Donald Trump is right. (Bet you didn’t expect to read that in this column.) The odd-couple bromance cooked up last weekend between Trump’s GOP presidential rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich only served to make both look weak.
I’ll pile on: An alliance of pure political convenience between two candidates on the opposite ends of the Republican philosophical spectrum was a betrayal of the voters who for reasons of principle admire either Cruz or Kasich but not both.
Yet I’ll admit to a twinge of sympathy for the #NeverTrump GOP crowd. To date, their scheming to stop the self-anointed “presumptive nominee” has flopped — but not because their disgust with Trump is not widely shared. To the contrary: Polls this month have consistently found upward of two-thirds of the total American electorate, and 2 out of 5 self-identified Republicans, holding an unfavorable opinion of the business/reality show mogul.
Why haven’t those negative judgments translated into more national convention delegates for someone whose initials aren’t DJT? Here, Trump has it wrong, I’ll claim. It’s not because his opponents are weak or lame or “lyin’.”
Rather, it’s because GOP primary and caucus elections — and Democratic ones in situations with more than two candidates on the ballot — are not sufficiently (small-d) democratic. They don’t allow a majority of voters to coalesce and express its will. To be sure, the candidate with the most votes has won — but that’s plurality rule, not majority rule.
The presidential nominating contests don’t employ the voting method that the good citizens of Minneapolis and St. Paul have chosen for themselves in municipal elections — ranked-choice voting.
I recently played my favorite political parlor game — What If? — with Minnesota’s ranked-choice voting maven, Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota. What if the Republican Party had opted for a ranked ballot at precinct caucuses and primaries this year? How might the outcome be different?
“A candidate like Marco Rubio would have absolutely been a stronger winner,” Massey said. Rubio, the Florida senator who led Minnesota’s precinct caucus balloting, appeared to be the second- or third-choice candidate of many early-state voters who cast ballots for the likes of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Rand Paul, she said. If those voters had been allowed to express their second and third choices, and if those choices had been registered after their first choices fell far short, Rubio rather than Cruz might have emerged as Trump’s main rival.
Trump still would have garnered a lot of first-choice votes, Massey continued. But if he had little support beyond that base — as many of us in the punditry biz claimed a few months ago — ranked-choice voting would have put that weakness on display.
Of course, Trump’s support might have been shown to be deeper than his critics wanted to believe. Numeric proof of that support might have altered the #NeverTrump strategies, or revealed their futility earlier.
“For me, the bigger question is how ranked-choice voting would have changed the field” in both parties, Massey added. “Ranked-choice voting has a moderating effect. I think moderates would have resurfaced, knowing that the winning requires a consensus 50 percent, not an activated extreme base.”
Who would have jumped in? Who would have stayed in contention longer? How would the tone of the campaign changed? Those are questions with which to play your own parlor game.
For political-party leaders — particularly Republicans — a post-2016 review of presidential nominating rules won’t be a game. Just as the mayhem in Chicago in 1968 propelled major reform in the Democratic Party (here’s a hat tip to Minnesota’s Don Fraser), the Year of Trump is bound to unleash more enthusiasm for procedural change than the Grand Old Party has seen in decades.
When the inevitable Republican reform commission gets to work next year, ranked-choice voting in primaries and at caucuses ought to be up for consideration. So said one of the nation’s leading political scientists, Larry Diamond of Stanford University, at a March 7 appearance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
With ranked-choice voting, “we’d see a big correction in the polarizing trend in American politics,” Diamond said. Independent candidates would be more likely to run and occasionally win, and independent voters would be more satisfied with the choices available to them on the ballot, he argued.
Notably, the guy appearing with him — national Republican strategist and former Minnesota U.S. Rep. Vin Weber — didn’t flinch or run off the stage.
Weber told me last week that he’s not exactly ready to sign up with FairVote Minnesota. But he acknowledged an interest in ranked-choice voting’s potential to give American democracy a needed shot in the arm.
“There’s not one way of doing democracy,” Weber said, citing his experience as vice chair of the National Endowment for Democracy. “We can’t take it for granted that the way we do it is the only way, or the best way. It’s time to at least start experimenting with other ways that people can express their preferences.”
After initial successes in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota’s ranked-choice voting movement hit a speed bump last fall when voters rejected it in Duluth. It’s facing stiffening opposition from the DFL and GOP establishments — people who have been the beneficiaries of plurality rule.
But the movement is rolling elsewhere. This fall, voters in Maine will decide whether to adopt ranked-choice voting in state elections. They’ll be watched closely by political folk who remember the Louis Brandeis line about states serving as “laboratories of democracy.”
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.