Articles and Analysis


"Some Numerical Metric"

Topics: 2008 , Gallup , Measurement , National Journal , Robert Kennedy

My NationalJournal.com column, a follow-up on the ongoing debate over counting the "popular vote" in the Democratic primary contest, is now online.

In the column, I quoted a passage from an article by the late Austin Ranney about the intent of the McGovern-Fraser commission whose reforms following the 1968 election helped create the current presidential primary system. The quote appeared in the following article: "Changing the Rules of the Presidential Nominating Game: Party Reform in American," in Parties and Elections, ed. Jeff Fishel ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978). I found it in Rhodes Cook's invaluable volume, The Presidential Nominating Process, A Place for Us? (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004).

As the Ranney article is not available online, I thought readers might appreciate seeing the complete quote with a bit more context. In 1968, only 13 states held primaries that were dominated by two candidates: Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy who received 39% and 31%, respectively, of the popular vote cast in those primaries, respectively. Hubert Humphrey received only 2% of the primary vote. Yet at the time of Kennedy's death just after the final California primary, Humphrey had 561 delegates to 393 for Kennedy and 258 for McCarthy. Humphrey ultimately won his nomination on the first ballot with the support of 1759 delegates.

According to Rhode Cook's account, the McGovern-Fraser Commission was the result of efforts to "mollify" the supporters of Kennedy and McCarthy who "vociferously complained of the archaic, anti-democratic state-delegate selection processes that the boosted Humphrey, and of ham-handed tactics by party leaders at the convention that maintained Humphrey's delegate majority and their control of the party conventions" (p. 42). The commission was "well stocked with proponents of reform," but was "short on representatives from organized labor and the party's urban machines that could be counted on to defend the status quo" (p. 43).

Here is the full passage from the Ranney article (p. 220):

I well remember that the first thing we members of the Democratic party's McGovern-Fraser commission (1969-72) agreed on -- and about the only matter on which we approached unanimity -- was that we did not want a national presidential primary or any great increase in the number of state primaries. Indeed, we hoped to prevent any such development by reforming the delegate-selection rules to that the party's non-primary processes would be open and fair, participation in them would greatly increase, and consequently the demand for more primaries would fade away. And most of us were confident that our guidelines would accomplish all these ends.

But we got a rude shock. After our guidelines were promulgated in 1969 no fewer than eight states newly adopted presidential primaries, and by 1972 well over two-thirds of all the delegates were chosen or bound by them. Moreover, in 1973 Congress was considering a national presidential primary more seriously than ever before. Of course, it cannot be said that the guidelines were the sole cause for the proliferation of primaries. But we do know that in a majority of the eight cases the state Democratic primaries, who controlled the governorships and both houses of the legislature, decided that rather than radically revise their accustomed ways of conducting caucuses and conventions for other party matters, it would be better to split off the process for selecting national convention delegates and let it be conducted by a state-administered primary which the national party would then have to accept.

Ranney went on to consider arguments for and against primaries. After noting that a May 1972 Gallup poll showed 72% of Americans favoring a national primary, he presented a rationale for the minority view (p. 222):

Other Americans, however, believe that a national primary would do more harm than good. It would put an even greater premium than at present on large-scale mass media advertising, polling, public relations expertise and all the other costly features of "the new politics." An this, in turn, would put a premium on big money. Moreover, it would restrict most citizens to just one form of participation in the nominating process, and that would not be healthy for them for for the nation. People of this persuasion therefore agree with the McGovern-Fraser commission's conclusion that "purged of its structural and procedural inadequacies, the National Convention is an institution worth preserving."

I included the shorter reference to Ranney's recollections in the column, and the longer version here, not because they suggest any particular resolution to the debate about the "popular vote" but because they add some interesting and often ironic context. Partisans on both sides will see support for their positions in this history, but it is still history worth knowing.



I've missed some of the Hoopla today, but does anyone know if Texas Caucuses are tallied into the popular vote?

Obama netted about 10,000 votes in the Caucuses (and more delegates) but if I remember correctly every caucus voter had to have participated in the texas primaries, so these would technically be double votes.




What's the over/under of how many ludicrous arguments will come out of the Clinton camp before 5/6?

100? 500? 1000? 10000?

Just wondering.......

Maybe someone should take a poll about that.

The whole "electability" argument is a joke.

The whole "popular vote leader" argument is a joke.

Pretty much everything about Hillary Clinton at this point is a joke.

Here's the deal: FOLLOW THE RULES.

If no one has 2025 by the end of all the primaries, have the superdelegates decide immediately to finish up the process. Michigan and Florida will not count - they broke the rules, they suffer the consequences. End of story.

