Imagine this: An independent third-party candidate. A divided electorate. A plurality winner without a mandate. A torn country.
Sounds undesirable, right?
Well, for a long stretch of April and May, independent Rep. Justin Amash’s flirtation with a Libertarian Party presidential bid had party leaders from across the political spectrum contemplating this nightmare scenario. In the end, of course, Amash decided not to run, citing “voices strongly averse to the political risks posed by a viable third candidate.” But what if he had?
We have precedent for such a situation: the 1912 presidential election, in which Democrat Woodrow Wilson bested his two other well-known opponents— incumbent Republican William Howard Taft and former Republican Theodore Roosevelt—with just 41.8 percent of the popular vote.
On the 108th anniversary of the fateful 1912 June 18-22 Republican Party convention that made Taft the party’s nominee, we’re taking the opportunity to analyze the election—and to wonder what might have been had ranked choice voting (RCV) been used to select a president that year.
In the 1908 presidential election, then-outgoing-President Roosevelt had endorsed Taft’s bid. But, during Taft’s subsequent term, Roosevelt eventually soured on his successor, becoming so thoroughly displeased with Taft’s conservative policies that he mounted his own campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination in 1912. As a still-beloved former president, Roosevelt had popular support (he won the nine of the party’s 12 non-binding primaries), but Taft had consolidated the support of the party leaders. Thus, by the time the convention rolled around, the party was split—and the convention itself did nothing to resolve the tension. A charged and bitter affair, the convention featured jeering, acrimony, and claims of fraud. Taft’s eventual victory (561 votes to Roosevelt’s 107) belies the reality that many of Roosevelt’s supporters refused to cast a ballot in protest. In any case, the Republican Party was torn beyond repair, with Roosevelt vowing to mount his own independent presidential bid—which he did, with the Progressive Party.
The stage was set for November: an entrenched incumbent up against a popular former president and one-time ally. But there was a twist: the Democrats still had to nominate a candidate. That they did, choosing New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson as their party’s standard-bearer.
Come November, Wilson won the three-way race in an Electoral College landslide: 435 votes to Roosevelt’s 88 and Taft’s 8—granting the Democrats the White House for only the second time since the Civil War.
But the popular vote told a different story: Wilson received 41.8 percent support to Roosevelt’s 27.4 percent, Taft’s 23.2 percent, and Socialist Eugene Debs’ 6 percent. It is clear that Wilson had won the election without support from the majority of the electorate, which begs the question: would the use of RCV have changed the result?
Unfortunately, we cannot give a definitive answer—but we can speculate.
It is certainly possible that Roosevelt and Taft had split the Republican Party’s support. In that case, if RCV had been in place, Taft would have been eliminated and his voters would have had their second-choice votes—ostensibly cast for Roosevelt—count, granting Roosevelt majority support from the electorate.
It is also highly possible that supporters of Taft would have thrown second-choice support behind Wilson, who, while progressive, was perceived as more conservative than Roosevelt. In that case, Wilson still would have won the election, albeit with majority support.
But speculating about different scenarios is almost beside the point. No matter how the RCV tally would have shaken out, we know this: RCV would have eliminated vote splitting, allowed voters to vote their heart, and given majority support and a mandate to the eventual winner.
Why does this matter now? Because, as Mark Twain once said, “History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” And for the better portion of the past two months, Amash’s potential third-party bid sure had history looking like it was about to rhyme.
Though Amash eventually quashed any hope of a run, a serious third-party bid that splits major party support could happen in 2024 or 2028. And even if such a run doesn’t happen, it is highly possible that an eventual winner could win the presidency without a majority of popular vote support—a phenomenon that has occurred an astounding 19 times in American history.
It is clear, then, that the need for the adoption of RCV in presidential elections is urgent.
If the 1912 election has shown us anything, it’s that all Americans deserve fair elections where candidates can compete without fear of “splitting the vote,”and all Americans deserve a real say in presidential elections.
RCV would make that happen.