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The Odd Delegate Selection Rules

- February 3, 2008

As we approach super duper Tuesday, it is increasingly clear that the Democratic nomination is going to be a drawn out battle over delegates. The LA Times (here) and others have made much of the fact that each state’s delegate allocation rules are driving candidate strategies. In fact, it is possible that the rules adopted by the Democratic National Committee to ensure a representative process may actually deliver the Democratic nomination to a candidate who lost the popular vote. Here’s how:

DNC rules, ironically entitled “Fair Reflection of Presidential Preferences” (here), state that District-level delegates and alternates shall be allocated according to the following procedures: Step 1: Tabulate the percentage of the vote that each presidential preference (including uncommitted status) receives in the congressional district to three decimals. Step 2: Retabulate the percentage of the vote to three decimals, received by each presidential preference excluding the votes of presidential preferences whose percentage in Step 1 falls below 15%. Step 3: Multiply the number of delegates to be allocated by the percentage received by each presidential preference. Step 4: Delegates shall be allocated to each presidential preference based on the whole numbers which result from the multiplication in Step 3. Step 5: Remaining delegates, if any, shall be awarded in order of the highest fractional remainders in Step 3.

The rules mean that if a district has four delegates, a candidate will only win more than half of the delegates if they top 62.5% of the vote. Because 62.5 is the midpoint between 50 and 75, a candidate who tops this and earns less than 87.5% of the vote, would get three of the four delegates. Given the fact that Democrats appear to be closely divided between Clinton and Obama, topping this 62.5 threshold is a high bar. A district with six delegates would be evenly divided, unless a candidate secured more than 58.33% ((100/6)/2 + 50) of the vote. Obviously, in a highly contested race, this is a high threshold too. Thus, the candidates are focusing on the districts with an odd number of delegates. Here it only takes 50.1% of the delegates to pick up a majority of the delegates. In other words, a candidate could win a lot of districts with an even number of districts with a large majority and end up evenly splitting the delegates with their opponent. The other candidate can win districts with an odd number of delegates by a narrow margin and win a majority of the delegates.

Aware of this, Christopher Beam recently noted on Slate’s Trailhead blog (here) the candidates are now targeting districts with an odd number of delegates. California is allocating 241 of its 441 delegates among the 53 congressional districts based upon Democratic voter turnout in the past. While some districts will have as few as 3 delegates, others will have as many as 7. This map (produced by Slate) shows in blue the California districts with an odd number of delegates.

If you think Democratic voters will be upset if the DNC rules deliver the nomination to someone who won a minority of caucus and primary votes, you should see how unhappy they would be if the presidency was won by a Republican who did not secure a plurality. Trust me, a lot of Democrats would be really upset. President Gore told me.