Predicting the 2020 Democratic Primary is Stupid | Pt 1. The Basics
This is not a political article. This is an article about civics. They sometimes sound like the same thing, but they aren’t. The focus here is on two central elements of civics …
- How Democratic and Republican Primaries Work
- Making A Bad Prediction About the Future Nominee
How Democratic and Republican Primaries Work
The person who gets the most votes in Republican or Democratic Presidential Primaries does not necessarily become the nominee. Presidential primaries for both parties are built on the same idea; the person with the most delegates at the nominating convention becomes the nominee. In theory, someone could end up with a plurality (i.e. the most votes but not a majority) of votes in the country, but end up with fewer delegates based on where those votes originated. It’s all confusing, and having watched these since I was 5, all I’ve seen is our political media do a worse and worse job of explaining what’s going on to everyone else.
What does that mean? In each contest, whether it’s a primary or a caucus, a certain number of delegates to the national party convention are distributed based on total votes received (in the case of primaries) or total caucus headcount for a candidate after 1-n rounds of counting. In either case, the person who gets the most votes may not secure enough delegates to win the nomination, based on the number of candidates in the contest.
To put this another way, the national nominating primaries combine all the worst elements of a caucus, with the worst elements of a primary, combined with the worst elements of the electoral college. Like the electoral college, people attending the primary are pledged to vote for their candidate and no other. They theoretically can break that rule, but this breaks the rules of the convention; in practice, this rarely happens, and if you do it, this is almost a guarantee that you won’t be back for a future convention. Like a caucus, once people meet, conversations, deals, and discussions can change who the pledged delegates will stand with. And like a primary, theoretically the person with the most delegates in the end wins. But, if people have secondary, third, or fourth choices, none of that will be reflected in the end.
This year’s Democratic Primary will require a single candidate to secure 1,990 of 3,979 pledged delegates by the first presidential nomination ballot before the Democratic National Convention this year.
If no one secures that many before the convention, super delegate totals will factor in, and require a single candidate to take 2,376 of all 4,750 delegate votes. The convention will essentially work like the Iowa Caucus just did, except with votes and revotes instead of head counts.
The difference between that potential National Convention voting and a primary is that the delegates are all pledged to a candidate and can talk to each other. Meaning that candidates, in a contested nomination, will try to horse trade their supporters in exchange for political favors or support. Assuming, of course, that the pledged delegates go along with what their candidate wants them to do.
This means that relationships between candidates in a large enough field matter quite a bit, along with relationships between delegates. That, and strategy. It can work like a game of Survivor.
I feel like political media always, every four years, fails to explain these nuances. If they do, the language used is inaccessible and jargony. And to be blunt, I’m not sure most of the pundits on cable news understands what I just wrote. Based on how they focus so much on vote totals, and not delegate counts, I think it’s clear they either don’t understand or think it doesn’t matter.
Point totals, treating it like Basketball, most political pundits can follow that. But these other nuances, I don’t think so. It creates this weird, semi-disastrous echo chamber, where audiences think that TV experts and their ‘traditional’ measures are what to focus on, and ‘experts’ report it all like Basketball, when it’s more like Basketball with 5 or more teams, who may stop in the middle of a game, trade, form new teams, then play again.
What does that mean? Our political media is good at predicting winners when the game looks like basketball, with essentially two teams, but lousy at it when it looks like Survivor. I mean, when was the last time you heard any entertainment pundit predict the winner of a game of Survivor after the first episode?
It’s really difficult to make predictions this early, this far in advance, with so many strange things happening this year. Like, the sheer number of candidates is enough to unbalance things.
But that’s not fun! Cable pundits and online news outlets do this kind of thing all the time! Let’s do what they do!
Making A Bad Prediction About the Future Nominee
Let’s assume that, yes, Iowa and New Hampshire can predict the outcome of the Democratic Primary, and do so perfectly. It follows, then, that the distribution of delegates in the present would tell us what the distribution of delegates in the future will look like, assuming that, yes, the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary can predict the future.
If that’s true, then none of the candidates will have enough delegates to secure the nomination before the convention this summer. Assuming that the current distribution perfectly predicts the future, then it looks like this …
Buttigieg — 35.38% | 1408
Sanders — 32.31% | 1286
Warren — 12.31% | 490
Klobachar — 10.77% | 429
Biden — 9.23% | 367
That means none of the candidates would have enough delegates by the convention. Assuming that the prediction is perfect.
But that’s stupid! You can’t predict the future this far in advance!
Let me be 100% clear; I don’t believe that the Iowa or New Hampshire primaries are going to be that predictive of the eventual 2020 Democratic Nominee. I think multiple news outlets and pundits will make those claims, based on their historically bad metrics for predicting the outcomes.
I do think, however, that not enough of those news pundits take their own work seriously enough in the right way. So, I’m going to keep finding 10 minute chunks at work to update this document at various intervals.
Let’s see how badly this predicts the future!
Very Bad 2020 Democratic Primary Projector