Trivium quiz

Quick question, who won the Democratic Presidential Primaries in 2008? (Trick question).

The answer, of course, is Hillary Clinton. The trick part of this trick question depends on the fact that the word 'primaries' is often loosely used to cover both primary elections - in which the mass of the electorate can participate - and caucuses, where only hardline activists for a party participate.

In primary elections Clinton had a delegate lead of 1466.5 to 1416.5. This was overwhelmed by Obama's big lead in the much smaller number of states (and generally smaller states) which held caucuses and gave him a delegate lead of 315 to 179. Clinton's lead in the caucues would have been bigger if the delegations from Florida and Michigan had not been cut in half.

Clinton's lead in the primaries is probably bigger if we consider only those states which held open primaries, allowing independents to vote as well as registered Democrats.

This distinction is important because throughout the primary campaign the media portrayed Clinton as being the choice of Democratic activists and Obama as being the one with an appeal to independents and cross over voters. This is indeed what opinion polls suggested. But in a total of 57 contests (40 primaries and 17 caucuses) actual votes implied the opposite.

It is important too because when reporting the Republican contests the media gave tremendous weight to the result of primaries while almost ignoring (after Iowa) the results in caucus states. Perhaps this is justified on the grounds that caucuses are unrepresentative. But in the Democratic contest the media treated caucuses and primaries as being interchangeable. Either of these positions is justifiable, but both cannot be right.

The over-arching narrative that the media were working to was that John McCain for the Republicans and Barack Obama for the Democrats were the candidates with appeal to the centre ground and that Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney were polarising figures who appealed only to the activists of their own parties. But to make this narrative fit the very different set of facts in the two contests - John McCain won in the primaries, but struggled in caucuses - the media had to treat the news value of caucus results quite inconsistently in the two parties.

As the general election campaign continues the narrative will be tested. Will McCain, who won his party's contest in part because of his popularity with independents and cross-over voters have more appeal to independents than Barack Obama - who won because of the huge lead he had among his party's activists?

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