Friday, February 1, 2008

Political parties and delegate votes explained on Fresh Air

Earlier this year, I got to thinking about California's presidential primary. For the first time in my life, the voters of my state would have a say in deciding who the major parties' nominees would be for president.

Or would we? Sure, our election would be earlier than usual, but what exactly are we voting for? We are voting for a particular nominee, but it's actually voting for their pledged delegates to go to the party convention and vote for that person at the convention. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have complicated rules for deciding how many delegates are awarded. For the Democrats, it's a proportional system, so that any candidate who receives at least 15 percent of the vote statewide will be guaranteed a proportional number of delegate votes. But then the Democrats also have these "superdelegates", who are party leaders and can however they like at the convention regardless of how California voters voted. For the Republicans, they don't have a big group of superdelegates, but they do have a unique, "winner-take-all" by congressional district way of awarding delegate votes to candidates. And for both parties, there is nothing binding any of the delegates to actually vote for the person for whom they have pledged (kind of like how the Electoral College works).

Nonetheless, California is a big prize with lots of delegates and elections are mostly a confidence game so whoever does best in California will certainly get a big boost, both in terms of numbers of delegates awarded and in momentum. Still, I got to wondering how we got to this place, where primary elections are run by state and local election officials, but the rules are dictated by the political parties?

Yesterday, Fresh Air host Terry Gross had a guest on who answered all of my questions. Her guest was political scientist David Rodhe, and his interview with Terry Gross helped explain how the primary process really works and how it got to be the way it is. It's online here.

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