As results come in from the various presidential primaries, media tend to focus on the popular vote. But primaries are actually a race for delegates. Tim Noah, senior writer for Slate, explains why media have traditionally shied away from number-crunching and why this year may see a new focus on the complicated delegate system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the brink of super-duper Tuesday, the media frantically speculate. Traditionally at this point in the election cycle most parse the primaries for momentum. This is the group Slate senior writer Tim Noah calls “the momentucracy.” But in the absence of the big mo, especially on the Democratic side, the media’s focus has shifted to the wonky work of delegate counting. After all, it’s the count and not the mo that really matters. The candidate who first hits the magic number of delegates, 2,025 for Democrats and 1,191 for Republicans, wins.
Tim Noah calls the delegate counters the “arithmecrats,” and you can see them calculating away throughout the media. He says that back in the old pre-primary days, when party leaders picked delegates in smoke-filled rooms, there was no popular vote for the momentucrats to ponder. TIM NOAH: First you have to remember that the primaries were not the chief determinants in selecting party nominees, really not until 1972. That was the first year when states held primaries that selected the majority of all convention delegates.
As the primaries became more important, they were treated more like the general election in that the various media outlets covering them were tempted to make projections. And eventually the projections actually started designating the nominees.
For example, if you go back to 2004, you will find that George W. Bush called John Kerry to congratulate him on securing the nomination before he had the necessary number of delegates.
Basically, what happens is that the media reaches a point where the momentum is sufficiently well established that they feel they can comfortably guess. But their predictions blur, to some extent, the distinction between predicting an outcome and determining it because, of course, once the press, and also political professionals, create a consensus about who’s going to have the necessary delegate count, that influences subsequent primaries. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The states themselves have embraced the concept of momentum, which is why so many have tried to put their primaries first and in so doing basically invalidate their own delegates. TIM NOAH: Florida is a great example of that. The Republican Party in Florida is congratulating itself for having moved up the primary even though they endured the penalty from the Republican National Committee of losing half of their delegates. Yet the Florida GOP is delighted. Why? Because Florida got to vote when the question of who the nominee was going to be was still up in the air. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, as you say, this year we've run into a bit of a problem. The momentucrats, as you call them, are left speechless and they can't really point to any snowballing momentum. So some of them, at least, have fallen back on the old-fashioned delegate count that they deemed so unimportant years ago. TIM NOAH: Right. The New York Times, for example, Adam Nagourney wrote a piece the other day saying we're just going to have to count the accumulation of delegates. And it isn't even a question of counting them state by state. It’s a question of counting them Congressional district by Congressional district.
The Wall Street Journal is still embracing the momentum model, and they had a piece on Barack Obama earlier this week saying he’s going to have real trouble on Super Tuesday because he’s not doing very well in the polls in most of the bigger states on Super Tuesday. And that’s true also.
So it may be that a careful delegate count is not necessary after Super Tuesday if a clear trend emerges. Basically, of these two ways of looking at the election, both seem to have plausibility right now. We don't know which way will end up being the superior way. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And on the 24-hour cable news channels it seems like they're throwing everything against the wall like spaghetti, trying to see what might stick. TIM NOAH: [LAUGHS] You know, the political junkies have kind of warring impulses here, because on the one hand they like the idea of being able to name the winner before the winner really emerges. On the other hand, none of the political reporters working today have ever had the thrilling experience of witnessing a brokered convention. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. TIM NOAH: And it is the ultimate fantasy of all political reporters to go to a political convention where there is actually news. And that may happen this time. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, I think that one reason perhaps that the media shy away from all of this delegate counting is that it’s so darn hard. I mean, each news organization has a different count for the current primaries. CNN has Obama leading Clinton 63 to 48. The New York Times has him leading 34 to 21. I mean, that’s not even close. And then there are the - TIM NOAH: [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: - super-delegates. Is part of the problem here that there’s no accurate way to count the delegates? TIM NOAH: There’s no agreed-upon way to count the delegates. The New York Times, for example, I think rather fastidiously, is not counting the delegates awarded at the Iowa and Nevada caucuses because those numbers are not official until subsequent in-state caucuses are held. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then we have the super-delegates to deal with. Who are they? TIM NOAH: The super-delegates are party regulars who are unpledged. They can flit from one candidate to another like honeybees.
Hillary Clinton, for example, is winning among the super-delegates now, but if Obama consistently beats Hillary from now on in the primaries then all of these party regulars will likely want to go with the popular choice and they will migrate over to Obama. And the same is true in the Republican side. They don't call them super-delegates but they are essentially the same thing. They're members of the Republican National Committee. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Seeing what we've seen this year, could we see this again in four years? And will that change the way the political press reports? TIM NOAH: I think it’s very hard to say because I don't know whether this is a flukey year or whether this is the public sort of permanently settling into a pattern of not rallying around an individual candidate early on. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tim, thanks so much. TIM NOAH: Thank you, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tim Noah is senior writer for Slate.