Voices & Choices

Primary Focus: The New Hampshire Primaries

Primary Focus: The New Hampshire Primaries

Zoom In: New Hampshire dismisses the establishment

On Tuesday, New Hampshire voters in both parties delivered a clear rebuke to the so-called “establishment” candidates by selecting Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as landslide winners of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. In the Democratic contest, Sanders easily outpaced Hillary Clinton, earning 60% of the vote and 15 of 24 delegates -- remarkable in part because Sanders is an independent in the U.S. Senate and has never run before as a Democrat. 

On the Republican side, first-time candidate Trump also validated pre-primary polls by capturing 35.3% of the Republican vote, equating to ten delegates. Kasich, finishing second with 15.8%, gained 4 delegates. He was trailed by Cruz (11.7%), Bush (11.0%), and Rubio (10.6%), who each received 3 delegates. The 10% viability threshold prevented Christie (7.4%), Fiorina (4.1%), and Carson (2.3%) from earning any delegates. We don’t know for sure that Trump would have won a ranked choice voting contest in the state (see this poll analysis), but he still won a crushing victory over a divided Republican field.


Zoom Out: Thresholds in upcoming GOP contests undermine proportionality

Despite gaining thousands of votes, three Republican candidates with a total of nearly 14% were not awarded any delegates. Each failed to reach the New Hampshire threshold of 10% that the state party requires to qualify for the proportional allocation of delegates. Though New Hampshire’s primary is regarded as proportional, their threshold rule systematically undermines the principle of proportionally allocating delegates based on how much support they receive at the polls. Democrats set an even higher threshold of 15% to receive delegates as part of a national standard.

Looking forward, Republicans will deviate more and more from proportionality. In the key primary in South Carolina on Feb. 20th, delegates in the Republican primary will be allocated on a winner-take-all basis by congressional district -- meaning similar results would mean Donald Trump would win all delegates with barely a third of the vote. On Super Tuesday, some primaries will use a threshold as high as 20%, effectively making their primaries winner-take-all if only one candidate passes that benchmark.

New Hampshire’s primary results should serve as a warning to the GOP. The current rules could allow a single candidate to win all of the delegates in an upcoming contest, given the crowded nature of the field. If Tuesday’s results were duplicated in the allegedly proportional allocation states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas on March 1st, Trump might win nearly all 327 delegates in those states even with less than 40% of the vote. While higher thresholds and winner-take-all primaries can help move a party toward determining their nominee more quickly, they undermine the intent of earning real consensus when used without ranked choice voting to ensure votes are not being divided by “spoilers.”

Focus: Without ranked choice voting, winner-take-all primaries shut out voices

Of the 1,236 delegates required to win the Republican nomination, Donald Trump has collected only 20 as he heads into South Carolina. However, the combination of his results and their weak performances has led a growing number of candidates out of the race even though only two states and barely more than 60 delegates have been allocated. Dropouts since Iowa include current and former governors Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, current and former Senators Rand Paul and Rick Santorum, and businesswoman Carly Fiorina.

Generally, it is not the voters that pressure candidates to exit, but instead deficiencies in the system. In winner-take-all primaries, support for less popular candidates like Rand Paul or Mike Huckabee could very easily split the vote of like-minded candidates and open the door for a candidate from a different wing of the party, or a true outsider like Trump to win states and take exaggerated numbers of delegates with a slim plurality. Spoiler candidates give political allies, party officials, and major donors incentive to pressure out candidates unlikely to succeed and consolidate their support around a party favorite as soon as possible.

For voters, however, fewer choices and less debate is nothing to celebrate. For example, while Rand Paul only received 4.5% of the vote in the Iowa Caucus, he also represented the voice of Republican libertarianism in the race. His views against international intervention and protecting privacy were unique in this Republican field. That unique ideology deepened the conversation in Republican debates and provided voters with a more nuanced perspective on many issues and reflected what at least some Republicans believe. Similarly, Martin O’Malley deepened the Democratic race by offering a third perspective. His experience as Governor of Maryland, an executive position, contrasted with his opponents, who served in the Senate and State Department. With fewer candidates, each party can expect a less vibrant conversation about the issues, and voters in states with upcoming primaries and caucuses can expect fewer choices at the polls.

As the winner-take-all primaries loom larger every day, parties and voters should consider a voting method that better serves their interests. Ranked choice voting could be used to eliminate last-place candidates and reallocate their votes to next ranked choices until all remaining candidates are above the threshold, at which point delegates would be awarded, and then reduce the field down to two to see who is the legitimate winner of the state. If primaries in winner-take-all states like Florida and Ohio used ranked choice voting, all candidates could be recognized for their unique perspective and base of support instead of dismissed as spoilers. Ranked choice voting would allow more candidates to stay in the race, while still allowing the party to determine its nominee, and voters to more fully express their preference without diminishing their voice.  

Image Source: Gage Skidmore

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