Editor’s note: Paul E. Peterson is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and Professor of Government Studies at Harvard University. The views expressed in this comment are his own. View more opinions on CNN.
To keep extremism at bay, Republicans must use proportional representation as a method of selecting delegates for their 2024 Presidential Convention. Current rules have a strong winner-take-all bias – designed in many states to create horse racing elections in which the candidate who wins the most votes in a particular state wins all or most of the delegates from that state.
Horse racing rules helped former President Donald Trump win the 2016 Republican nomination, and horse racing rules could make Trump the 2024 Republican leader. In 2016, Trump won only a majority instead of a majority of primary voters against over a dozen Republican candidates. Because of government winner-takes-all rules, Trump was able to turn that around 45% of the votes He won the support of 70% of the delegates at the GOP convention in the primary.
Through 2024, the former president retains a loyal, albeit limited, electorate, and the most promising alternative to Trump could find votes being dumped on as many as a dozen “all but Trump” candidates. When multiple states hold horse races, Trump can be expected to win a majority of delegates despite receiving only a minority of the primary votes – which in turn gives him an excellent chance of winning all or most of the delegates in those states.
Proportional representation, which gives candidates roughly the same share of congressional delegates from a state as the share of votes they receive, could slow and perhaps stop what now looks like a slow-moving train wreck. When Ben Ginsberg, a former Republican Party attorney, observed“a lot of attention should be given” to how the rules of the game can affect the number of delegates a candidate wins.
Although each state sets its own area code rules, the issue could be addressed by the Republican National Committee (RNC) because it determines the number of delegates from each state. It can thus reduce the number of delegates from any state that does not comply with national party rules, a severe penalty that generally compels states to comply.
In 2016, for example, the RNC said that primary elections held before March 15 would suffer a reduction in delegation if they held a horse racing election. After that date, states were free to shape elections as they wished, and many Republican primary elections then became horse races or half horse races, with the winner winning all or most of the delegates by only a majority of the vote.
18 states this year pretty much followed proportional representation, while 18 other states, including some of the largest (California, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio), drafted a horse-racing approach. The remaining states either held caucuses or introduced a mixture of the two designs.
Given that these rules favor a Trump candidacy, and given the Trump candidacy lasting influence vis-à-vis the RNC, there is little chance of changing national party rules, giving states a great deal of flexibility if they hold their elections after mid-March 2024.
State legislatures may make adjustments in the coming months, but importantly, few major states with horseracing rules can change the course of a primary competition. Unless the RNC bans horse-racing-style elections outright, those who want to contain the Trump campaign must convince their partisan allies in each state that the best way to win a national election is to devise rules that can unite the party around a candidate who can garner broad public support.
Horserace rules are best reserved for general elections, when they typically produce two and only two major parties, each with a broad political base. In contrast, proportional representation better fits the purpose of a party in the primary presidential election process.
The aim is to enable fair representation of all points of view at the nomination meeting. Let all candidates run and get as many votes as possible. Coalition formation can take place during or on the eve of the National Convention.
The Democrats recognized that. proportional representation in primary elections is now mandatory by the Democratic National Committee (DNC). These national rules have placed limits on the strength of the party’s progressive left, as well as a potential Dixiecrat faction or the emergence of any other extremist group.
In 2020, proportional representation ensured that center candidate Joe Biden would garner strong support in almost every state as long as he retained a strong base in the African American community and among the moderates. Neither Massachusetts’ Sens. Elizabeth Warren nor Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, both progressives, were able to gain enough traction in enough states to beat him. Similar dynamics will likely be at play in 2024 as a progressive candidate looks to challenge Biden next year.
As noted, Republican rules in 2016 penalized states for holding horseracing elections too early by reducing the number of delegates representing the state at Congress. As a result, neither Trump nor any other candidate gained a decisive advantage in the primaries leading up to Super Tuesday. But on and after that date, a close contest turned into a defeat when Trump won Florida, Arizona, Delaware, Maryland and Indiana – as well as the lion’s share of delegates in New York, Illinois and Connecticut.
If the election rules remain the same in 2024 as in 2016, a repeat scenario is more likely than unlikely. It’s true that the former president alienated the Republican establishment by denouncing fellow Republicans, denying the results of the 2020 election, and Supporting weak, extremist candidates in congressional primaries that cost party control in the Senate.
Yet Trump still gets 38% support in polls of Republican-leaning voters. If Trump can negotiate that base to horse-racing victories on Super Tuesday 2024, and thereafter amass delegate power well in excess of actual popular support, Republicans will be little different from Democrats in defeating William Jennings Bryan and his “Cross of Gold.” followed defeat three times in a row in the beginning of the 20th century.
When the rules call for proportional representation, no candidate can enter the convention with a clear majority unless he has won a majority of Republican primary voters. Also, it will be difficult for extremist candidates to expand beyond their base. Consequently, the candidate who enters the convention with the best chance of winning the presidency should be best positioned to win the party’s nomination.
The Democrats remain committed to proportional representation. It’s time Republicans wake up and do the same.
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