Super delegates can decide however they want - but they aren't stupid - not all of them anyway. They will back the candidate with the most pledged delegates and most victories in the primaries/caucuses. If they don't, they will destroy the democratic party for a generation, or more. And they will likely be voted out of office rather quickly as well.

And if you are stupidly arguing that the super delegates shouldn't back the guy with the most victories, then why have these elections in the first place?? Why not have the supers decide EVERY election year based on electability



If all reamining supperdelegate break 50/50 between now and June, Obama will reach the magic number even before we get to Puerto Rico. End of story, end of spin, end of arguments. Finished. Done.

It will also not have the appearance of superdelegates taking sides and determining the outcome. That is Fair.



Interesting history...amazing that the Primary "process" really began after the 1968 Camapigns, when it was really more of a "smoke filled room" decision.

Hillary needs about 60% of the delegates (pledged and unpledged) from here on out to reach the nomination threshold. That number will likely increase enormously after North Carolina and Indiana...even if she wins Indiana.

I think it's quixotic. Obama should start running against McCain, not Hillary.




Thanks for this write up.

I was Austin Ranney's research assistant around this time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison doing research on New Hampshire primaries, and also had the good fortune of taking a graduate course on political parties from him.

As he indicates above, he was indeed very concerned about the the institutional effect of broad scale primaries on the Democratic Party. Some of his concerns are bearing out I think.

I personally think that candidate selection (party nomination) should be look as distinct from a general election. Certainly the same Constitutional principals don't apply. Parties can do whatever they want, and will be punished in elections if they do it badly. That is the accountability system.

To remain viable, parties need to worry about maintaining their institutional integrity, viability and legitimacy. The current Democratic Party rules are, I think, not a bad balance, though I think they did not think through effectively how to confer legitimacy in a situation such as Clinton-Obama - a highly unusual situation in which we have two closely running, highly competent, and probably electable candidates.

That said, I think most of the commentary I hear commits two errors: (a) There is no one mechanical way to confer legitimacy on a candidate. Popular vote, pledged delegates, number of contests, electability are among the many good yard sticks. But legitimacy is not an equation. It is a perception. I can conceive of a number of ways that either decision could be made and a sense of legitimacy conveyed, and it will depend on the facts that unfold over the remaining months. Let's not fall into the trap that there is only one way to do this. In the end it is about judgment, not equations. (b) There seems to be a smoke filled room perception of super delegates. In fact, in all likelihood, they will not gather in one place to confirm or "overturn" the will of the people. While there will continue to be intense communications between them and with the candidates and party leaders, they will make their decision one delegate at a time. And each of them will reach their decisions based on very individualized judgments. So there are a number of ways this could play out over time.

If I were a super delegate, I am not sure which decision I would make, nor on what criteria. I would wait a bit longer and see.

In the end this will be most likely decided by super delegates, and that is a position of leadership and judgment. I think that is the way it was intended, and is actually working fairly well under extreme stress. Unfortunately, that means we have to wait and see.

Thanks for your thoughts.




@Uri --

Caucus head counts are not included in the popular vote counts for just the reason you stated - they are voters who had to vote in the primary first, so they were counted in the primary statistics.



Very interesting stuff... but I don't understand what the "McGovern Fisher commission" was trying to achieve. (and correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the current system a reform of the McGovern reforms themselves -- with a far greater number of 'superdelegates' included to prevent someone from winning a bare majority of delegates from being automatically crowded the nominee?)

The current system is a mess -- there is not question about that. It starts with the allocation process, wherein absolutely no consideration is given whether a state is reliably republican, reliably democratic, or a swing state. But in allowing states to choose between caucuses and primaries, and "open" or "closed" or "semi-open", it has created a completely (small 'd') undemocratic mess.

When the support of one guy in a totally republican state like Alaska is the equivalent of the support of 23 people in a crucial swing state like Ohio in terms of electing delegates, not only is the system absurdly undemocratic -- its absurdly bad for having the Party nominate the best person.

I mean, in caucus states that haven't voted for a Democratic in the last three elections, so far this year it has taken only the support of 1518 people to elect each delegate. But in primary states that have gone 3 for 3 for the democrat in the last three elections, it has taken the support of 12,067 people to elect one delegate. And its almost as bad in "swing" states (those that have supported a dem once or twice out of the last three elections) -- 10,943 voters per delegate.

(But of course, try to explain the implications of this to an Obama supporter, and he treats it as irrelevant -- they think that Obama's ability to game the system gives him the right to the nomination -- as if we were talking about someone who figured out what his opponent's strategy was at Risk, rather than the person who will be leading the country for the next four years.)

If Obama is the nominee, we can only hope that Mark co-Chairs a Clinton-Blumenthal Commission to figure out how to prevent another debacle like we saw with Humphrey in 1968, and make sure we only have four years of McCain.


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