Counting the Vote

May 16, 2008 11:53am

In an interview with Charlie Gibson this week, Hillary Clinton contended that she's ahead in the popular vote – a critical claim in her last-ditch attempt to win over super delegates. The problem: It's arguably not so.

"Arguably" because there are myriad complications in trying to count votes in this nominating contest – and not just because of the disputed Michigan and Florida primaries. The other problem is that in a handful of Democratic caucuses votes simply weren't toted up. The "vote" totals being reported there aren’t votes at all, but initial delegate counts. Switch to an estimate of actual, human-being voters, and the story changes.

Here’s the deal: ABC and other news organizations are basing their totals on counts supplied by The Associated Press. Those numbers have Obama ahead (by 579,502 votes) if you leave out Michigan, where he wasn't on the ballot, and Florida, where neither candidate campaigned, in both cases to respect the national party in a dispute over those states' primary dates. Clinton's claim is that if you add in the votes from those two states, she's ahead – and she is, by a grand total of 43,579 votes out of more than 33 million cast.

"In fact," Clinton told Gibson, "I'm slightly ahead in the national vote right now."

Hold it.

Above and beyond the Michigan/Florida issue are the challenges in counting votes in the Iowa, Nevada, Maine, Washington and Texas caucuses. There the AP counted initial delegates, not votes, simply because votes weren't tabulated. ("Initial" delegates because final delegate selection is a more drawn-out process. Don’t ask.) It makes sense if what you’re really after is a delegate count. But if the vote count is what you care about – as Clinton clearly does – well, it doesn't.

Take Iowa. The AP count there gives Obama 940 votes, Clinton 737. That seems bizarre in a state where the state Democratic Party reports that 236,000 caucus-goers turned out. Caucuses are party-run affairs; they make their own rules, and vote-counting wasn't on the agenda. AP had no choice. Its "vote" count tallies initial delegates, because that's all it had to tally.

But there is a way to estimate actual voters – an estimate to be sure, but an entirely plausible one. In Iowa we can multiply total caucus-goers by the candidate preferences measured in the entrance poll – 34 percent for Obama, 27 percent for Clinton. That produces a vote estimate of 80,240 votes for Obama, 63,720 for Clinton – an Obama margin of 16,520 votes, rather than the 196-"vote" margin in the delegate-based count.

Doing the same in Nevada helps Clinton, giving her an 8,229-vote margin, rather than her 582-delegate margin in the AP delegate count.

In Maine we don't have an entrance poll, but we do have delegate percentages – 60 percent of initial delegates went to Obama, 40 percent to Clinton. Applying those shares to the state party's count of 44,866 caucus-goers produces an 8,773-vote Obama margin, compared to his 683-delegate margin.

Washington's a tougher nut. The AP count based on initial delegates is 21,629 for Obama, 9,992 for Clinton – a 68-31 percent Obama margin. But we can’t use that margin to produce a vote estimate, because unlike in Iowa, Nevada and Maine, the state party in Washington didn't produce an overall turnout figure for its caucuses.

However there was another event – a "beauty contest" primary in Washington, held in addition to its caucuses. The primary did not elect delegates, so it's not included in most tallies. But it does represent people who got up on their hind legs and voted – 354,112 for Obama, 315,744 for Clinton – an Obama margin of 38,368 votes. This seems more than fair to Clinton, since Obama won delegates by a much wider margin – but with no total caucus-goer count, it's the only vote-based data we've got.

Texas is the big kahuna, with its own complications. There was both a primary and a caucus there, and both awarded delegates. The initial delegate count for the Texas caucuses has 23,918 for Obama and 18,620 for Clinton. This is complicated by the fact that only 41 percent of the caucus precincts were included in the AP count, but again it's what we've got. That's 56-44 percent for Obama.

How many people attended Texas caucuses? The state party tells us it was “a little under a million.” That's an awfully round number, and some anecdotal reporting suggests the Texas caucuses weren't, shall we say, supremely well-organized. Let’s call it 900,000. That produces a margin for Obama of 108,000 votes.

We can debate whether it's fair to include both the Texas primary and caucus results, since that double-counts people who participated in both. But people who voted in both Texas events were playing by the rules, and including them seems at least as fair as including Michigan, where Obama voluntarily stayed off the ballot, thus netting exactly zero votes to Clinton's 328,309. (Pushing it a bit, one could argue to give Obama all or some of the "undeclared" vote in Michigan, 40 percent or 238,168 voters, including disproportionate numbers of supporters that elsewhere have been strong for him – including young voters, African-Americans, independents and better-educated whites.)

We're leaving aside one other state, Nebraska – it had a caucus for which we do have a vote count. It also had a beauty-contest primary. But since the primary didn’t award delegates, and the caucus votes were counted, it doesn’t quite fit the mold. If we did count its beauty contest, though, it'd produce another 2,665 votes for Obama – not enough to change our basic conclusion.

And that conclusion? Using these estimates of actual voters in the Iowa, Nevada, Maine, Washington and Texas caucuses, rather than the initial delegate counts, we get a net total Democratic vote to date of 17,607,152 for Obama and 17,504,742 for Clinton, an Obama lead of 102,410 votes – even with Michigan and Florida included.

The national vote count, of course, has nothing to do with winning the Democratic nomination under party rules – that's done by delegate counts. Clinton nonetheless has found her claim of an advantage in total vote a useful talking point. The problem: It doesn't quite add up.

(With thanks to Peyton Craighill, Pat Moynihan, Scott Clement and Dick Sheffield for help with the math.)

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