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After low-plurality “wins” in the Iowa caucuses* and the New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney became the clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Viewed in historical context, Romney’s impending nomination appears rather unremarkable; the GOP has long had a reputation for hierarchy, regularly opting for the “heir apparent” over a challenger, and 2012 was Romney’s turn after having waited patiently in line for four years. Yet when viewed through the prism of current events—with the recent ascent of energized conservatives† in the Republican coalition—the GOP’s nomination of a man widely considered the least conservative remaining candidate in the 2012 Republican presidential field is remarkable.
As disillusioned conservatives wonder how a “Massachusetts moderate”—as Romney’s opponents call him derisively—found a path to the nomination in a party moving rightward, they would do well to remember that, as always, the devil is in the details. Romney’s steady march to the nomination is very much a product of the current election framework in place, which allows a candidate to win a state with a plurality, rather than a majority, of the vote. True, in this election cycle, more GOP contests will allocate delegates proportionally than ever before, but in actuality, the media, commentators, and voters still treat each state contest as “winner-take-all.” In Iowa and New Hampshire, for instance, a plurality of the vote no longer earns a candidate 100% of delegates, but it still gives her a surge of momentum, the true life-giving force in a presidential campaign.
Majorities, though technically unnecessary, are desirable in that they “legitimatize” candidates and give the appearance of widespread consensus. But plurality election rules only guarantee majorities in races featuring two candidates. In a multi-candidate contest sporting three or more viable candidates, plurality voting does a woeful job—the larger the field, the more difficult it becomes to win a majority, the “triumphant” candidate often denied the legitimatizing effects of a convincing victory. Plurality elections are also susceptible to “spoiler effects,” which occur when a voting bloc fractures between two (or more) like-minded candidates, a schism that allows a third, least-preferred candidate to win. Spoiler effects, as the inherent bitterness of the term implies, can lead to animosity between campaigns and disillusionment among voters, lingering negativity that could prove detrimental to a party in subsequent elections.
Although too late for the 2012 Republican nomination battle, there are alternatives to plurality elections, voting systems designed to respect the nuances of opinion in a multi-candidate field, while at the same time guaranteeing a majority of voters support the winning candidate. Ranked choice voting (RCV, also called instant runoff voting) —recently used for local elections in Democratic-leaning Portland, Maine, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and San Francisco, California, but also for key party contests held by Republicans in Utah—allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference: one, two, three, four, etc. If no candidate receives a majority of the initial vote, the last place finisher is eliminated, his votes redistributed to surviving candidates based on expressed second choices; this process of elimination/redistribution continues, round by round, until a candidate has received a majority of the vote.
Whereas plurality elections highlight the division within a party and often weaken candidates, RCV seeks consensus and concurrence, strengthening the position of the party and its nominee as it pivots to the general election. In ensuring winners can earn a majority when matched against their toughest opponents, RCV not only precludes plurality winners, but forces a candidate to build carefully a diverse, layered coalition, combining her own first choices with voters of subsequently eliminated opponents (unless, of course she commands a majority in the first round).
As a result, RCV usually sees a decline in negative campaigning and attack advertisements, the rules encouraging candidates not to slander an adversary—and risk the ire of his voters—but to build bridges and form partnerships. RCV also removes the spoiler effect from the electoral equation: like-minded candidates who divide a voting bloc in the first round are pared eventually down to one representative, voters liberated to cast expressive rather than strategic ballots.
Plurality rules have affected greatly the 2012 battle for the GOP nomination, and although RCV might achieve the same ends, plurality’s means of selecting a nominee arguably have been negative for all parties involved—whether Romney or his conservative challengers. Whom RCV would have benefited in 2012, had it been implemented, depends on the narrative to which one subscribes—does a latent majority reside in the possession of a unified conservative bloc or that of a diligent Romney campaign that has successfully courted select conservatives? Polls have contradicted each other on this point—some showing a latent majority for conservatives, others for Romney—and, as such, both should be treated as equally plausible.
Scenario 1: Assuming an Anti-Romney Conservative Majority
According to this narrative, plurality rules have penalized conservative voters for failing to coalesce around a single ideological standard-bearer, dividing their majority within the party between a multitude of candidates—each garnering enough support to survive, but never enough to flourish—and allowing Romney to take advantage of the disarray and lack of coordination. Despite Newt Gingrich’s declaration that Romney must “get a majority somewhere,” in fact under plurality rules, he need not get a majority anywhere, steamrolling to the nomination like McCain four years ago without ever having had to prove his standing among conservative voters.
