Democratic Primary Rules and Proportionality

More proportional than the GOP, but perhaps not as proportional as one might think.

What does “proportional” mean in the context of elections? A perfectly proportional system would be one in which the number of whatever is being allocated (seats or, in the case of presidential primaries, delegates) is equal to the percentage of the votes the party (or candidate) received.

In simple terms, a perfectly proportional outcome would look like this:

%votes = %seats



For a counter example, in winner-take-all systems, the winner gets everything being allocated, regardless of the percentage of the vote received.

So, Trump won 31.5% of the popular vote in California in 2016 (a reminder that there are a lot of Republicans, ~4.5 million by this metric, in California) but he won 0% of the electors. This is a disproportional result.

To hammer on language that I am fond of using around here, the states are essentially multi-seat districts with plurality winners.* In other words: we elect the electors the same way we elect members of congress,** by plurality, except those are single seat districts.***

Of course, presidential primaries are different, because the candidates are competing for delegates, not office. Both parties use somewhat different rules to award delegates (and those rules sometimes vary from cycle to cycle to some degree).

It is frequently stated that the Democrats have rules that are more proportional that the Republicans in terms of awarding delegates to their candidates. This is true, but it would be a mistake to assume that this means that the rules are perfectly proportional–there are not, not even close. It is not the case that delegates are awarded in a way anywhere near to %votes =% of delegates.

Instead, it should be noted that some delegates are awarded on a district basis and some at-large. This matters for proportionality because the more you divvy up the delegates into units (i.e., districts) the less proportional the awarding of delegates can be, mathematically.

Second, the Democratic Party’s rules impose a 15% electoral threshold, which means that to win delegates, a candidate has to win at least 15% of the vote. This matters for the huge Democratic field because most of the current candidates aren’t breaking into double digits of support, let alone 15%.

With the obvious caveat that it is waaaaay too early to be taking the polls seriously, note that of the the exactly 14.7 quintillion candidates, only two (Biden and Sanders) have 15% or more of support in the latest Monmouth poll in New Hampshire. Buttigieg is in third with 9%. So, if the primaries were held today, they would likely be the only delegate winners (barring some odd district-level outcome).

So while, yes, the Democratic rules may allow for a more competitive process than the Republicans’ process (which is not pure winner-take-all, by the way), it is not so proportional that it is going to allow a huge number of candidates to be competitive.

The current number of candidates are simply not viable, as I keep saying. And the rules are not going to help a list of competitors in the low single digits remain competitors for very long.

(This is one of the reason I think a brokered convention to be highly unlikely).

*With some variation in Maine and Nebraska

**Save, again, in the few states that have variations like Georgia and Louisiana’s requirement for an absolute majority.

***Indeed, image electing Congress in multi-seat districts with plurality winners and perhaps those who still don’t understand why I dislike the Electoral College will better see why.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. The important point to be made about the Democratic nomination rules is the fact they give candidates the incentive to stay in the race longer than they would under the Republican rules, It’s because of this that we’ve seen two Democratic nomination fights in a row (2008 and 2016) literally have to get down to the final primaries before we know if the candidate in the lead will have a majority of the delegates even when its clear that its going to be mathematically impossible for the candidate(s) in second or third place to surpass the leader. One danger in this is that it gives supporters of the losing candidate(s) false hope and makes party unity harder leading up to the convention. There were Clinton supporters in 2008 who never forgave Obama, and Sanders supporters in 2016 who never forgave Clinton. That usually doesn’t happen in the GOP (the NeverTrump crowd is an anamoly in that regard).

  2. And FWIW as I said in my own post on the subject, the brokered convention — the utlimate fantasy of political junkies, reporters, and pundits — is most likely a thing of the past.

  3. Kathy says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    It’s a thing of the past, for now. There’s always the chance, however remote it may look now, that the rules will change to make a brokered convention more likely. History just won’t sit still, no matter how loudly its end may be proclaimed (yes, I know what Fukuyama meant by The End of History; I’m not sure he was right).

    Back on topic, sort of, or alternate history perhaps, if the GOP had used the same primary system as the Democrats, would Dennison still have gotten the nomination in 2016?

    I suppose one can mix the rules with the vote totals in the GOP 2016 season and figure ti out, but that wouldn’t be definitive. After all, under different rules the competition would have been different. But I think it’s far less likely the world would now be afflicted with agent orange.

  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    Potentially, the odds of this being a brokered convention are as high as they’ve been since the 60’s. My expectation is that throughout the primary’s Bernie will get +/- 30% of the vote. Given that his ceiling and floor are pretty close. Biden will slide back a bit probably +/- 35%. In each state at least one additional candidate will hit the 15% threshold.

    Delegates are committed to vote for the 1st ballot at the convention, it wouldn’t surprise me that it goes to the 2nd or 3rd ballot before a candidate is chosen.

  5. @Doug Mataconis: To be clear: the rules matter and they do create different dynamics in the two parties.

    I am mostly trying to lay down a basic definition of “proportional” and to note that the Democratic system, while definitely more proportion than the GOP system is not fully proportional.

    I find that most people in the press who throw these terms around do not define them well (or, in fact, to often even understand them fully.

  6. Kylopod says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    It’s because of this that we’ve seen two Democratic nomination fights in a row (2008 and 2016) literally have to get down to the final primaries before we know if the candidate in the lead will have a majority of the delegates even when its clear that its going to be mathematically impossible for the candidate(s) in second or third place to surpass the leader.

    Part of that had to do with the superdelegates. In 2008, Hillary and Obama were running so neck-and-neck that Obama literally needed the supers in order to give him an absolute majority in delegates. He did in fact have an absolute majority in pledged (non-super) delegates, but as long as supers were included in the total count, he couldn’t reach the 50% threshold with pledged delegates alone. That’s part of why Hillary stuck around for as long as she did: she was hoping to convince the supers to choose her (using the misleading claim that he she had won the popular vote), which in theory they had the power to do.

    In 2016, by contrast, Hillary was substantially ahead of Bernie the entire time in both popular vote and number of pledged delegates as well as superdelegates. Controversially, nearly half of the supers had already endorsed Hillary before a single primary or caucus had taken place. But Bernie still made a late bid for the supers to back him.

    These are among the reasons the DNC chose to neuter the power of the supers for this cycle.

  7. @Kylopod: Indeed, 2016 was a race to the end because Bernie stayed in to the end, not because it was truly competitive to the end.

    2008 was competitive to the end

  8. grumpy realist says:

    To whoever is keeping track of the Democratic candidates, it looks like Beto is sinking in the ranks.

  9. Moosebreath says:

    @grumpy realist:

    “it looks like Beto is sinking in the ranks.”

    Good, it’s not too late for him to run for the Senate. Hopefully, Hickenlooper and Bullock will get the same message and run in their states.

  10. Michael Cain says:

    It is not clear how well national polling will reflect the results in individual states. March 3, with both California and Texas voting (and California starting early voting four weeks before that), has the potential to be a disaster for candidates from the Northeast.