Where Would Obama Have Been Without Caucuses?

There’s a school of thought that the most revealing presidential primary this week was not in West Virginia but in Nebraska, where a non-binding vote was held in conjunction with the state’s regularly scheduled primary.

Barack Obama won it very narrowly over Hillary Clinton, 49 to 47 percent. That closeness is noteworthy because Obama routed Clinton in the state’s February 9 caucuses by a 68-32 percent spread.

Nor was this the only time that Clinton has fared vastly better in a state’s non-binding primary than in its caucuses. In Washington, she came within three points of Obama in the February 19 primary, ten days after being trounced by 37 percent in the caucuses.

To some, this is validation of the Clinton camp’s contention that caucuses are undemocratic and unrepresentative of the will of the party – and that Obama wouldn’t be in position to win the nomination had it not been for his lopsided wins in a handful of caucuses in mostly red states.

But the numbers don’t really support this. It’s true that Obama built the bulk of his now insurmountable pledged delegate lead in caucus states. After his decisive loss in Tuesday’s West Virginia primary, Obama now commands an overall lead of 1,599 to 1,446 among pledged delegates, a difference of 153. In caucus states only, Obama enjoys a 132-pledged delegate advantage over Clinton, accounting for nearly all of his lead. But even if all of these caucus states had instead held primaries, Obama’s overall delegate lead would probably not be significantly different. He’d still be a lock to secure a pledged delegate majority for the primary season.

And his advantage in the cumulative popular vote would not be appreciably different. How could this be – especially in light of the Nebraska and Washington examples?

First, it’s important to note the obvious caveats about these two states. In both, there was no campaign activity by either candidate in the run-up to the primary, nor was there any confusion among voters about which contest – the primary or the caucus – was the “important” one.

A full-fledged campaign in both states might have skewed the primary results significantly. But at the same time, there’s no ignoring the glaring difference between each state’s primary and caucus totals.

Clearly, the Clinton campaign does have a point: When the electorate is radically expanded (in both states, turnout was three times higher in the primary), the influence of the party’s most committed activists – who lopsidedly back Obama – wanes.

Thus, it’s reasonable to assume that the results in each of the caucus states would have been closer had they instead held primaries – even if they wouldn’t have been quite as close as the Washington and Nebraska examples suggest. For the sake of argument, let’s try to convert most of the caucus states into primaries.

(We will leave Iowa and Nevada alone, since both campaigns treated these states like primaries and expended vast amounts of time and capital there, turning out more “casual” voters and producing results that are probably close to what primaries would have yielded. We’ll also leave out Obama’s quasi-home state of Hawaii, where he probably would have won big no matter what.)

This exercise, obviously, is a guessing game. We don’t know what the participation rules would have been for each state had primaries been held (i.e. would independents and Republicans be allowed to vote?), and we don’t know exactly how much effort each campaign would have put into each state (remember that Clinton essentially skipped the February caucus states).

But we do have some clues. For instance, Utah was the only small Western state that voted on February 5 to hold a primary, and not a caucus. Obama cleaned up in all of these Western states, but his margin was smallest in Utah – just 57 to 39 percent. By contrast, in neighboring Idaho, a caucus state, he snagged 79 percent. This seemingly confirms Clinton’s contention that caucuses are more suited to Obama’s strengths.

But the fact that Obama still won Utah by nearly 20 points also suggests that, while his margin would have been cut, switching from caucuses to primaries in the states he won probably wouldn’t have resulted in quite the dramatic disparity seen in Washington and Nebraska.

It’s important to remember, too, that Obama has won his share of primary states, often convincingly. His margin in Wisconsin was nearly 20 points, and in Virginia it approached 30. He also posted primary wins in Missouri, Connecticut, Maryland and South Carolina, among other states.

This suggests that Obama still probably would have won primaries in the states where he racked up giant caucus routs. The spread, though, would have been closer. (Another factor to consider is the calendar: perhaps Obama’s performance in Nebraska would have been better had the state held its non-binding primary back in early February, when he was on a roll and winning everywhere.)

