Who Understands Our Electoral System?

Political press needs to bone up

It’s all about the delegates. The political mavens watching the Super Tuesday returns last night knew that the number allocated to each candidate would be the most significant indicator of the race’s direction, and the only possible answer to that nagging but nonetheless necessary question: who won?

Reality presented a bit of a problem, though. As we knew going in, the delegates on the Democrat side are doled out using a terribly confusing system. It awards them based on a combination of the proportion of the vote each candidate captures in the state overall, and in individual congressional districts (this is the best breakdown I’ve seen of this Byzantine process). While in many of the GOP primaries the winner of the popular vote also gets all the delegates, for the Democrats things are not so clear-cut. The popular vote tells us something, but not everything, about the delegate count. The concept of a “win,” for instance, doesn’t really make sense, as all the candidates—especially in an extremely close race like Clinton-Obama—end up “winning” some delegates.

And yet, and yet…focusing on the delegate count would have given all those pundits and newscasters very little to prattle on about during the primetime hours on the east coast last night. So, as we suspected, based on the popular vote alone, large boxes were checked on the plasma screens, states were filled in on the map in shades of turquoise and fuchsia as having been “won” by one candidate or another. There was talk of “nail-bitingly” close finishes, with Obama and Clinton separated by only a few hundred votes (“just like in 2000!”), and largely empty claims about victory.

Then we wake up this morning to find sober headlines that conform much more to the truth (that is, to the delegate count), like this one in The New York Times: “Support Divided, Top Democrats Trade Victories.”

First, it must be said, you can’t completely blame the broadcast operations for focusing on the popular vote. For one thing, the delegate breakdown can’t be had until there is a complete picture of how each state voted, district by district. So, making delegate tallies the focal point of coverage would have provided little to broadcast beyond speculation until the total vote counts were in from the earliest voting state, sometime around ten or eleven o’clock, EST. The popular vote—which of course is easier to project based on a small percentage of returns—is also more fun. It provides a clear narrative. What joy would Chris Matthews or Tim Russert get from saying that Obama got thirty-two delegates versus Clinton’s thirty-one, and then having to explain, in detail that neither may completely understand, what that means?

Also, how long has it been since we had a race in which every delegate mattered this much? By my count, 1980, when Teddy Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter. It occurred to me that the intellectual muscle needed to parse such a tight—and absurdly complicated and illogical—electoral outcome might have atrophied in the intervening decades. A whole generation of journalists grew up not really needing to look that closely. Consider that Tom Brokaw, who took over NBC Nightly News in 1982, was among the most insistent last night on thinking in terms of state wins and momentum. When coupled with the need for speed that dominates television coverage, it seems obvious that the popular vote, an easily digestible and quickly predicted number, would dominate.

If the newspapers this morning can have the necessary perspective about delegate counts, is it reasonable to expect it in the immediate coverage? There were instances in which newscasters did qualify the popular vote results. I noted a few moments when a tired-looking Wolf Blitzer tamped down the enthusiasm, saying, “I keep going back to the delegate count because it’s that important…” As the evening got late there was more of this, and the checkmarks and maps gave way to the delegate numbers game. But this was only after ten or eleven. The average viewer, who we assume understands less about our electoral system than political journalists (we can assume that, can’t we?) needed to be reminded more regularly about the delegate factor. John King stood by his Tele-strator, for instance, obsessing about a tight popular vote in Missouri, were Obama and Clinton were separated by less than a thousand votes and dependent on the final tally in St. Louis and Kansas City. What he failed to remind us was that the “winner” in this contest might not even gain one delegate. In moments like that it was simply, in the hackneyed parlance of Super Tuesday coverage, “a beauty contest” that conferred “bragging rights” on the winner.

Besides frequent pauses to qualify the significance of the popular vote, why not also use all those graphics that broadcasters use to wow us to help explain how the delegates might be allocated? No one even tried to do this. Yes, it’s complicated, especially with all those states in play. And yes, before the final tally, it would be very speculative. But wouldn’t it be possible to present some kind of visual representation of how the delegates could be potentially divvied up in a given state? It might be less satisfying than declaring a winner, but it would at least provide a more accurate picture of the actual meaning of these elections. This could have been especially helpful as the night went on and it was possible to know some definite delegate counts on the east coast. Instead of turning to the popular vote in California, why not take a moment to show us what happened really happened in New Jersey or Deleware?

These are modest proposals, I know, but there isn’t much time. The convention is in six months and, if last night is any indication, we need our political press to get that electoral muscle, lying dormant since 1980, whipped quickly into shape.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.