This version of events portrays Romney as usurper, an opportunistic “conservative of convenience” rather than an authentic ideological warrior of the Right, in the process of snatching the GOP nomination away from the party’s fractured conservative majority, the beneficiary of a “spoiler effect.” If true, such an occurrence is deeply troubling for the Republican Party, as it would contribute to the perception that, yet again, the voice of conservatives has been muffled and its wishes disregarded. The Weekly Standard recently gave voice to such resentment, questioning why “the party of Ronald Reagan” repeatedly nominates individuals who “opposed Reagan” in the 1980s.
In order to unite a divided movement under plurality voting rules, one or more conservative contenders would need to withdraw from the race—thereby denying voters in other states the right to evaluate all candidates; already, such considerations have forced Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann out of the field. Such was the reasoning behind Gingrich’s recent statement that “any vote for Santorum or Perry is in effect a vote to allow Romney to become the nominee,” the former House speaker imploring the South Carolinian, anti-Romney vote to solidify around him, as well as a recent Texas meeting among influential evangelical Christian and conservative leaders seeking to encourage a united front for Santorum.
RCV, by contrast, would eliminate such concerns, allowing conservative voters to rank Gingrich, Santorum, Paul, and Perry (that is, before he dropped out) on a ballot—permitting, rather than penalizing, nuance—and to unite behind one anti-Romney in subsequent rounds. At the very least, RCV would have forced Romney to reach out to conservatives, moving rightward to repair a strained relationship. Regardless, the spoiler effect would be eliminated and the voice of conservatives heeded.
Scenario 2: Assuming a Pro-Romney Majority
According to this narrative, while many conservative voters might prefer other candidates first, Mitt Romney has made significant and numerous rightward strides this election cycle in an attempt to pursue Tea Party supporters and evangelical Christians. The quarrels over ideological purity and questions over Romney’s standing among conservatives, which have dominated the media’s coverage of the race, have merely obscured the existence of an increasingly strong Romney majority, concerned most with defeating President Obama in November and which views Romney as the most “electable” of the Republican crop. Plurality voting then, has allowed Romney to win by clearing the lowest necessary bar, but has prevented him from displaying his wider appeal as the second choice of many voters.
This version of events portrays Romney as consensus candidate, the one man capable of uniting the GOP’s diverse coalition of voting blocs and preventing a second Obama term. Romney’s pluralities have failed to convince, the rules masking his majority, portraying him as vulnerable, and denying him the legitimacy that only a majority can confer. Sensing weakness, Romney’s conservative opponents have continued to believe in the existence of a “stop-Romney” majority, which—if this narrative is true—simply does not exist.
Under RCV, however, Romney, buoyed by an electoral framework that respects nuanced, multilayered opinion, would have the opportunity to demonstrate his appeal, a “consensus candidate” preferred most by all elements of the party and in command of a majority. The damaging and unflattering story that he cannot win among conservatives would be rendered untenable, and Romney’s efforts to attract conservatives would finally pay electoral dividends. And if, in actuality, a majority proved outside Romney’s grasp after the reallocation of second/third/fourth choices, then RCV would at least legitimatize another candidate.
The rules matter, discussion over electoral law being more than an esoteric, philosophical abstraction best left to academics teaching Political Science on a college campus. Rather, it affects citizens and political actors in very real, personal ways. Too often wrongly dismissed as a ploy by progressives, RCV and other reforms transcend the traditional divide between conservatives at one end of the ideological spectrum, progressives at the other, and centrists in between, and could have very real benefits for a divided Republican Party craving consensus and searching for unity in the age of Obama.
* Although finalized vote totals show Rick Santorum winning the Iowa caucuses by 34 votes over Mitt Romney, we purposefully refer to the contest as a win for Romney, who—since the media jumped the gun on election night and declared Romney the victorious candidate—received the lion's share of post-Iowa momentum.
† As a term, "conservative"—like most labels—is nebulous and difficult to define. In this article, we have used conservative as an umbrella term for a heterogeneous coalition of evangelical Christians and Tea Party supporters, which is consistent with journalistic opinion.