If Democrats Used Winner-Take-All Rules, We'd Be Looking At A Drastically Different Race

A map pinned to the wall at Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz's headquarters shows where volunteers have came from to help in West Des Moines, Iowa, January 31, 2016, ahead of the Iowa Caucus. US presidential candidates made a frenzied, final push to lock in Iowa voters on the eve of the first nominating contest of the 2016 election season. / AFP / Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Source: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Barring any unprecedented developments from left field, Hillary Clinton will become the Democratic nominee. She leads Bernie Sanders by almost 300 pledged delegates, and for him to come back from a deficit this big would be an historic first. But how much of this is because of Democrats’ delegate allocation rules, which are proportional across the board? What would the race look like if Democrats used winner-take-all rules, like some Republican states do?

Answering this question is a herculean task. Every state has different delegate rules, and many of them depend on the results in individual congressional district. Some states, like Florida and Ohio, are winner-take-all. Some are winner-take-most, others are proportional, and a few states don’t even bind their delegates at all.

Thankfully, Daniel Nichanian at FiveThirtyEight has done this yeoman’s work, re-allocating the delegates that have been awarded in the Democratic primary in accordance with the Republican Party’s delegate rules. Nichanian found that, if Democrats adopted the Republican system of delegate allocation, Clinton’s lead over Sanders would triple.

My colleague Amée LaTour did a similar thought experiment from the other direction, and concluded that if Republicans used the Democratic Party’s rules, Donald Trump would be nowhere close to winning a majority of delegates, and the GOP would unquestionably be on track to have a contested convention.

All of this gives us quite a bit of insight into the philosophies that undergird each party’s nomination process. The Democrats have very much adopted a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race mentality towards its presidential nominations. If a primary is even slightly competitive, Democratic rules make it relatively hard for a candidate to clinch the nomination too early on in the process. Unless they win landslide after landslide, a Democratic front-runner is going to have no choice but to slog it out.

The Republican Party’s rules, by contrast, allow a very strong front-runner to lock up the nomination relatively early on in the process. To be clear, this is not what’s happened with Donald Trump: He’s won most of his states by pluralities, not majorities, and this has severely limited his ability to sew up the nomination. However, he is on track to win the nomination outright and avoid a contested convention, and this has only been made possibly the GOP’s delegate rules.

This suggests that the two parties have very different mentalities regarding their nominations. Democrats want to ensure that a candidate truly has broad support within the party before giving them the nomination. Republicans, on the other hand, simply want to get their cake baked, regardless of what's in it, and move on to the general election.

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