Voices & Choices

Addressing the Plurality Problem in Presidential Primaries

Addressing the Plurality Problem in Presidential Primaries

The 2020 presidential primary season is in full swing. The Democratic Party had a large field of candidates vying for the nation’s highest office, with 15 candidates who had been in at least one 2019 debate appearing on many Super Tuesday primary states. Of the first 18 states to hold caucuses or primaries, Joe Biden finished first in 11 states, Bernie Sanders in six, and Pete Buttigieg in 1 (in delegates in Iowa). 

While these candidates have been declared the winners, there has been one clear loser: the majority of voters. Of the 18 states that have voted on or before Super Tuesday, only 3 chose a winner with more than 50% of the vote. Joe Biden won Alabama and Virginia with a majority of votes, and Bernie Sanders won Vermont with a majority. The remaining 15 states all had a declared winner that received only a plurality of the vote share. The winner of these 15 states, on average, received only 36.69% of the vote. 

There is a striking parallel with the Republican nominating contest from 2016, in which no candidate won a majority of votes in the first 24 contests, as FairVote tracked closely at the time. 

A key function of early primaries and caucuses is to allow candidates to consolidate support, gaining them more bragging rights and media attention as the primary season progresses. But if the leading candidate in these early races does not have majority support, crowning him or her as the victor is more bluster than fact. This is particularly true in Democratic contests, as delegates are allocated on the basis of proportional representation rather than winner-take-all, but in both parties, finishing “on top of the heap” does not mean you have demonstrated the ability to build consensus.

Ranked choice voting (RCV) can be used for primary elections to determine which candidates cross the 15% threshold needed to earn delegates with no wasted votes, as we’ll see in four states this spring. But even more importantly, we can examine ranked ballots to "run the count to two" and determine which candidate is truly preferred by the majority of voters in each state, rather than crowning winners who scrape by with a mere plurality. 

It’s not clear how RCV would have affected this year’s primaries in outcome - for example, FairVote’s recent SurveyUSA ranked choice poll of Democratic voters suggests it’s quite possible only one of the 14 state primaries (Maine) might have changed with RCV -- but it would have affected how candidates campaigned and the “mandate” they would have earned from a state. RCV is the change we need to embrace because it allows the majority to make its voice known once again. 


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