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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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The Vagaries of the Primary System

Our nation's primary process is a strange, variegated system. In the next few months, I intend to take a closer look at not only the primary system itself, but also the nominating process in general.

In that vein, Jon from Pasadena sent me this very insightful commentary about polling in the primary. I'll quote it in full with the general comment that it underscores, and expands upon, the basic hypothesis from my earlier post on the subject: our primary polls are inefficient estimators of our primary votes.

Pay particular attention to Jon's last paragraph. I have been noodling with similar thoughts for a while now. Hopefully, in the next few weeks - I'll have something of substance to say on the matter of the Super-Duper-Double-Dip Tuesday that will be 2/05/08. In the meantime, I need to do some more research on the vagaries of the primary system.

But Jon seems to know his stuff, so I'll let him take it from here:

Your blog on the inadequacies of the framework most pollsters use was insightful.

But I think the situation is even more complicated than you present, due to the impact of the proportional representation system adopted by most state parties.

As you note, our November general elections are basically winner take all -- the top vote-getter receives all the electoral votes from each state he or she wins. However, in the Democratic nominating process, all caucuses and primaries work in a system of proportional representation -- even if you come in second, you still get a good number of delegates. I believe many Republican state parties have moved, or are moving, toward proportional representation as well.

But there is a hidden kicker in this system. A candidate must gain a minimum number of votes -- usually 15% -- to get any delegates at all. If the candidate polls under 15% (which is where many candidates now stand in the polls), he or she is essentially dropped out of the calculation entirely, and those candidates getting more than 15% of the vote split up all the delegates (both those directly elected and those chosen "at-large" later in the process).

The interesting question, in relation to your discussion of relative preferences, is whether knowledge of this threshold will then alter voter behavior, especially among those favoring candidates doing less well.

For example, I was a Dean delegate in 2004, yet Howard Dean garnered less than 15% of the vote in my Congressional District so Dean didn't get any delegates at all and I got to stay home that summer. By the time California had its primary, it was clear that Dean's support had diminished substantially. Knowing that, did many Dean supporters skip their first choice and move down their preference order to vote for their number 2 or 3 candidate?

The national and state polling will be widely distributed next January and February. Voters will be well aware of who is really in contention and who is not. And at least some of the primary voters (who already represent a selected subset, presumably the more committed, interested and aware) will likely be exposed to pundits' explanations of the intricacies of primary rules and the likelihood that votes for lesser candidates (Richardson, Dodd, Biden, Brownback, Huckabee, Tancredo, Hunter) will be "wasted" votes.

So it would seem that pollsters should be attentive not only to preference ranking, but to levels of commitment to top-ranked underdogs and voters' willingness to abandon preferred candidates to avoid "wasting" their votes.

For candidates polling in the 10% to 20% range, this presents a fascinating range of possibilities: does one attack Edwards just enough to keep him under 15%, but not enough to alienate his supporters irreparably? Does one support minor candidates, hoping they will draw votes from a front-runner but will, in the end, still be under 15% so the votes will be wasted? Should the minimum threshold be reduced in earlier primaries, or perhaps all primaries, or should it be dependent upon the number of candidates (the more candidates, the lower the threshold for getting at least a few delegates)?

Lastly, many pundits are assuming that front-loading the primary calendar will result in a relatively quick resolution of the primary process. I fear they may be underestimating the complications that proportional representation introduces; we could very well end up with two or three front-runners, none of whom have a clear majority. In the Democratic primary process, about 15% of all delegates are "super-delegates", who become delegates by virtue of their position (national committee members, governors, other elected or senior party officials) independent of their commitment to any candidate. Could it be that those super-delegates might end up controlling the nominating process?

-Jay Cost