How the Republican Party Could Have Stopped Donald Trump

March 16, 2016, 3:45 PM UTC
Donald Trump
Donald Trump

The Democratic nomination is about locked up after Tuesday, while the Republican nomination is not. Regardless of who ends up as the nominee—I refuse to make a prediction, having been surprised by pretty much everything that has happened so far—the Republican Party will have to work through a profound identity crisis. That exercise in mass psychiatry will likely take years; heck, it can take years for one person. But in the meantime the party may want to consider a more contained and manageable change it can start on right after election day: avoiding a situation like this one by changing the rules for choosing its nominee.

The result of the current rules is looking disastrous. The likeliest nominee remains Donald Trump, the most disliked candidate in either party and the only one of the current or recent Republican aspirants, including even Marco Rubio and Ben Carson, who loses to Hillary Clinton in a prospective general election match-up, according to polling reported by Real Clear Politics.

How could this happen? The answer is simple: Donald Trump is the leader only because he happened to face a large number of opponents. Most Republicans oppose him, but his 35% vote share is more than any one of the other candidates can get.

By contrast, Clinton happened to face only one credible opponent, Bernie Sanders, who has performed better in Democratic primaries than Trump has in Republican primaries. Yet Sanders is almost certainly doomed. All this because of a random variable, the size of the field.

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Different rules might have spared Republicans this forced march to likely defeat in November. A simple and realistic change would be to use a voting system called ranked voting, or choice voting, or the instant run-off. It’s used today for some government elections in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, India, and, here in the U.S., in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Minneapolis. When more than two candidates are on the ballot, voters don’t just vote for one; they rank their choices in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority, then the lowest vote getter is eliminated and his or her votes are distributed to the designated second choice. The process continues until someone gets a majority.

Could that process prevent the most disliked candidate from winning the nomination? Evidence suggests that it could. Besides being the first choice of only a minority, Trump was also the candidate whom the most Republican voters would “never” vote for, the polls say. Since Trump has never won a clear majority in any primary or caucus, it’s plausible to imagine that voters’ second and third choices could have given another candidate a majority through this process. A few such results in early primaries could have dramatically altered candidates’ momentum and the dynamics of the race. The process would also have been transparent and fair—terms unlikely to describe any machinations at the Republican convention should Trump show up with a plurality but not a majority of delegates.

Bloomberg View columnist Ramesh Ponnuru on Tuesday advocated a ranked voting system for delegates at the convention, a promising idea that’s highly unlikely to be adopted at this late date. But the Republicans need to make procedural changes (and the Democrats should consider the same before they face their own Trump situation). There’s time for the psychiatry after that.

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