Thursday, August 11, 2016


How is it that Donald Trump did so well in the primaries and is tanking so badly in the general election? I think the answer is that if the primaries were run as they should have been run, the Republican Party (and perhaps the Democrats also) would have a different nominee. What am I talking about? I’m talking about runoff elections. We claim to be a “democratic” society, yet we elect our public officials most undemocratically. If there are three or more candidates for office in a race, we award the race to the candidate who receives the most votes regardless of whether that candidate receives more than 50% of the votes. 

Before a certain date, in primaries the delegates are divided among the candidates according to the percentage of the votes they got. After a certain date, the primary elections are winner-take-all, no matter how small the "winner's" margin of victory.

Take this example: Tom, Dick, Harry, Larry, Moe, Curly, Shemp, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo run for Dog Catcher. Tom gets 11 votes; Dick gets 10 votes; Harry, Larry, Moe, Curly, Shemp, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico each get 9 votes; and Zeppo gets 7 votes. There is no runoff. Tom is elected Dog Catcher despite the fact that 89% of the voters didn’t want him. With a runoff, that 89% would be given a choice between Tom and Dick, and the person elected Dog Catcher would be the choice of a majority of the voters. With multiple candidates in an election, our system looks more like a game of dice than a democracy. And the electorate often rolls snake eyes.

For example, Florida was a winner-take-all state. Trump got 45.7% of the votes and all 99 delegates. With a runoff, the voters would have chosen between Trump and Marco Rubio. Rubio would probably have gotten the lion's share of the votes cast for the other eleven candidates, and in the leadup to the second primary Trump likely would have alienated enough of his first primary voters to give the 99 delegates to Rubio.

In Florida we used to have runoff elections in Democratic and Republican primaries. I don’t have statistics to back this observation up, but it seemed to me that very frequently the top vote-getter in the first primary was soundly defeated in the second primary. Several years ago Florida decided runoff elections in primaries were too costly and did away with them, giving the election to the winner of a plurality of the votes. Then I noticed something else that I don’t have any statistics to back up. It seemed to me that very unpopular and/or very incompetent candidates were getting elected to office because multiple popular and/or good candidates split the votes of the majority of the voters so that the least desirable candidate got elected.

That’s what happened on a grand scale in the primaries with Trump. He appealed to a sizeable minority of disaffected Republican voters, and they were able to swamp the majority voters, who split their votes among the host of other Republican candidates. Had there been a runoff in each of these primaries, Trump would have lost most of them, and probably no candidate would have gone to the Republican Convention with enough delegates to secure the nomination. The result would have been that the Convention would have compromised on the most electable of the candidates—certainly not Trump—and that candidate would have gone on to trounce Hillary Clinton in the general election.

Trump can’t possibly get elected. The sizeable minority of voters he appeals to cannot overpower a majority split among multiple competing candidates in the general election because there is only one other viable candidate in the general election—Hillary Clinton. The sizeable minority that she appeals to will eagerly vote for her, and the majority of people who are offended by Trump as a human being and/or frightened of Trump as a president will reluctantly vote for her.

We thus see history repeating itself, but not quite. Bill Clinton was elected president the first time because an egomaniacal moneybags ran for president as a third party candidate and sucked enough votes away from George H.W. Bush to give the election to an egomaniacal career politician. Hillary Clinton will be elected president because an egomaniacal moneybags ran for president, scuttling the Republican Party in the process, and gave the election to an egomaniacal career politician. 

The only silver lining I see in this mess is the fact that Trump is so far behind Clinton in the polls that it probably won't be necessary for me to vote for her. If the polling continues as it has over the last few days I can safely squander my vote on Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate.