The 2008 Election: Whose Decision is It, Anyway?

Hady Amr
Hady Amr, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution
Hady Amr Former Brookings Expert

February 2, 2008

Watching coverage of the 2008 campaign, viewers first would have first thought that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in. Then, after Iowa, Obama was “unstoppable.” Then Clinton “won” New Hampshire and Nevada. Similarly on the Republican side, McCain was up, then down, then up again, and Romney and Huckabee were in, then out.

The truth is, the American people deserve a closer — and franker — look at the process, and they deserve better coverage that goes back to basics — to the “rules of the game.”

What we should have learned during the 2000 presidential race, when I was serving as national director for ethnic outreach for Al Gore, was that Americans don’t elect their presidents based on the popular vote, but instead by a rather peculiar set of rules that elects delegates to conventions. Like it or not, that’s our system.

This is also true of the Democratic and Republican party primaries and caucuses.

Although I have now been quite involved in five U.S. presidential campaigns, the detailed “rules” for the presidential primaries were not seared into my thinking, nor were they made obvious by coverage of the campaigns. It turns out that Republicans generally elect delegates to their national convention (which, in turn, elects the Republican candidate) in what are described as winner-takes-all races.

Democrats, however, elect their delegates quite differently.

They generally award state delegates (or points) by a system that proportionally distributes the votes. But it’s not even that simple, because any candidate who gets less than 15 percent of the vote is disqualified, so the vote is divided among those who get more than 15 percent.

And it’s even more complicated than that, because delegates are divided by district. In Nevada, for example, Hillary Clinton got 51 percent of the votes and Barack Obama got 45 percent, but Obama received more delegates –13 to Clinton’s 12. What this means is that the little colored “check mark” that most media outlets put next to the name of the “winner” of each state could have been justifiably put next to both Clinton and Obama’s names in Nevada — since Clinton won the popular vote but Obama won the delegates. The same could be said about New Hampshire, where each won nine delegates.

And we haven’t even discussed the complex nuances of the caucus process or the rather undemocratic notion of superdelegates — the 20 percent or so of convention voters, usually party insiders, who are not obligated to support the candidate chosen in the primary or caucus.

As a graduate student at Princeton, I studied electoral systems worldwide. What I came to understand was that the rules of the game matter — again, as we learned in 2000, when Gore won the popular vote but Bush won the electoral vote and thus the presidency.

Americans deserve a clear simple set of rules they all can understand. The current rules, which differ by party and state, favor back-room insiders and not the American people — whether it’s winner-take-all or proportional representation, whether it’s primaries or caucuses, or whether it’s the decision to have superdelegates or not. Something needs to change. Voters deserve a system for selecting their candidates that is not only “free and fair” but also relatively straightforward to understand and thus easier for the media to more accurately report on.

What’s more, the American people may actually want a say in what this process would look like — instead of leaving it to party hacks.

Perhaps then, America can finally live up to its values and become again the beacon of light upon the hill that the whole world wants to emulate when it comes to democracy and elections.

Until party insiders are willing and able to make the rules of the game more straightforward, the burden seems to be on the media to do a clearer job of explaining the Byzantine process.