The 2016 Primary/Caucus season started this week in snowy Iowa, and my students and I were there to see it. Eight Emporia State students and one alumnus joined me for the trip. Dr. Kelly Shaw, mayor of Indianola and a political scientist at Iowa State University, hosted us for a night observing both Democratic and GOP caucuses on the campus of Simpson College. One group of my students watched the Democrats vote, while another group observed the Republicans.
Students were struck by the differences between the voting procedures. The Republican process opened with a prayer, then featured speeches by advocates for the different candidates. Finally, caucus-goers voted for their preferred candidates on a paper ballot, the votes were tallied, results were announced, and that was that. Marco Rubio was the big winner in Warren County, despite the fact that no one spoke on his behalf beforehand. Afterwards, party stalwarts stayed to choose various, local party officials for the coming year. We would later learn that Rubio and Ted Cruz each had a good night in Iowa.
The Democrats were more raucous. While the Republicans were seated, the Democrats had chairs only for those with disabilities. Others stood, re-grouping themselves based upon which candidate they were supporting. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats re-allocated supporters based on a threshold. The candidate (Martin O’Malley) with too few supporters was eliminated and his supporters invited to join either the Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton crowd, with supporters of each cheering and chanting for their side. Undecided caucus-goers were also asked to choose a side between the two candidates who reached the viability threshold. In the end, the precinct we observed had 83 Sanders supporters and 61 for Clinton. Due to rounding, each got two delegates. As with their GOP counterparts downstairs, most caucus-goers left once this was announced, with only the hard-core remaining to vote on local party officials and other matters afterward. The students later elected to go to a Bernie Sanders rally where his supporters cheered, booed, anxiously watched returns, and waited for their candidate to speak. In the end, it was the closest presidential caucus in Iowa history.
The differences in delegate selection between the two parties have real consequences. Recalling Arrow’s Theorem—roughly summarized as proving that no system of counting votes always assures a fair outcome—the different vote-counting mechanisms can affect who becomes President of the United States. For example, Barack Obama won enough delegates to be the Democratic nominee in 2008 despite Hillary Clinton’s slim edge in the popular vote. This year, the parties (particularly the Republicans) have changed the process yet again.
On the Democratic side, the process is detailed here. In sum, each state is awarded delegates based upon a formula using the following factors:
- The votes that the Democratic presidential nominee received in 2004, 2008, and 2012.
- The state’s electoral votes.
- Bonus votes for states that hold their primaries or caucuses later in the cycle.
- Additional bonus votes if neighboring states also hold their primaries or caucuses later.
The Democrats require all states to use the proportional-representation-with-threshold system that my students observed in Iowa. Democrats also have “superdelegates,” who are Democratic elected officials and other DNC members in the states.
The Republican system has changed significantly since 2008. While the GOP has stopped short of directly requiring the use of proportional representation to assign delegates, they have greatly restricted the use of winner-take-all allocation, compared to previous elections. Now, only late-voting (after March 15) states are allowed to use winner-take-all, that is, to allocate all of the state’s delegates to a state’s one highest vote-getter in the primaries. When it comes to allocating the delegates among the states, the GOP process is detailed here. In short, the GOP formula for assigning delegates includes the following:
- 10 at-large delegates per state, and 6 each for American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- Additional delegates based upon how many U.S. House districts are in a state.
- “Bonus delegates” for GOP elected officials: Governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House, and majority control in one or both chambers of the state legislature.
- A penalty for holding primaries or caucuses earlier than called for in the official RNC rules.
- Instead of “superdelegates,” RNC rules call for their members in the states, including certain elected officials, to be included in a state’s regular delegation to the party convention.
Comparing Party Processes
Political scientists are right in our wheelhouse when it comes to studying how these formulas work. Even a superficial glance at the differences above can be telling. For example, the Republicans penalize states for “jumping” the calendar, while the Democrats instead reward the states which vote later. The end result is that no state has deviated from the calendar in either party. For the Republicans, then, the sanctions do not apply to any state this year. For the Democrats, on the other hand, the extra delegates given for holding primaries or caucuses later may give late-voting states extra sway in choosing the nominee, if the race is not wrapped up by early March. In other words, the difference between the two parties’ rules means that the later-voting states could hold more sway in the Democratic race than in the GOP one.
The “nuts and bolts” of voting are often far more important in determining results than the latest insta-poll or a candidate’s embarrassing gaffe, but fundamentals are often overlooked in superficial media coverage. Political scientists can help those who are ready to go beyond the sensational and see what will really decide the next U.S. President. Is all of this too technical to hold our interest? Not according to my students. One even said, “It was probably one of the best nights of my life.”
About the author: Michael A. Smith is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Smith has contributed to multiple media outlets and is also a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. Follow Smith on Twitter.