Sean Wilentz argues in Salon that if the Democratic primary operated on a winner-take-all basis -- "one of the central principles of American electoral politics" -- Hillary Clinton would be ahead. "In a popular-vote winner-take-all system, Clinton would now have 1,743 pledged delegates to Obama's 1,257," he concludes. Instead, Obama has a lead that is "reliant on certain eccentricities in the current Democratic nominating process."
This is a bizarre proposition. It's true that the Democratic delegate-apportioning process is eccentric. But since when is winner-take-all considered a more democratic process than proportional allotment? Indeed, in this case, winner-take-all would have made the Democratic primary less democratic. Obama is winning the popular vote. He's even winning if you count the vote in Florida, where neither candidate campaigned or organized their voters. (A restriction that benefitted Clinton enormously, as greater familiarity has boosted Obama's standing virtually everywhere -- witness the withering away of Clinton's once-massive lead in Pennsylvania.)
Why, then, would Clinton be leading under a winner-take-all system? Because a winner-take-all system renders a one-vote win in a state just as valuable as a blowout win. One flaw of a winner-take-all state-based process is that a candidate who has more votes can lose if he has lots of "wasted" votes in blowout wins and his opponent has many close victories. And indeed, this is precisely what's happened in the Democratic primary -- Obama has far more blowout wins. As Third Way's Jim Kessler has pointed out, "Twenty-four of his 29 wins have been by 16 points or more, while four of Clinton's 15 victories have been of the blowout variety." Clinton would win by the winner-take-all metric only because it's a system that can mask the popular will.
So Wilentz is arguing that if the Democrats used a different, less democratic process, Clinton would be winning despite Obama's greater appeal to the electorate. But even that claim is shaky. It's not just an accident that Obama won a lot of delegates from blowout wins in small states. It's a deliberate strategy. In the days leading up to Super Tuesday, he abandoned big states like California to hold rallies in places like Boise, Idaho and Wilmington, Delaware. Obama did this because there were lots of delegates to be gained by increasing his margin in small states. If the rules were different, he would have deployed his resources differently.
Clinton supporters are spending an inordinate amount of time devising scenarios where Clinton would be winning if the rules of the primary were changed retroactively. Yet all the rules were understood and agreed to by both candidates in advance. The rules are not perfect, but the hypothetical alternatives proposed by Clinton's side -- imposing a winner-take-all system, counting the votes in states with no campaigning or only one candidate on the ballot -- would make the race less fair, not more fair. So, yes, it's possible to imagine different, less-fair rules where the losing candidate would have prevailed. But so what?