Primary Focus: Civility, The Missing Ingredient

Posted by Molly Rockett, Demarquin Johnson on February 26, 2016

Zoom In:

This past week (and tomorrow for the Democrats in South Carolina), the presidential campaigns went to the South and West to vie for more delegates. South Carolina and Nevada also shifted the nomination contests from disproportionately white electorates to diverse populations, most notably for the Democrats. South Carolina is 27% African American; Nevada is 28% Hispanic. These demographics differ greatly from Iowa and New Hampshire which are 87% and 91% white, respectively.

Despite the differences in racial composition, the statewide results continued trends set forth in the two previous state contests. The contest between Democrat contenders in the Nevada caucuses was close, with Clinton earning 52.6% of county delegates, which earned 20 national delegates, to Sander’s 47.3% of county delegates and 15 national delegates. (Just as in its caucuses in Iowa, Democrats don’t release the popular vote.)

The Republican saw Donald Trump win South Carolina last Saturday with 32.5% of the vote and sweeping all seven congressional districts and thus all 50 national delegates with less than 50% of the vote. Marco Rubio (22.5%) barely beat out Ted Cruz (22.3%) for second place. Trump won a bigger margin in the Nevada caucus, with 46% of the vote, but the state had a far more reflective method of proportional allocation of delegates based off of statewide votes with no threshold, similar to Iowa. Trump won 14 delegates with 45.9% of the votem, Rubio won 7 delegates with 23.9%), and Cruz won 6 delegates with 21.4%. In addition, trailing candidates Carson (3.6%) and Kasich (4.8%) each won a single delegate.

Zoom Out:

The Republican presidential primary contest has been swamped with negative campaigning less than a month after the first Iowa caucuses. The Wesleyan Media Project’s latest advertising analysis finds that advertising in the GOP contest is up more than 75% since 2008, and 22% since 2012. Just between February 1st and 14th, 45% of the 11,740 campaign ads sponsored by Republican outside groups were explicitly negative.

Before Jeb Bush dropped out, his Right To Rise USA PAC alone spent an estimated $13.1 million to air 12,480 ads in South Carolina during this time period, including the notorious “Boots” Ad mocking Marco Rubio’s high-heeled boots and history of supposed flip-flopping. The ad shows how even candidates with significant overlap in their positions and experience, like Rubio and Bush, are increasingly engaging in character-based attacks rather than drawing the meaningful contrasts that matter to voters.

Much of this negative campaigning is generated by candidates aiming to position themselves as the alternative to Donald Trump and consolidate the remaining Republican vote. On a smaller scale, the same dynamic played out in 2012 when Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry vied to emerge as the conservative alternative to the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney. Negative campaigning has only increased since 2016 as several candidates compete for the same block of supporters, and civil campaigning is becoming increasingly rare. This trend is particularly discouraging to voters, who lose the value of civil discourse and meaningful contrasts in the primary contest.


When negative advertising flourishes in elections, civility suffers. There is no debate about the brash rhetoric Donald Trump contributes to the election. From 140-character tweets to crude insults at rallies, Trump has demonstrated that he isn’t above mud-slinging. The rest of the GOP field, with few exceptions, has joined in the vitriol. Democrat candidates have also discussed civility in their race. Hillary Clinton accused Bernie Sanders of putting a “very artful smear” on her reputation, yet has regularly criticized Sanders as well. It is clear that the presidential primaries on both sides, but especially the crowded Republican field, could benefit from structural changes that incentivize civility.

With ranked choice voting (RCV), voters are exposed to a different type of election experience. Voters benefit from indicating their full preference among candidates by ranking their options instead of only choosing one. In addition, voters see less negativity between candidates. FairVote conducted a comprehensive two-year study on the impact of ranked choice voting. The study concluded that likely voters in cities that used RCV in their local elections in 2013 and 2014 were more satisfied with the conduct of candidate campaigns, and perceived less candidate criticism and negative campaigning compared to likely voters in cities that didn’t use RCV.

The correlation between civility and a ranked choice ballot is clear. Candidates are less inclined to alienate voters by engaging in personal attacks when they realize that they may need to be the second choice of backers of other candidates. Instead, candidates can sway undecided voters or win second-choice votes by detailing differences in policy proposals and leadership styles. At the same time, while some critics believe that RCV discourages candidates from differentiating between each other, there is no data to support this conclusion. In fact, cities that use RCV, like Minneapolis and Oakland, witnessed robust debates that clearly outlined each candidate’s unique views during election season even as the winners learned how to find common ground with more voters. National elections can benefit from a more civil structure that decreases crass rhetoric and increases meaningful distinctions on the campaign trail.

Image Source: Seattle Times

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