maximizing turnout was the bedrock principle, Sanders and his allies would be demanding the end of caucuses, which restrict participation to those voters able to attend at a particular time and engaged enough to sit through bureaucratic meetings. The reason they don’t bash caucuses is because they win most caucuses. They dismiss closed primaries because so far they have lost all closed primaries (of which there have only been three to date).

Sanders and Trump are hardly the first presidential candidates to make self-serving arguments about the delegate-selection process. We might not have primaries at all if wasn’t for self-serving politicians.

In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt abandoned his past opposition to presidential primaries. He recognized they gave him the only path to wresting the Republican nomination from the more conservative incumbent, William Howard Taft, who held sway over the party apparatus. TR’s lobbying helped roughly double the number of primary states to 13, of which he won the majority. When that wasn’t enough to win on the Republican convention floor, Roosevelt stormed out of the hall and launched his Progressive Party bid across the street.

The number of states with primaries still numbered 13 by 1968 (although a few of the states were different) when Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without competing in nearly any of them, enraging supporters of rival Eugene McCarthy and sparking convention chaos. Democrats concluded changes were necessary, and turned to George McGovern – seen as acceptable to both the Humphrey and McCarthy camps – to lead a commission on nomination reforms. This commission effectively created the 50-state primary and caucus process we have today.

But McGovern was not a disinterested player. He created the new system while planning to run for president himself in 1972. While his reforms expanded the number of primary states, he understood better than his opponents how to maximize his delegate count in the caucus states. He managed to secure the nomination with only 25 percent of the votes cast: fewer popular votes than Humphrey, and the lowest percent of popular votes for a nominee in the history of the modern primary system. Moreover, his tenuous support within his own party proved a bad omen for the general election. The democratizing reforms did not initially produce a very democratic result.

The McGovern experience is a reminder that what seems to be the most democratic method isn’t always so. The Roosevelt experience is a reminder that parties have an interest in protecting their philosophical principles from whoever decides to show up to a primary election.

Yet, their push for more primaries won the day. The increased role of the public in the nomination process has largely been celebrated and almost always produces nominees widely accepted by their party’s voters.

What can still stir a sense of unfairness, especially in close races, are the state-by-state variations in rules, born out of the power held by state legislatures and state parties to implement procedures. But those variations are healthy, because there is no one perfect way to pick a nominee.

There’s a case for including Independents and a case for restricting to partisans. There’s a case for party activists to dominate caucuses and a case for less active voters to have a voice in primaries. There’s a case for “the people” to decide and a case that a true cross-section of “the people” is not who shows up to vote.

What we have is a mix of methods, an electoral obstacle course, allowing establishment candidates and insurgent outsiders the opportunity to make their arguments and show their ability to navigate different political terrain. It was good enough for an Obama to beat a Clinton. It was good enough for a Trump to eliminate a Bush. If a candidate can’t survive this gauntlet, it doesn’t mean the game is rigged; it means the candidate lacks the broad support necessary to earn the presidency.

Bill Scher is executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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