How Does This Election Even Work? A Breakdown

After a seeming eternity of WWF-style debates and speculative articles, primary season has officially begun. Iowa’s Caucus last Monday will be followed by New Hampshire’s primary on February 9th.  Because most of you are sane, and therefore probably don’t spend all your free time refreshing fivethirtyeight.com, here is a breakdown of what happened in Iowa, and what that means (to the best of my knowledge and guesswork) for New Hampshire and the rest of the primary season.

 

First, ‘How The Hell Do Delegates Work?’ or ‘America’s Electoral System is Really Weird’:

 

Delegates are people who represent their states at the conventions that formally nominate a presidential candidate – the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention. There are more rules to selecting delegates than I am capable of writing about: each party has their own set of rules, but those rules also vary state-by-state. Sometimes, there’s even variety within a state and a party, meaning that there are over 100 approaches to choosing these people. Nationally, Republicans have a little over 2,000 delegates, and Democrats have a little over 4,000. State primaries basically tell these delegates who to support at the national conventions, and then the delegates vote for the candidate they now support. So when I say that a candidate “got” X number of delegates, I mean that X number of delegates have pledged to vote for that candidate at their respective party’s convention. Then there are these things called “superdelegates,” who can basically do what they want. So, that’s that.

 

Further reading: here

 

The GOP – What Happened:

 

Iowa Republicans had 30 delegates up for grabs. Father of the year Ted Cruz won, with 27.6% of the popular vote and 8 delegates. A very-bitter Donald Trump came in second, with 24.3% of the popular vote and 7 delegates. Marco Rubio came in third with 23.1% of the popular vote; he also got 7 delegates.  Dr. Carson came in fourth, with 9.3% of the popular vote and 3 delegates; the rest of the candidates still in the running received 1 delegate each, and Chris Christie and Rick Santorum received 0.

 

The GOP – What This (Maybe) Means:

 

Cruz won, but as you see above, this only places him one delegate ahead of Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. For a long time, it’s felt like Cruz has been seen as a “reasonable alternative” to Trump, even though his policies are to the right of Trump’s; this New Yorker cartoon sums up my feelings well.  Coming in second was probably a much-needed blow for Trump’s ego, but Cruz’ win has many liberals worried about the possibility of putting a religious demagogue in office. But the most interesting analyses of the GOP race in Iowa center around the third runner-up, Marco Rubio. Election guru and intellectual crush Nate Silver explains why Iowa could signal an eventual nomination for Rubio:

[Rubio’s] chances of winning the Republican nomination nearly doubled…from 30% to 55%.

 

Here’s why: Presidential nominations are a lot like the stock market. In the long run, they’re reasonably well governed by the fundamentals. In the short run, they can be crazy. Iowa represented the equivalent of a stock market correction, a sign that sanity might prevail after all.

 

…In the nomination process, the most important fundamentals are what we call electability (can the candidate win in November?) and ideological fit (does the candidate hold positions in line with the consensus of her party?). A party would prefer to nominate a candidate who scores well in both categories.

 

Rubio fits the bill, perhaps uniquely among the remaining Republican candidates. His image with general election voters is not great, but it’s better than the other leading Republicans. He’s also quite conservative. That’s convenient, because Republican voters are quite conservative also. In fact, Rubio is almost exactly as conservative as the average GOP primary voter.

 

In other words, Rubio makes more sense as a strong candidate for the GOP, and early polls don’t always mean a lot. By proving his ability to do better than predicted in Iowa, Rubio has helped set a path for himself towards the nomination.

 

 

The Dems – What Happened:

 

Iowa Democrats had more delegates – 44 up for grabs (52 total; 8 of them are “superdelegates”) – and many fewer candidates. Martin O’Malley hung in there way longer than anyone expected, but with 0.5% of the popular vote and no delegates, he finally dropped out. So really, Iowa came down to an incredibly close race between Hillary Clinton, who got 49.8% of the popular vote and 23 delegates, and Bernie Sanders, who got 48.5% of the popular vote, and 21 delegates.

 

It was an incredibly tight race, and one that has raised a lot of questions, central among them what the hell was going on with that whole coin toss thing. I don’t think there is any way to explain away the absurdity that anything in an election be decided by a coin toss (apparently in Mississippi, they draw straws. Like, actual straws). But, while there is much to be said for a better method of tiebreaking (and for a better method of nominating candidates overall, and for just scrapping the whole electoral college altogether), some seem to think that Hillary only won Iowa due to improbably winning 6 out of 6 coin tosses. NPR offers a good breakdown of why this is not accurate, and of what actually happened.

 

 The Dems – What This (Maybe) Means:

 

There are many more clear analyses being drawn from the Republican’s results than from the Democrat’s. Nothing has been massively shaken up by Iowa. Clinton is still ahead, and Sanders is still very close behind, as he has been for the past couple of months. Sanders will almost definitely win New Hampshire – he’s from the next state over, and, from my own door-to-door canvassing experience in 2012, a lot of New Hampshire sort of looks and shouts about things just like Sanders – but Iowa, where they basically tied, and New Hampshire are demographically similar (they’re very white). Clinton still polls better among nonwhite voters; Janell Ross at The Washington Post offers a compelling explanation as to why.

 

Her paragraph on condescending language is worth pulling out, by the way:

 

Those who “Feel the Bern” invariably insist that those who don’t are either dumb, don’t understand their own political needs or what and who will truly help them. To some degree, that’s normal when people get really passionate about a candidate or a campaign. But given the professed progressive leanings of those in the Sanders camp and what’s widely known about the group’s near-racial homogeneity, it’s a response that seems like a rather large and telling contradiction. It is a response that seems devoid of any recognition that patronizing language, paternalistic “guidance” and recriminations are, at the very least, the active ingredients in modern and sometimes subtle forms of bigotry. Besides that, condescension is not often convincing.

 

In other words, Iowa was good for Sanders, but neither great for Sanders nor surprising. Clinton still looks like she will hold the lead, unless Sanders is able to significantly change his perception among voters of color.

 

What Does This (Maybe) Mean Overall?

 

Let’s say Rubio wins the nomination. In a matchup against Clinton, RealClearPolitics gives Rubio a significant edge; in a matchup against Sanders, Rubio still has the edge, but a less significant one. But don’t give up all hope, or assume that Sanders would necessarily be stronger against Rubio than Clinton. Smear campaigns matter a lot, and because they have largely been at the forefront of their respective parties, Clinton and Trump have received the majority of smear tactics from the opposing party. If you look at Trump’s matchups, he does quite poorly against both Clinton and Sanders. The GOP has been assuming Clinton’s nomination – and thus working against her – for years. They’ve barely started on Sanders, but I have no doubt that if he wins the nomination, the dirt will begin to fly. Similarly, if Rubio does become the clear frontrunner, Democrats will start to focus on him, and we might see his numbers go down, too.

 

Is that all clear? No? Good. Happy election season!

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