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Monday, February 04, 2008
Some Thoughts on Winner Take All Versus Proportional/Congressional District States--Updated

The biggest difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is the issue of fairness. Republicans believe in fair rules, the Democrats believe in fair outcomes. The issue of how to award delegates to the national convention of each party reveals this rather well.

Tomorrow, Democrats and Republicans will go to the polls in a slew of states. But there is one key difference. Republicans have "winner-take-all" delegates in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Arizona, and Missouri, while the Democratic delegates in those states will be chosen either by congressional district or proportionately awarded.

It's easy to make the argument against winner-take-all. Suppose a candidate gets exactly 50.1% of the vote, while his opponent receives 49.9%. Is it really "fair" that the opponent's supporters receive no representation for their votes? It's plain that the election was a coin toss; shouldn't the delegation reflect that division?

The argument against is pretty easy to understand too. There are no prizes for coming in second in the general election. Oh, sure, Maine apportions its electors to the electoral college by congressional district, but that's about it.

The interesting thing to me is that winner-take-all and proportional representation present a candidate with very different strategies. Note reports that John McCain was campaigning in Massachusetts yesterday. Why, when Mitt's up by maybe 30 points there? Answer: Because of proportional representation, he stands to pick up some delegates by making a showing. If Massachusetts were winner-take-all do you think there's a chance he would stop in the Bay State? Only for fundraisers.

But the downside is that there isn't a big enough prize for the winner, at least in terms of delegates (media coverage may be another matter). A lot of Romney folks are excitedly pointing to a (dubious) Zogby poll that shows Mitt up by eight points in the Golden State. Mitt's on his way to victory, with California leading the way!

Congratulations if you don't buy it. California's a big prize with 173 delegates, but they are awarded by congressional district. Say Romney does win by eight points. That translates into a net gain of arguably 13 delegates (173 times 8%). Meanwhile, McCain's picking up a net 101 in New York, 53 in Arizona, 52 in New Jersey, 30 in Connecticut, and 58 in Missouri.

Now, the math doesn't work perfectly; a win by 8% probably means that Romney picks up more than 13 net delegates. But it won't be a lot more than that, because Mitt's strength is concentrated in particular areas as is McCain's. Each congressional district becomes a mini-state, and Romney's advantate in, say, Orange County, could easily be outweighed by McCain in Northern California.

Update: Michael Goldfarb doesn't get it.

When it came time for questions, all anyone wanted to know was what is he doing in Boston? One reporter said Romney was "perturbed" that McCain was campaigning in Massachusetts today. McCain responded that he couldn't account for Romney's reaction, but that Romney was welcome to campaign in Arizona.


One theory: McCain really doesn't like Romney, and as it became clear last week that McCain would almost certainly secure the nomination on Tuesday, this was to be a parting slap in the face. Except today, while McCain is still a heavy favorite, the result in California looks far from certain and there's a real possibility this race will continue past tomorrow's contest. It's hard to see how this was a smart move, but it was pure McCain--inspiring, audacious, and a bit reckless.

Not reckless at all. I suspect Senator McCain's internal polling shows him winning California, as do most of the public polls, and even if he loses slightly there, the delegate difference will be nothing. In Massachusetts, Romney is up big; 22 points in the latest RCP rolling average. That means more potential weak Romney supporters can be won over.

Update II: Lotta Google searches incoming. If you want a list of the Republican states that are winner take all, check here. For the Democrats, check here, but basically there are no winner take all states for them.
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