Voters no longer matter in election math

The current journal of the American Mathematical Society ponders the “disturbing reality” that the outcomes of our political elections have more to do with election rules than voters’ wishes.

Donald Saari, a distinguished math professor at the University of California-Irvine presented a very detailed paper at a meeting of mathematicians in San Diego earlier this year. In it, he explores in detail (and with many arcane equations) the various math principles that influence election results.

He concludes that mysteries remain and that mathematicians and social and behavioral scientists have much to do to solve them.

Surely, American political scientists are confounded by the current imbroglio involving Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and the quest for delegates. Rules in the states are different. Party rules are different. The stakes are too high for either one to throw in the towel. What to do?

After the election of 2000, we saw the country has become so divided that we are not likely to get away from confusing, close, bitter elections for the foreseeable future. The popular vote goes one way; the delegate count goes another; the Electoral College vote goes still another.

The senator from New York wryly suggested a bowling tournament to settle the fight, after Obama looked rather silly playing Joe Six Pack in the lanes. Obama suggests that Clinton should do the math, realize she can’t get the number of elected delegates to win and step aside to save her dignity.

Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean suggests that the 37 percent of the 800 superdelegates who haven’t endorsed either candidate do so by July 4 so the party can coalesce around the idea of defeating John McCain. But he doesn’t have the clout to make it happen.

Meanwhile, Americans are scrutinizing the three candidates.

The situation in Iraq defies easy answers. Voters know that. They know neither Clinton nor Obama would abruptly pull soldiers out next year. They know McCain didn’t mean to imply we’d be at war in Iraq for a hundred years but that he’s more committed to staying in Iraq long term than the two Democrats.

Voters know that the economy is in dreadful shape, despite President Bush’s feeble attempts at reassurance. They know a president can’t get us out of recession just by urging lawmakers to pass jobs bills or stopgap foreclosure mechanisms. They know economic promises by Clinton and Obama don’t amount to much. They realize McCain hasn’t had much interest or faith in tweaking the economy.

Voters know 12 million immigrants are not going to be sent home next year and that grandiose promises of tighter borders and ironclad fences are designed to win votes.

But what voters are figuring out, as they always do, is how they react to the candidates at the gut level. As former Tennessee senator Howard Baker used to say: Is this a guy/gal to whom I’d entrust my front-door key? Is this someone I’d want to have drinks with? Even more importantly, is this someone I’d want in my living room via television for the next four years?

Sensing voters found her shrill, Clinton has quieted down, loosened up, started joking. Obama, sensing he’s seen as an intellectual, is working to relate to real people although he doesn’t seem to like eating. McCain, bidding for attention, is trying not to show his temper, his age, his prejudices, his sarcasm.

Americans want a president comfortable in his/her own skin as was Ronald Reagan, despite his faults, and as they thought Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were, although now they are not so sure.

The up-and-down polls show Americans haven’t decided whom they want. Despite all the possible mathematical analyses, that “comfort level” with a candidate is what the voters will be searching for until November.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)