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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Obama Wins On Points

Last night's events were a microcosm of this whole nomination battle. Barack Obama obtained the endorsement of a sufficient number of superdelegates to clinch the nomination. This was despite the fact that he and Clinton - once again - split the contests at stake. Clinton carried South Dakota easily. Obama carried Montana easily.

In the wake of the 1968 convention in Chicago - the Democratic Party opened the nomination process to the public at large. The Republicans followed suit a few years later, and today there is a wide and deep sense that what V.O. Key called "the party in the electorate" chooses each party's presidential nominee.

This year, the Democratic party in the electorate has split right down the middle. We saw that last night, just as we have seen it all season long. If you count up the votes from all contests where both candidates were on the ballot, and include caucus estimates, you come up with Obama having a lead in the popular vote of 151,844 votes out of nearly 36 million cast for the two of them. However, that excludes Michigan, a state with up to 2.3 million Democratic voters that did choose between the two candidates. So, as it stands there is no way to know whom the party in the electorate generally prefers.

This speaks to an important point. There is a thing called public opinion. It is what it is, whether we are aware of it or not. It is "out there" somewhere. We only have imperfect ways to measure it. We have public opinion polls, which as we all know are imperfect. We also have elections, which like polls are metrics for gauging public opinion. These can be imperfect, too. When the difference between support for candidates is very small, it may be that the electoral process cannot determine which candidate's support is greater. After all, the electoral process is the creation of human beings with their own interests and agendas. It is possible for measurement problems to occur. Something like this happened this year. There was an excruciatingly close division between the candidates - and the imperfection of the Democratic nomination process, wherein Michigan was not fully included in the contest, means that we are unable to determine who actually had the greater support. As far as we know, the vote was split.

Thus, Obama has won the Democratic nomination not because his voting coalition is larger than Clinton's. As best we can tell, they are of equal size. Instead, Obama has won because his coalition is more efficient at producing delegates than Clinton's coalition. Obama's relatively narrow vote lead has produced a relatively wide pledged delegate lead, which has in turn produced an even wider lead in superdelegates. The following chart indicates this point by measuring the number of votes per pledged delegate. The idea here is that, the lower the number of votes per pledged delegate, the more delegates a single vote produces for the candidate, and therefore the more efficient a candidate's coalition is.

Votes Per Pledged Delegate.gif

As we can see - Obama's voters are worth more delegates. Put precisely, there are 10,237 voters for every Obama pledged delegate and 10,807 voters for every Clinton pledged delegate. That's a difference in Obama's favor of 570 voters per delegate. That might not seem like it would make a big difference, but it most certainly has. If the "votes per pledged delegate" metric were equal for Clinton and Obama - Obama's pledged delegate lead would drop from 106 to 12.

[Note that the popular vote used in the above chart does not include the Michigan vote while the delegate counts do include the Michigan delegates. This was done to account for the fact that the Rules and Bylaws Committee did not use the Michigan vote to estimate the delegate allocation. If we were to include the Michigan vote by allocating to Obama the uncommitted, Obama's voters actually become more efficient.]

Does any of this mean that Clinton, not Obama, "should" be the nominee? No. By our imperfect metrics for measuring the opinions of the public, we must conclude that there is no clear public choice.

So, Obama has scored what amounts to a win on points. He did not score a knockout. Clinton's invocation of "18 million votes" last night reminded me of Jake LaMotta's taunt of Sugar Ray Robinson in Raging Bull, "You didn't get me down, Ray!" Indeed, Obama won the nomination on a night that Clinton still managed to win another contest.

From this, I would suggest that, as a prelude to unifying the party, both sides need to be a little modest.

The Clinton people need to recognize that it is not coincidence that Obama's vote was more efficient. I have discussed this before. Part of this had to do with the fact that the delegate allocation system contains biases that happened to favor Obama. However, part of it had to do with the fact that the Obama campaign had a better understanding of the system. It found the possibilities and made the most of them. What's more, the Clinton campaign let it do this. Simply put, Obama out-maneuvered Clinton. Clinton supporters need to respect this.

Meanwhile, Obama supporters need to recognize that their candidate is the victor not because he put together a majority coalition, but because he out-maneuvered Clinton. This was a highly intelligent strategy, but it was not a grand feat of majority building. Obama supporters need to recognize that their candidate won not because "the people had their say," but because his campaign out-smarted her campaign. Accordingly, they need to respect the candidate whom they could not beat in a straight-up fight for votes.

-Jay Cost