Clinton, Caucuses, and the Maine Vote
The last week has featured two particularly outrageous pieces of political analysis from the Clinton campaign. The first, which was widely scorned, came from Mark Penn: “Could we possibly have a nominee who hasn't won any of the significant states—outside of Illinois? That raises some serious questions about Sen. Obama.” Since Obama easily won Georgia—the ninth largest state—Penn appeared to be consigning a whopping 42 states to political insignificance.
The second remark, however, has received less attention. It came from Bill Clinton: “The caucuses aren’t good for her [Hillary Clinton]. They disproportionately favor upper-income voters who, who, don’t really need a president but feel like they need a change.”
Leave aside, for a moment, Clinton’s dismissal of a constituency (think the “soccer moms”) that was vital to his election in both 1992 and 1996. Leave aside also the lack of such analysis coming from Clinton in the immediate aftermath of the Nevada caucuses. Does Clinton’s argument help explain the outcome of the most recent caucus, in Maine?
In a word, no.
First of all, the Maine Democratic Party allows caucus voting by absentee ballot (around 4000 people did so in 2008). If the Clinton campaign believed its desired voters couldn’t—for reasons of age or work—participate in a Sunday afternoon caucus, it had an easy remedy: arrange for them to vote absentee. This effort would have required some organizational skill, but it was hardly an impossible task given that Clinton had the support of Governor John Baldacci, the state Senate president and majority leader, and dozens of state legislators.
Second, the outcome of the Maine vote suggests the weaknesses of the Clinton dismissal of the caucuses. Despite the advantages that Hillary Clinton had in Maine, the breadth of Barack Obama’s triumph, coupled with the record caucus turnout (nearly 44,000 voters) provides little reason to believe that Obama wouldn’t have won just as easily in a Maine primary.
As has occurred in most states thus far, in Maine, Obama did well with upper-income voters. For instance, he carried Cape Elizabeth (median family income, $86,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) by a margin of 2.5-to-1. Similarly, Obama won Falmouth (median family income, $87,000) by roughly 2.5-to-1. Obama also did well in towns and cities with large student populations. In Orono—where Hillary Clinton campaigned the day before the caucus—Obama received 23 delegates to Clinton’s seven.
The map below, however, provides a look at the outcome in the state as a whole. (Data in the map comes from the Census Bureau and the town-by-town report provided by the Maine Democratic Party; in each county, I inserted the winners' vote percentage, plus the median income in thousands of dollars. Yellow dots indicated a county carried by Obama; green dots, a county carried by Clinton.)
Obama took 68 percent of the delegates in the state’s wealthiest county, Cumberland. Yet he also carried the state’s poorest county, Washington, with 64 percent of the delegates. His two highest county percentages came from Knox and Hancock (median incomes of $40,000 and $38,000, respectively). Clinton did carry three of the state’s poorest counties (Aroostook and population-light Piscataquis and Somerset), but only in Aroostook did she win more than 52 percent of the delegates.
What about the city breakdown? Obama captured Old Town ($40,000, median family income) with 60 percent of the delegates. Fryeburg ($40,000 median family income) is a small town near the upper New Hampshire border: there Obama won six delegates to Clinton’s one. In Governor Baldacci’s hometown, Bangor—with a $42,000 median family income and a city that no one would confuse with a hotbed of “upper-income voters who, who, don’t really need a president but feel like they need a change”—Obama took 64 delegates to Clinton’s 27.
A case could be made that Maine’s caucuses were anti-democratic—but their structure favored Clinton, not Obama. The state party apportioned delegates not on caucus-day turnout but on the number of registered Democrats, with a caveat of ensuring that small, rural towns received at least one delegate. The result: the effects of turnout surge in pro-Obama cities and towns along the coast were not fully felt in the delegate allocation.
Take an extreme example. Hartland, a tiny town in Somerset County, was allocated three delegates. Seven voters participated in the caucus; Clinton took all three delegates. In Hartland, it took 2.3 Clinton voters to produce one Clinton delegate. In Cape Elizabeth, on the other hand, Obama received 28 delegates, from 550 total votes (as reported by Turn Maine Blue). So in Cape Elizabeth, it took 19.6 Obama voters to produce one Obama delegate.
The state party didn’t report the actual vote totals from each town. (Turn Maine Blue did a partial report, but didn’t include the heavily pro-Obama cities of Bangor, Portland, Brunswick, or Orono.) Since Clinton did disproportionately well in areas of the state with small turnouts, it seems likely that Obama’s share of the popular vote exceeded his share of the state delegate total. In short, he probably won 63 or 64 percent of the vote, even though he only received 59 percent of the state delegates.
It would be much better if all states had primaries rather than caucuses—if only to respect the tradition of the secret ballot. But Bill Clinton’s suggestion that the Maine caucuses were tilted against his wife because they had a disproportionate number of upper-class voters seems hard to justify.
art eckstein - 2/16/2008
Bill Clinton's claims are indeed nonsense, and surely he knew it. It's disgraceful that he should offer such an analysis. Good detective work, K.C.!
Clinton shouldn't be out there working as an attack-dog for his wife anyway: the tradition has been that ex-presidents do not engage in campaigning the way that Bill is doing; they are done with partisan politics to a very great extent. NO ex-prez has ever done what Clinton is doing. Bush 41 didn't do it when his own son was running in 2000. It is a good republican (small "r") tradition, because an ex-prez can carry so much political weight. But as always, the Clintons know no boundaries to their behavior. And Bill has no boundaries to his ego. He constantly uses "we" and "our campaign" now--as if he were running for a third term.
Hill said that in New Hampshire she had "found my voice" (what, finally, after "35 years in politics"?) That voice was, unfortunately...Bill.
HAVH Mayer - 2/15/2008
Clinton's claims are nonsense. Caucuses favor candidates who can get their supporters to commit the time; as a result they favor (a) those with strong organizational support, and (b) movement candidates. HRC's problem is that (b)can trump (a).
That's why Iowa is so critical: It can give an "establishment" candidate an easy win to open the campaign -- but it can also project an insurgant into contention with an upset. This year, Clinton and Romney had strong organizations and near-perfect strategies; then the only thing that could have gone wrong did go wrong, for both.
I'm for Obama, but if I were an establishment-oriented party regular in either party, my #1 goal in reforming the nomination process would be to get the Iowa caucuses out of that lead position.