Monday, March 09, 2020

The Democratic Primaries are Like an Election in a Parliamentary Democracy

I don't understand why participants in the Democratic primary don't approach it like European politicians when they try to build a government. Under the system that most European democracies have, parliamentary seats are assigned proportionately to votes. But because there are several political parties who end up with seats, no one party ever gets a majority. So the parties negotiate, and cobble together a coalition of parties that, taken together, will be a majority.

Structurally, the Democratic primary works a lot like a European parliamentary election. Delegates (like European MPs) are assigned proportionately, and until recently, there were more than two serious candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. Given that, it seems like the best strategy is for the campaigns to negotiate with each other, exchanging commitments for cabinet seats and legislative proposals until some coalition can find a candidate and platform that would appeal to a majority of the Democratic electorate between the supporters of different candidates.

But that's not how it works. Instead, Democrats, both the candidates and their supporters, approach the primaries as if it is like the general election, where "first across the post" in each state (other than in the electorally insignificant Maine and Nebraska) is what gets you 100% of the electoral votes. Even the vocabulary used to talk about the primaries is misleading. In the Democratic primaries, states are not "won" like they are in the general election. There's still an ongoing argument about who "won" the Iowa caucus. Sanders got more votes that Buttigieg on both the first and second vote, but neither had an outright majority and Buttigieg ended up with one more delegate because of the way the delegates are assigned. Does that mean Sanders "won" because he got the most votes, or Buttigieg "won" because he got the most delegates? Can Buttigieg be said to "win" when he only got a single delegate more than Sanders because of a quirk of how the delegates are assigned and that a single extra delegate makes virtually no difference in the overall nomination race?

The talk about "winning" or "losing" a state in a primary race where delegates are proportionately assigned is meaningless. And yet, that is the only way that almost everyone, from campaigns, to commentators in the media, to voters themselves, talk about primary results. It also can do real harm. In the late primary period in 2016, the rhetoric about winning or losing states fed into the sense that Sanders was being cheated out of a nomination. At that time Clinton had amassed a substantial lead in the number of delegates by getting large percentages that got her a large majority of delegates in a bunch of early Southern primaries. When Sanders would "win" states later in the race, he would do so narrowly, which would only net him a small number of delegates, which was not enough to ever close the delegate gap he had with Clinton. So while experts were noting that Sanders had no plausible path to the nomination, the media would report Sanders "win" in state after state, as if winning states had anything to do with the actual contest. I personally think that is a large reason that the "Sanders was robbed of the nomination by party elites" narrative took hold--a narrative that still lives on today.

Going back to my original point: given how the nomination contest really works, why aren't the candidates acting like European politicians? Is it because the American public is just not familiar with that kind of system and so the idea of competing candidates explore cooperation with each other is too alien for a campaign to try?