The Audacity of Math

Here's my favorite quote from the election so far. It comes from Geoff Garin, a strategist for the Clinton campaign. Last week, when discussing the nomination process, Garin told the Washington Post, "We don't think this is just going to be about some numerical metric."

This is odd, because I always thought elections were supposed to involve some sort of, um, numerical metric. The future of our country is, of course, more important than the invariable laws of mathematics, but don't we have to pay attention to the counting at some point? What's next? "We don't think this is going to be about a group of party members meeting in some sports arena." Or "Who does the electoral college think they are anyway?"

Now, before I get too critical of Hillary Clinton, I am sympathetic to her. In many ways, the only reason she is losing this race is because of a strange mathematical system developed by a bunch of Democrats in the 1980s, who had some time on their hands on the account of not having to govern. If the Democrats awarded delegates like the Republicans do -- usually on a winner-take-all basis -- Hillary Clinton would actually be winning this race. Bill Clinton was criticized for saying this -- probably because he was wagging his finger at the audience again -- but it's certainly a valid point.

If states awarded delegates on a winner-take-all basis, Clinton would be winning the delegate count 1,605 to 1,233, with only 361 delegates remaining. The Republican system has few superdelegates, so this means that with the Pennsylvania victory, she would have wrapped up the nomination. These past few weeks, we would all have been clamoring for Obama to get out of the race, not Clinton. Admittedly, those numbers don't include Michigan and Florida, where the Obama campaign would surely be demanding a do-over. All but for a few adjustments to the nomination formula, Clinton would be the one moving onto the National Championship in November.

But that's the Republican world, where people are more concerned with picking candidates in a timely fashion and winning elections than with being fair. Indeed, the Democrats have devised an innovative system for picking a candidate, or, as the case may be, not picking a candidate. Still, there is little to worry about. After all, if the superdelegates can't decide on a candidate, the little-known party warlocks will convene to pick a candidate. And even if the warlocks can't decide, a special tribunal consisting of Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry will come together and pick a candidate, so really the Democrats can't lose.

I was curious about the intricacies of the system, and so I went searching online for the rules from the Democratic National Committee. This was a mistake. Here's what I learned:

A base of 3,000 delegate votes is distributed among the 50 states and the District of Columbia according to a formula giving equal weight to the sum of the vote for the Democratic candidates in the three (3) most recent presidential elections and to population by electoral votes. The formula is expressed mathematically as follows.

A = ½ [(SDV 1996 + SDV 2000 + SDV 2004) / 
(TDV 1996 + TDV 2000 + TDV 2004) + SEV / 538])

A = Allocation Factor
SDV = State Democratic Vote
SEV = State Electoral Vote
TDV = Total Democratic Vote

Wow, if ever there was a moment in this election cycle when I would turn Republican, it was while reading that formula. Say what you will about John McCain, but he's never asked me to do math like that.

Despite all this, there is one way for the Democratic race to be over with now, and it's very simple. The networks just have to call it. Just think of what would happen if a television network were suddenly to project a winner one night.

"With 70% of delegates reporting, CNN is now ready to project that Senator Barack Obama has won the United States of America for the Democrats."

All they need are the fancy graphics, exciting music, and the voice of God, and I'm convinced this would be over. Sure, there's a small chance that Clinton could still win, but such doubt has never stopped them before. (See 2000, Florida.)

Obviously, that's not going to happen for one main reason: the campaign is good for ratings. But Clinton shouldn't get too comfortable. The moment the chattering classes decide they are ready to go on summer vacation, that will be it. In other words, once Clinton loses Anderson Cooper, she loses the country.

If the media ever decides that Clinton has lost and stops covering the race, then Obama will have won. If a phone is ringing at 3 a.m., and nobody is there to answer it, is the phone really ringing?


    A periodic humor column, disguised as a blog. New columns published on Tuesdays or not as the case may be.


  • I've written for Slate, The Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, McSweeney's, WBUR Radio, The Christian Science Monitor, The Globe and Mail, and many other publications. Thanks for dropping by. I hope you enjoy my Internet column.

  • ©1995-2009 Joe Lavin