Articles and Analysis


Jay Cost's Popular Vote Spreadsheet

Topics: 2008 , Barack Obama , Jay Cost

Over at RealClearPolitics, Jay Cost has done an invaluable service by posting a spreadsheet that allows you to create your own popular vote projection for the Democratic presidential race by entering assumptions about turnout and vote shares in the nine remaining contests and using whichever counting method you prefer.

Of course, delegates will choose the Democratic nominee, not popular votes. But as just about every delegate counter has concluded, neither candidate is likely to attain the necessary majority on pledged delegates alone. The ultimate decision will be in the hands of the unpledged, so-called "super delegates." Whatever the end result, the two campaigns are likely to spar over the the outcome of the popular vote as a debate point in winning over uncommitted super-delegates. But how do you count the popular vote in a system designed to select and count delegates?

As Cost explains, the task is not easy:

First, there are many reasonable ways to count the popular vote. None is obviously superior to the rest. Of course, it does not matter which we think is most appropriate. What matters is what the superdelegates think, as they will be the "tie-breakers" in the nomination battle.

They could approach it in many ways. They could take the basic vote count and choose to exclude or include Michigan, Florida, or caucus estimates. Assuming they want to include the Michigan results and the caucus estimates (for IA, ME, NV, and WA, whose state parties do not supply actual vote totals), they could account for them in different ways. With Michigan, they could (a) give Obama the "unaffiliated" vote, (b) not give Obama the "unaffiliated" vote, or (c) reallocate the vote based upon whom voters claimed in the exit poll they would support if all candidates had been on the ballot. If they include caucus estimates, they could (i) count the non-binding Washington primary instead of the caucus, or (ii) count the Washington caucus instead of the primary.

In his spreadsheet, Cost provides 15 different ways to count popular votes and encourages his readers to predict the race for themselves. I have to agree with his main underlying theme, that "a prediction like this must be very imprecise" given the ongoing debate about the most appropriate way to count the votes cast and the many unknown variables involving contests still to come. His full write-up is worth a read before tinkering with the spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet also helps illustrate the potential significance of Puerto Rico in projecting popular votes:

The biggest problem is with Puerto Rico. We are literally without precedent there. It's never voted in a presidential election of any kind. It is therefore extremely difficult to get an idea of who will win, let alone by how much. An even bigger question with Puerto Rico is turnout. Puerto Ricans are some of the most active voters in the world, and turnout could be very high. But how high? 100,000, 500,000, 1 million, 2 million? Again, we have no precedent for it.

In a post a few weeks ago, Cost noted that "about 2 million Puerto Ricans voted in 2004, or about 52% of the public," but those contests involved contests for governor and resident commissioner. Puerto Rico casts no votes in the general election for President, Also, as Cost points out, Puerto Rico's political parties do not systematically align themselves with the stateside Democratic or Republican parties. So projecting turnout and vote shares there is truly a shot in the dark, but potentially crucial in determining the ultimate popular vote leader.



Holy cow, Cost's column is great. What a breath of fresh air, too.

I never read RCP, so thanks very much for the link.



I am a bit confused about one aspect of his model. In the section where he lists the different conventions for counting the popular vote, Obama's margin goes down when the Washington Primary vote is included. Is this because it is used in place of the Washington Caucus? If so, he should make that clear, because it is quite confusing to see the addition of a contest Obama won causing his nominal popular vote margin to shrink. If this is what he meant, then he should add a category where both the primary and the caucus are counted, and do the same for TX where the caucus vote was tallied? These conventions would be frankly less tendentious than most of the methods that are necessary to produce a Clinton popular vote "lead" in the absence of a monstrous margin in PR (clearly without a big-ish margin there, she has no reasonable path to a popular vote "victory").


Chris G:

fantastic spreadsheet. When I look at the current margins the main thing what I see is that for Clinton to win the popular vote she has 3 basic paths:

(1) MI and FL excluded, but she nets over ~700,000 votes, ~10 point margin across remaining primaries

(2) MI and FL included, but MI unaffiliated go to Obama, and she nets over ~400,000 votes, ~5 points

(3) MI and FL included, no MI unaffiliated to Obama, nets over ~200,000 votes, ~3 points

(2) is probably her best shot, I can't see an agreement that seats MI and FL but gives no MI delegates to Obama. but if ML and FL don't get seated as is and don't get a revote w/ huge Clinton margins, she'll need an Obama revelation far bigger than Wright

WA primary looks to involve about ~80,000 votes, which is significant but probably splitting hairs given how imprecise everything else is



if benazir bhutto were alive to read the above exegesis on this utter silliness we call democracy per the DNC, she'd ask some nation of standing to chime in to set standard straight.

now who exactly that would be is unclear...since we are clearly not in the position to advise. :) but given the raving lunacy of this parallel universe that has apparently taken hold of us, i would invite none other than punxsutawney phil to determine the course of events.

since he's so good at casting shadows he ought to do a fine job reading the same of the shadow
the dems have cast. really, it's hardly more substantial than that isn't it? nothing especially definite, variable depending on which day you read it, time of day, moment to m oment, wind direction and about as valid as
the underside of a large rodent's gut!


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