By Steven Hill, DemocracySOS, March 23, 2023
Like in 2016, the pathway to the nomination is clear due to the “winner take all” rules in most GOP states; RCV would ensure a true majority of GOP primary voters prevail
Donald Trump seems to be showing up more and more in the headlines these days. Talk of criminal indictments for the ex-president enrapture the mediascape, as does increasing amount of speculation about his chances of being un-unelected as president. The media can’t seem to not cover him, it’s like an itch that needs constant scratching.
The love of sensational headlines that grab eyeballs and increase profits has always been the bane of the national media. Even more so today, with digital media platforms like Twitter and Facebook algorithmically amplifying spectacle and controversy so that we will click more and watch more ads and increase their revenues. Trump coverage is the clickiest of all bait, like catnip for those who love or hate him. It’s what some have called the “attention economy,” others have called “surveillance capitalism.”
Richard Nixon once said, “Bad press is better than no press,” and he would have known. Trump clearly has stolen a page out of the Nixon playbook, constantly finding ways to stay in the spotlight of the craven media. He has described himself as a “ratings machine,” and he does not worry about over-exposure, not for his adoring followers. Given the degraded level of US politics, the media and public’s Trump obsession is going to massively help his quest to win the GOP nomination in the 2024 election.
True, a growing counterforce is coming from an increasing number of GOP leaders who are pushing for a new “Trumpian without Trump” direction for their party. Trump’s favorable rating among Republican-leaning voters plummeted from 79 percent in November 2022 to 68 percent in February 2023. Florida governor Ron DeSantis has been the biggest beneficiary. But it’s going to be difficult for DeSantis and “anyone but Trump” GOP leaders to bury the orange-haired, hockey-masked assailant that keeps rising again and again in the middle of their movie.
The most important reason why is that the GOP uses a backward “winner take all” procedure for selecting its presidential nominee. This structure favors a polarizing candidate like Trump, who has a solid core of support that will turn out for him. And yet among the blizzard of media stories about Trump and his presidential prospects, hardly any of them ever mention this factor.
Gaming the GOP nomination is easier for a candidate like Trump
In the GOP primary process for president, most states use either a “plurality wins all” method or a hybrid of such a system to decide the winner of each state (the rules are fairly complex, see a state-by-state breakdown here). With this method, the highest vote-getter often wins 100% of that state’s delegates, even if that candidate has far less than a majority of the vote. In a large field of candidates, this method strongly favors a polarizing candidate who has a strong core of support, while the rest of the field flounders and splits the remaining vote.
For example, in 2016, Trump pulled ahead of the GOP pack of 17 candidates in the first 35 primaries and caucuses, yet he averaged only 31 percent of the vote. In February 2016, Trump received all 50 delegates in South Carolina with only 33 percent of the popular vote, meaning two-thirds of voters preferred someone else. Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who received 22 percent each, didn’t get any delegates. Jeb Bush, who placed fourth at 8 percent, decided to drop out of the race.
Then on March 1 Super Tuesday, Trump received an average of 35 percent of the vote in all primaries, yet won the lion’s share – 254 – of the delegates. In state after state, Trump’s share of the delegates vastly exceeded his share of the popular vote. Finally out of exasperation, the rest of the GOP candidates turned on one another in a kind of loser’s firing squad in the hopes of becoming the last one standing against Trump. All they managed to do was to spoil each other and split the more moderate GOP vote.
As more candidates dropped out of the race, Trump slowly picked up support from abandoned GOP voters. By the end of the process, Trump won 45% of the overall votes in the primaries and caucuses and won 70% of the delegates’ votes on the first ballot at the Republican nominating convention.
This kind of low-plurality “winner takes all” allocation not only allowed Trump to pile up delegates faster than anyone else, it also ensured that the popular will of a majority of Republican voters would be thwarted. One recent analysis found that if Cruz, Rubio and John Kasich were one candidate instead of three, that non-Trump candidate would have accumulated enough delegates to win the nomination.
Once he became president, Trump then did what many previous sitting presidents have done — he used his influence to shape a set of rules to his liking that were put in place for the 2020 GOP nomination process. This meant increasing the number of winner-take-all by state primaries from seven to 17 (accounting for 39% of the delegates) and increasing the number of hybrid systems (where a candidate crossing a certain threshold, usually 50%, can win all the delegates) from 14 to 17 (accounting for 34% of the delegates.)
