Rethinking Delegate Apportionment

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Mar 26, 2008 4:16 PM

A common criticism of liberals is that they famously enjoy tinkering with rules in order to achieve the outcomes they desire.  

While in office, liberals tend to engage social engineering projects that "encourage" behaviors they deem positive for society (think seat belt or helmet laws) -- and that “discourage” behaviors they deem negative.   The trouble is; unintended consequences often arise.

For example, as 20/20’s John Stossel has noted, wearing a bike helmet actually increases the likelihood a person will be injured on a bicycle (apparently, drivers mistakenly believe bicyclists wearing helmets are advanced and, thus, don’t require as much caution).  The point is, you can have the best of intentions, but in the end, life is messy.

Interestingly, this nanny-state philosophy isn’t just reserved for passing laws – it has also infected the rules for how Democrats select a nominee.  And just like in real life, uinntended consequences often occur.

As we’ve witnessed this year, Democrats employ a Byzantine system of delegate apportionment in order to achieve electoral “fairness” (a candidate who wins a lot of votes, yet loses the state should get something out if it, right?).  

The fact that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are currently engaged in political hand-to-hand combat which has featured name calling, including allegations of some of the primary players being a, “Monster,” “Judas,” and even (gasp!) “McCarthy,” illustrates the fact that the Democrats’ electoral system has hurt – not helped – their chances.

Republicans, by contrast, use  a simpler -- daresay "ruthless" -- winner-take-all system which has allowed John McCain to capture the nomination without enduring the kind of protracted battle the Democrats have had to face.  (Of course, some could argue that the Republican rules allowed a candidate who was nobody's favorite to rise from the dead with a 3rd place in Iowa and seal up the whole thing in 30 days.)

And though the Republican system for picking a nominee may not seem as "fair," it actually works.  And in the long-run, it is actually less painful -- and fairer to the participants -- than the Democrats' system.

What is more, the Republican model may actually prepare candidates for the future challenges they will face. (After all, if you’re going to believe in social engineering, why not encourage the behavior that will lead to victory?)

As Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said the other day on Fox News Sunday,

... in November we have something called the electoral college. You don't become president by winning the most states.  You become president by winning the states with the most electoral votes

While there is no doubt winner-take-all primaries help settle nomination battles earlier, some still question whether or not they would give us candidates more prepared to win a General Election. 

If the parties allocated primary delegates the same way we do General Election delegates, it seems to me they would be ahead of the game. 

Sure, you could argue that primaries are poor predictors of General Election success because primaries tend to skew the results by turning-out the extreme base voters in each party.  But in the case of states that are "toss-ups" in a General Election, having a strong base of support is a good start toward helping a candidate win a state.  And, in addition, this problem could also be solved by allowing “open” primaries. 

If the Democrats can’t go "cold turkey" on giving up social engineering, they might at least try one more attempt at tweaking their system.  One idea is to create a system where close victories are proportional and 60-40 victories are winner take all.  This would reward domination, while not over-rewarding the squeakers. 

The bottom line is that it is axiomatic that what gets measured gets accomplished.  As such, if one goal of primary elections is to help a party select the best-prepared candidate to win a General Election, then the selection rules ought to reward characteristics and behaviors that are likely to lead to victory in the General Election.  But as Gov. Rendell’s comments imply, the qualities the Democratic Party is doing just the opposite.

This reminds me an excellent book I read a while back called Moneyball. A major premise of the book is that we should measure – and reward – the things that ultimate lead us to achieve our goals.  For example, in baseball, the baseball players are judged on have little impact on our real goal of winning.  For example, things like RBI's and batting average are invented -- and, in fact, somewhat arbitrary -- measurables that don't predict whether or not your team will actually be a winner.  A much better measurable, according to the book, is on base percentage.

Before re-writing their rules for delegate apportionment, the Democrats would do well to pick up a copy of Moneyball ...