Caucus Math Is Hard!

A campaign blog.
Jan. 17 2008 6:53 PM

Caucus Math Is Hard!

Earlier today, a Nevada district judge rejected the lawsuit trying to shut down the "at-large" caucuses that will take place in Vegas hotels this Saturday.

(Quick background: The suit was filed by the Nevada State Education Association, whose leadership includes some prominent Hillary supporters. The Obama campaign questioned the timing of the suit, given that most people expected to participate in the at-large caucuses are culinary workers whose union endorsed Obama last week. More here .)

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Hillary’s camp responded to today’s decision: " Make no mistake—the current system that inhibits some shift workers from being able to participate, while allowing others to do so, would seem to benefit other campaigns. More importantly it is unfair."

But is it? Lots of observers have tried to parse through what, exactly, these at-large caucuses mean for the election. Some say that at-large caucus-goers there will have 10 times the influence of anyone else. Others, Bill Clinton included, say it’s five times the influence. Or do they have more influence at all?

To answer these questions, I had Bill Buck from the Nevada Democratic Party walk me through the math.  

According to Buck, the notion that at-large caucus-goers will have more power than statewide caucus-goers is wrong, except in the example advanced in the lawsuit, which assumes extremely high turnout in the regular precincts and almost no one showing up in the at-large precincts.

The perceived disparity arises because of how delegates are allocated. Statewide, precincts are given one delegate for every 50 registered Democrats. So, no matter how many people turn out, the number of Democratic delegates statewide will be about 10,000.

In the at-large precincts, the number of delegates allotted depends on turnout: If turnout is lower than 400, divide the number of people who show up by five to get the number of delegates. If 401 to 600 show up, divide it by eight. If 601 to 800 show up, divide it by 10. And so on, until you get to more than 4,000 people, in which case you divide by 50. No matter what, the number of delegates will hover around 80, with a maximum of 93.

Presuming only 400 people show up to an at-large caucus—an extremely low turnout, Buck says—then that precinct will get 80 delegates, or one delegate for every five people.

Statewide, meanwhile, say 70,000 people turn out—a high estimate, but very possible, given that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire turned out in such high numbers. Remember that there are about 10,000 delegates to be allotted statewide (not including at-large precincts). That means there would be about one delegate for every six or seven caucus-goers.

Even in this extreme case of high turnout statewide and low turnout in at-large caucuses, the disparity between the caucus-goers’ influence—5-to-1 as opposed to 7-to-1—isn’t huge. In all likelihood, the reality will be somewhere in between. Either way, the at-large caucus system doesn't seem to merit the alarmist response it's received. ( That said, it's true that the at-large caucuses could give Obama a 5 percent or 6 percent advantage in delegates if turnout there is overwhelmingly pro-Obama.)

So, why does Bill Clinton say that at-large caucus-goers would have five times as much influence as others? My guess is he’s comparing the 5-to-1 ratio (calculated above) with the 50-to-1 ratio among other precincts. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that not all registered Democrats turn out for caucuses. In fact, very few do. (Some Iowa estimates predicted 17 percent turnout among eligible caucus-goers.) That means that while there's only one delegate per 50 registered Democratic voters, the ratio of delegates to actual caucus-goers will be much higher.

Better at math than me? All feedback welcome .

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.