GC Gaines

Brian Gaines is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois.

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As the long presidential primary season kicks off, here are three reminders about some key rules that are easily forgotten, ignored or mischaracterized, courtesy of University of Illinois political-science Professor Brian Gaines.

1. No one really ‘wins’ Iowa.

Iowa enjoys exaggerated influence in presidential elections, not only because it votes first in the nominating stage, but also because, every four years, the media cannot resist hyping who “wins” the state’s caucuses.

In fact, Democratic Party rules ensure that no candidate leaves Iowa very far ahead of the others. The presidential nomination is won through electing convention delegates, and Iowans will choose only 41 out of 3,979. Moreover, the allocation is approximately proportional: 35 percent of the vote delivers about 35 percent of the delegates, and so on.

In 2008, for example, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton split the vote about 38 percent to 30 percent to 30 percent, and won 16, 14, and 15 delegates, respectively. But print and broadcast media overwhelmingly portrayed the result as a major Obama victory.

First place in Iowa would not be especially important except for the alleged momentum it confers. And the claim that any edge in Iowa gives a candidate a substantial advantage in later events is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Journalists justify their willful distortion of the results because some voters seem to jump on board of the bandwagon the media construct.

Whatever the result in Iowa, the right metric on which to focus is the number of delegates candidates have won.

2. The popular vote is meaningless.

Depending on how close the race proves to be, some candidate may eventually claim to deserve the nomination on the basis of a higher overall popular vote.

By now, most people understand that it is the Electoral College system, not the national popular vote, that determines the outcome of the general election.

For similar reasons, the aggregate primary vote across states is not a useful statistic. Delegates count, not individual votes.

States are allocated delegates based not only on population, but also on Democratic Party strength in past elections and the timing of the vote.

Some state primaries are open only to registered Democrats, some also let independents take part, and others let anyone request a Democratic ballot. Still others employ caucuses instead of primary elections.

Adding up the votes from such disparate nominating elections, which vary dramatically in turnout, is pointless.

3. Everyone is super, but some are more super than others.

“Here, the people rule,” observed William McKinley about the United States. The Democratic Party lets ordinary Americans take part in picking its nominee, but they don’t rule alone. Along with the 3,979 pledged delegates are nearly 800 superdelegates, not chosen by voting publics.

In 2016, loud complaints by supporters of Bernie Sanders that Clinton’s win was an “inside job” caused some embarrassment to the party whose very name emphasizes democracy. As a result, those party elites, newly renamed “automatic delegates,” will not vote on the nominee on the first ballot at the 2020 convention, unless the result is already determined.

Observers cannot change the rules, but for those so inclined, the internet makes it easier than ever to keep tabs on which candidates are winning delegates with the people’s support and which are the favorites of the pooh-bahs and panjandrums.

2020 may yet see the ultimate intrigue of a brokered convention, in which multiple votes are required to pick a nominee, and those automatic delegates regain their clout. That’s not likely, but it also does not seem impossible at present.

Electoral rules can be complicated, and results can sometimes be messy. When races are close, little details can suddenly matter more. Remember the butterfly ballot and its “chads” in 2000? Educated voters should be wary of sloppy or willfully distorted descriptions of the election process.