The Pledged Delegate Myth

A lot of people have replied to Friday’s “Fuzzy Math” item about the Obama campaign’s claim that if there’s a tie on March 4, Clinton would have to win 75 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to catch up with Obama’s 162-delegate lead. The general feeling was that Plouffe meant to say she would have to win 75 percent of the popular vote rather than 75 percent of pledged delegates.

Two things. First, Plouffe was pretty explicit in the original conference call that he was talking about pledged delegates, which an Obama spokesman later confirmed. Second, and more important, I wanted to clear up a misconception about popular votes vs. delegate percentages.

It’s been conventional wisdom here and elsewhere that the bizarre Democratic delegate-selection system means that in the primaries, large leads in the popular vote often produce small leads in terms of delegates. But if you take a look at the Democratic primary results so far, the percentage of the popular vote a candidate wins is usually within a couple points of the percentage of pledged delegates they win. (Note that this doesn’t include caucuses, where you can only estimate turnout.)

Take CNN’s numbers . (These counts, on the individual state pages, include pledged delegates only.) In Georgia, Clinton won 31 percent of the popular vote; meanwhile, she won 30 percent of the state’s pledged delegates. In California, she won 52 percent of the popular vote and 56 percent of the delegates. In Massachusetts, she won 56 percent of the popular vote and 59 percent of delegates. The numbers in just about every other state follow the same pattern.

In some states, the percentage of delegates won was even larger than the percentage of the popular vote won. In Arkansas, for example, Clinton won 70 percent of the popular vote and 77 percent of the delegates.

I was a little surprised to discover this, given all we’ve seen and heard about how the Democrats’ proportional-allocation system makes it impossible to open up a wide delegate lead. Also, keep in mind that caucuses work differently, so Texas, with its oddball primary/caucus hybrid , is likely to produce different numbers in the popular vote and delegate count. But the general trend debunks claims that Plouffe was talking about popular vote rather than delegate percentages. (Plus, even if he had been, there’s no formula for converting popular vote to pledged delegates anyway.) The fact is, if Clinton won roughly 75 percent of a state’s (or a group of states’) popular vote, she would win roughly that percentage of their delegates, too.