A running theme in this year’s primaries has been the notion that the contests themselves — and not just the political “system” writ large — is “rigged.” Donald Trump made the claim in complaining he didn’t get enough delegates from the states he’d won, and specifically about the way Colorado allocated its delegates (which was in line with the state GOP’s rules, but whatevs). Bernie Sanders’ supporters have made the claim regarding the party’s superdelegates and closed contests (open only to registered Democrats). The implication is that Trump would have clinched the GOP nomination sooner — he still hasn’t crossed the threshold, although all of his rivals have left the race — and that Sanders might be ahead of Hillary Clinton, or at least close enough to her to contest the national nominating convention in Philadelphia.
As it turns out, both men might be right that their respective parties’ contests are built to produce certain results. They’re just wrong about what those intended results are.
This morning, after Sanders once again beat Clinton in one state (Oregon) and finished virtually tied in another (Kentucky), I took the time to go through each state that’s voted so far and see who would be leading the Democratic race if the party used the GOP’s rules* instead of its own. I didn’t change rules such as how many delegates are allocated to each congressional district, keeping the same number in place for the Democratic contests and merely allocating them as the GOP would have. I did, however, allocate the unbound superdelegates according to the GOP’s rules for statewide delegates.
And now that I’ve completely buried the lede, here’s the result: Under the GOP’s primary rules, Hillary would have clinched the Democratic nomination last night, rather than her real-life dilemma of being unable to sew it up before the final day of voting on June 7.
That’s right: Under GOP rules, Hillary’s split decision in Kentucky would have been enough to push her past the threshold of 2,382 delegates needed to win the nomination. The delegates she would have won in Oregon would have been gravy. Even if my calculations were off by a few delegates here or there — and the complexity of delegate-allocation rules means that may well have happened — her theoretical cushion of 36 extra delegates was large enough that the result probably wouldn’t have been different.
So Sanders is correct that the Democratic rules are “rigged” to produce a certain result, all right. But relative to the GOP’s rules, it appears the result they’re designed to produce is to keep an underdog like him in the contest longer than he deserves.
You might wonder how this is true, given the larger role unbound delegates play in the Democratic contest. Well, it turns out that — this year, at least — the effect of the superdelegates is more than offset by the party’s insistence on awarding bound delegates on a proportional basis. That means Sanders continued to rack up decent numbers of delegates in delegate-rich states like Florida, Ohio and New York — states that, under the GOP’s winner-take-all (or -most) rules, would have gone overwhelmingly into Clinton’s column.
The reverse exercise, re-running the GOP primary under Democratic rules, is much harder to do because I’d have to decide how many unbound delegates to add in each state, as well as calculate congressional-district results for states that didn’t report them on the Republican side because they weren’t necessary. So I can’t say with certainty that Trump would have had a harder time clinching the GOP nomination under the other party’s rules. But I do strongly suspect that’s the case, and not just because he racked large numbers of delegates in states like Florida and New York that would have been awarded more proportionally. It’s also unlikely he would have won the loyalty of superdelegates who represent the party establishment, particularly if more Republican candidates remained viable for a longer time.
Rather than holding front-runner Trump and underdog Sanders back, their respective parties’ rules more likely put each man in a stronger position than he necessarily deserved.
So, Trump and Sanders just might have sold their supporters a bill of goods about their parties’ primary rules being unfavorable to them. Hmmm. Maybe that also applies to some of their other claims that “the system” is rigged more broadly.
* The exception is West Virginia, where the GOP’s direct election of convention delegates simply can’t be replicated on the Democratic side. There, I left the actual Democratic results in place for lack of a better option.