Anyway, with all of this in mind, here is a speculative look at how primaries in the caucus states might have looked. For turnout, we are simply tripling each state’s caucus turnout, based on the turnout in the Washington and Nebraska turnouts. Note that Obama’s overall plurality in most of these states isn’t really affected, even though his margin of victory is slashed, thanks to the higher turnout. In fact, in some states his plurality actually expands slightly. (Remember, we are excluding Iowa, Nevada and Hawaii from this exercise.)





Caucus result: Obama, 74-26 percent

Caucus plurality: 17,700 votes

Projected primary result: Obama, 58-42 percent

Primary plurality: 17,580 votes

Net Clinton vote gain: 120

Estimated Clinton delegate gain: 5



Caucus result: Obama, 67-32 percent

Caucus plurality: 40,757 votes

Projected primary result: Obama, 56-44 percent

Primary plurality: 42,455

Net Clinton vote gain: NEGATIVE 1,658

Estimated Clinton delegate gain: 6



Caucus result: Obama, 79-17 percent

Caucus plurality: 13,225 votes

Projected primary result: Obama, 57-39 percent

Primary plurality: 11,089

Net Clinton vote gain: 2,136

Estimated Clinton delegate gain: 4



Caucus result: Obama, 75-25 percent

Caucus plurality: 4,480 votes

Projected primary result: Obama, 60-40 percent

Primary plurality: 5,320

Net Clinton vote gain: NEGATIVE 840

Estimated Clinton delegate gain: 1


North Dakota

Caucus result: Obama, 61-37 percent

Caucus plurality: 4,677 votes

Projected primary result: Obama, 51-47 percent

Primary plurality: 2,219

Net Clinton vote gain: 2,448

Estimated Clinton delegate gain: 1



Caucus result: Obama, 66-32 percent

Caucus plurality: 73,188 votes

Projected primary result: Obama, 54-44 percent

Primary plurality: 63,100 votes

Net Clinton vote gain: 10,018

Estimated Clinton delegate gain: 8





Caucus result: Obama, 68-31 percent

Caucus plurality (estimate – no official tally kept): 88,812

Non-binding 2/19 primary result: Obama, 50-47 percent

Primary plurality: 38,386 votes

Net Clinton vote gain: 50,426

Estimated Clinton delegate gain: 12



Caucus result: Obama, 68-32 percent

Caucus plurality: 13,681

Non-binding 5/13 primary result: Obama, 49-47 percent

Primary plurality: 2,665

Net Clinton vote gain: 11,016

Estimated Clinton delegate gain: 4



Caucus result: Obama, 59-40 percent

Caucus plurality: 8,813 votes

Projected primary result: Obama, 52-47 percent

Primary plurality: 6,594 votes

Net Clinton vote gain: 2,219

Estimated Clinton delegate gain: 2





Caucus result: Obama, 61-39 percent

Caucus plurality: 2,067 votes

Projected primary result: 50-50

Primary plurality: Clinton by 1 vote

Net Clinton vote gain: 2,069

Estimated Clinton delegate gain: 1


Add all of these together and we find that, based on our projections, had the caucus states been converted to Clinton-friendly primaries, Clinton would have made the following gains:


Net plurality: 77,954 votes

Net delegate gain: 44


Practically speaking, this would do little to change Clinton’s current predicament.

After West Virginia this week, she still trails Obama by 153 pledged delegates and about 562,000 popular votes.

However, when you factor in generally accepted estimates from the four caucus states where no popular vote tallies were kept (Iowa, Nevada, Maine and Washington), Obama’s popular vote edge rises to about 672,000. And since we’re using two of those caucus states in our exercise, we need to include this data. So when the numbers from our caucus-to-primary conversions are factored in, Obama still leads by 109 pledged delegates and about 594,000 popular votes.

Neither of those leads will be threatened by the remaining five primaries, or even – most likely – by the inclusion of Florida and Michigan (assuming Obama is at least credited with the “uncommitted” vote from Michigan). In other words, the caucuses helped Obama greatly, but they’re not the reason he’s the nominee. Where Would Obama Have Been Without Caucuses?