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'Some numerical measure'

The Democratic primary is raising questions about how political parties can best measure the popular will. No surprise that supporters on each side favor those numbers that help their candidate the most.
/ Source: National Journal

“The pledged delegate count is basically over,” MSNBC’s Chuck Todd reported on Tuesday night as the Pennsylvania results rolled in, summarizing calculations showing Barack Obama holding what now appears to be an insurmountable lead over Hillary Rodham Clinton in pledged delegates. Todd then added that the unpledged “superdelegates” who will likely decide the nomination are now looking to another measure. “If the pledged delegate count is over," he explained, "we [now] focus on the popular vote."

The Clinton campaign was quick to agree. Asked on the same broadcast about Obama's lead in pledged delegates, Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe spoke instead about the popular vote: “By the time we finish this process, Hillary Clinton will have moved ahead.”

Then, yesterday, Clinton upped the ante.

“More people have now voted for me than have voted for my opponent,” she told the "Today Show"’s Matt Lauer. The Clinton campaign backed up that assertion by pointing to one vote count maintained by RealClearPolitics that includes the disputed Florida and Michigan primaries (Obama received zero votes in Michigan, because his name did not appear on the ballot) but excludes estimates of the preferences of caucus participants in four states carried by Obama (Iowa, Nevada, Maine and Washington) that provided no official vote count.

Obama responded to Clinton's comment by suggesting that the delegate count itself is the best measure of the popular will.

“The way the popular vote is translated is into delegates,” he said. “That’s how these primaries and these caucuses work... the number of votes you get then speaks to how many delegates you get.”

Two weeks ago, I reviewed the problems of “measurement error” inherent in attempting to count the votes cast in the Democratic contest. A spreadsheet compiled by RealClearPolitics’ Jay Cost, for example, shows 15 different ways to count the “popular vote,” with candidate margins varying by roughly 700,000 votes depending on whether and how to measure preferences in Florida and Michigan and the four caucus states that did not provide official popular vote counts.

But the issue is broader than just the measurement error in the vote count, the issue I focused on previously. It also extends to what a pollster might call “concept validity.” That’s a wonky term that simply means that before measuring something we ought to define clearly what it is we are trying to measure.

Of course, we should have no illusions. The candidates and their supporters are less concerned about the philosophy of which votes to count than with emphasizing whatever measure works in their favor. Combatants on both sides of the argument, however, seem to agree that the principles of democracy and popular will are paramount.

Clinton supporter Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Pa., for example, has condemned caucuses as “undemocratic.” Appearing on "Meet the Press," he argued that in caucuses, “older people can't vote, older people who vote by absentee ballot... if you're a shift worker and a lot of our workers, because they're low-income workers, are shift workers, you can't vote in a caucus.”

Obama supporters, on the other hand, point to a paper [PDF] by author Glenn Hurowitz and business school professor Gregory Nini asserting that a popular vote tally “dramatically devalues the popular will” of voters living in caucus states precisely because of the much lower turnout in caucuses. The 13 caucus states (which Obama won by an average margin of 35 percentage points) represent 15 percent of eligible voters and 14 percent of Democratic delegates, but only 2 percent of the popular vote cast. Had the caucus states held primaries, Hurowitz and Nini argue, Obama’s victory margins would have been diminished, but his raw popular vote tally would be significantly increased because of much higher turnouts.

One inescapable reality is that any effort to fairly count the popular will of the electorate involves some degree of hypothetical “what-if.” What if the Florida and Michigan primaries had been officially sanctioned? What if Obama’s name were on the ballot in Michigan? What if the caucus states had held primaries?

However, decisions about what votes to count and how to count them inevitably confront more philosophical issues. All sides seem to give rhetorical support to what Cost described as the “normative principles” of the Democratic Party’s McGovern-Frasier Commission to “include as many votes as possible while being fair to both candidates.” The reforms of McGovern-Frasier put into place after the 1968 election led to the creation of the modern primary system.

The irony is that while the McGovern-Frasier Commission aimed to democratize the nomination process, moving control away from party bosses to rank and file Democrats, they never intended to spur more states to hold primaries.

“I well remember that the first thing we members… agreed on,” wrote Commission member Austin Ranney in 1978, “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 presidential primaries.” They believed open party caucuses were the best path to greater democratic representation precisely because they required more commitment from participants. They worried that open primaries allowed participation in the process, as Ranney put it, “without assuming any obligation to [the Party] whatever.”

So underlying this argument about which votes to count are some important questions about the meaning of representative democracy in the party nomination process.

Unfortunately, in the spin wars, those high-minded principles get lost in a hurry.

"We don't think this is just going to be about some numerical metric," Clinton's chief strategist, Geoff Garin, told the Washington Post Tuesday. "When we get to those days after June 3rd, we think the real choice is who's proven themselves to be the best candidate." Does that sound like an argument for counting votes?