It is looking like the Republican primary field is going to be crowded again, with the likes of Nikki Haley, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Pence, Tim Scott, Mike Pompeo, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and current Governors Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia all rumored to be contemplating a presidential run. Early polling shows that Trump is again staking out that one-third of the vote in many states, even as he fails to command majority support.
So the question becomes: what happens this time to the other two-thirds of the vote?
The 2024 rules governing how delegates will be awarded in each individual GOP state have not yet been finalized. And Trump’s operatives are working hard to make sure the favorable 2020 nomination system that they put into place remains intact. Josh Putnam of FrontloadingHQ, which monitors closely the primaries and the nominating processes says, “As of right now, the 2020 baseline rules help Trump…As changes are considered in the coming months, [the 2020] baseline is going to be important.”
But does Trump still command his rabid core? Despite declines in his favorability rating, all indications are that Trump’s base, which is predominantly made up of lower-income Republicans and those with less education, remains hopelessly devoted to him. In a recent CNN poll, Trump led DeSantis by 22 points among households that earn less than $50,000 a year. And he has consistently done much better among GOP voters without a college education than among those with a four-year or graduate college degree – what has been described by Ron Brownstein as a “wine track/beer track” divide. In 2008, there was no such educational divide in the GOP race, as nominee John McCain won exactly the same 43% among Republican voters with and without a college degree. But Trump has turned this traditional GOP axis on its head.
And there is no question that Trump loyalists continue to distinguish themselves in alarming ways. Recently an attorney who has defended January 6 riot participants compared Trump to Jesus Christ. Warning about Trump’s rumored impending arrest for felony campaign violations, he compared Trump’s situation to the death and resurrection of Jesus. “President Trump will be arrested during Lent—a time of suffering and purification for the followers of Jesus Christ,” the attorney wrote on Twitter. “As Christ was crucified, and then rose again on the 3rd day, so too will [Trump]. JESUS LOVES DONALD TRUMP. JESUS DIED FOR DONALD TRUMP. JESUS LIVES INSIDE DONALD TRUMP. DEAL WITH IT.”
Deal with it, indeed. That kind of cult-like devotion will serve The Donald well during the 2024 GOP primary season. It’s alarming to me that so many Americans dote over Trump like he’s some kind of savior. But it’s even more frightening that our political system is so broken that a candidate like Trump can parlay his low plurality support into becoming the nominee of the Republican Party.
Bottom line: if Trump retains enough of his solid base, and multiple opponents stay in the race and split the remaining GOP vote, the by-then possibly convicted ex-president felon election-denying insurrectionist is very likely to win the nomination.
How to de-Trump the GOP
The best way to avoid this fate would be for the GOP either to figure out a way to limit the number of candidates, or to use ranked choice voting in each state’s primary. Regarding the first possibility, there will be substantial pressure on Haley, Cruz, Pence et al to figure out which of them is the stronger candidate and then coalesce around him or her. But those kind of strong-arm tactics are usually unsavory.
So a better option would be to allow voters to rank their favorite candidates, 1, 2, 3, in an “instant runoff” to ensure that the winner of each state’s delegates at the very least has been selected by a majority of the popular vote. That would incentivize winning candidates to reach out beyond their narrow support base to try and win second and third rankings from the supporters of other candidates.
Republicans have begun using RCV in primaries in a handful of states. In Virginia, the GOP used ranked choice voting to select its nominee for governor in a crowded field. RCV allowed Glenn Youngkin, a more mainstream, palatable candidate, to best Amanda Chase, the polarizing “Trump-in-heels” candidate, and then go on to beat the Democrat in the general election. Virginia Republicans not only credit RCV for ensuring that Youngkin had the widest support, but many also believe that it helped the party unite faster and helped Youngkin to get elected governor in an otherwise blue-trending state.
While RCV has a range of benefits, many of them are particularly applicable to nominating contests. It elects stronger candidates with larger bases of support, it allows more voters to contribute to the election of the nominees, it creates greater incentives for civility in campaigning , and it promotes campaigning to all voters and not just a narrow base of support.
RCV is a way to give more power to a majority of like-minded voters without demanding that they vote strategically. If Republicans used ranked choice voting, voters could rank their favorite candidate first without worrying about their vote actually helping their least favorite candidate.
Without a better electoral system design in the GOP primaries, we may yet see a reprise of the 2016 debacle, in which Trump will rack up state after state with low plurality victories, while more moderate Republican candidates will all spoil each other and split the majority of the GOP vote among too many candidates.
As Yogi Berra once said, “It will be déjà vu all over again.” Or as Yogi’s dear friend Karl Marx once remarked, “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776