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GOP Rolls the Dice in 2012 with Plurality, Winner-Take-All Rules

by Chris Marchsteiner // Published December 2, 2010

No elected office in the world matters more than the presidency of the United States. Given that reality, it’s remarkable that our method of electing it can have such flaws. Take the nomination system.

An upcoming FairVote research report on plurality voting systems will review the history and effects of “first-past-the-post” voting rules in the last decade of elections in the United States.  Of particular importance are insights into the Republican Party’s nomination rules. With the mid-term elections done, the nation’s political pundits are naturally turning to who Republicans will nominate in 2012 to face off against the Democratic nominee, almost certainly to be incumbent president Barack Obama.

What seems clear is: first, the race seems to be wide open, with any number of candidates having a chance to win; second, Republican nomination rules poorly accommodate a divided field, and may easily result in a highly unrepresentative nominee.

Consider the 2008 Republican nomination contest. John McCain secured an essentially insurmountable lead on February 5, Super Tuesday. Sen. McCain had become the frontrunner heading into Super Tuesday by winning three key primaries: South Carolina, Florida and New Hampshire. His average percentage share in those contests was just 34.5%, and he never even broke the 40% threshold. Even on February 5, he won only 3 states with a majority of the vote.

Although McCain on Super Tuesday did not capture a majority of the popular vote (and did not, in fact, ever reach a majority of 50% of votes cast in primaries), McCain’s disproportionately large delegate count forced his leading opponents to drop out of the race. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney only trailed McCain by 842,355 votes in the popular vote after Super Tuesday; however, he trailed him by 683 delegates. Winner-take-all states played a major role in this disparity. Unlike the Democratic Party, the GOP contests often assign all the delegates in a state to the plurality winner.

Such a disparity is the result of the GOP’s undemocratic voting rules—rules that produce such unrepresentative results that Republicans reformed them after the 2008 primary. Those rules can be defined in two ways: “winner-take-all” allocation rules in most contests that give frontrunners a highly disproportionate share of delegates, contrasting with Democrats’ requirement of proportional allocation; and plurality voting rules, that allow candidates to build momentum by “winning” states with relatively low pluralities – even if they would have lost in a one-on-one race against their top opponent with those same voters.

Going into 2012, one of the Republicans’ key changes was to have winner-take-all elections take place in April. Proportional contests would be allowed to take place in March. Republicans do not appear to want a repeat of 2008. Despite these changes, however, there has been speculation that winner-take-all states, regardless of when they take place, could help a divisive nominee achieve the Republican nomination, -- one popular with a relatively narrow base of the party, but not a strong general election candidate. Some might argue former Alaska governor Sarah Palin would fit that description, although others would argue her star power may be just what Republicans need.

Palin currently leads in the Republican field: a Public Policy Polling survey shows the national numbers currently as: Sarah Palin 21%, Newt Gingrich 19% and Mitt Romney 18%, with others like Tim Pawlenty and Mike Pence hoping to break through with good results early.

So Palin’s lead, though insignificant at this point, could end up being magnified similarly to John McCain’s lead in the early 2008 primaries.

The contest that may be most revealing on the “momentum” of early wins is the 2004 Democratic nomination contest. Going into the Iowa caucuses, Sen. John Kerry had slumped from early frontrunner status. But he surged in the final two weeks before the caucuses, and ended up winning 38% of caucus delegates, just ahead of surging candidate, John Edwards who secured 32%. But although Kerry’s delegate count was only slightly ahead of Edwards, he was the one who secured magazine covers and momentum. His win with 38% in New Hampshire, where he had a “home field” advantage, further cemented his momentum.

Looking to 2012, then, we  may well see a candidate emerge with early wins in fractured fields in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, gain momentum and keep that frontrunner status long enough to keep winning plurality victories when the GOP turns to winner-take-all contests. The ultimate winner may well be a strong nominee, but the rules do not guarantee it.

In 2010, FairVote provided testimony to the Republican Party about recommendations for improving its nomination process. Two specific proposals were: 1) proportional allocation of delegates; 2) instant runoff voting(IRV)  in as many contests as possible, giving that state’s IRV winner a delegate bonus and more deserved bragging rights as that state’s winner. Although pleased that Republicans have made improvements like delaying contests and requiring proportional allocation in early contests, we suspect they may end up regretting not adopting more substantial reforms.

At the very least, they’re rolling the dice. And when it comes to the world’s most important elected office, it seems like we can do better than that.