Joe Biden has been the Democratic frontrunner for the entire 2020 primary until last when Elizabeth Warren surged in the polls and briefly became the frontrunner. Her momentum made it look like she was going to demolish all the other campaigns, so naturally, all the other campaigns started dumping on Warren and she became the victim of the circular firing squad that focuses on whoever looks like the most probably next leader of the party. That backlash predictably caused her polls to fall again and next week all the Democrats will probably rejoin President Trump in their focus on hurting Biden as frontrunner again.
Research shows that in our political system, the most effective way to win is not to tell what positive ideas you have for improving the country, but to go negative and bash whoever your biggest rival is. As a result, in our political primaries where most candidates are broadly similar, they all tend to gang up on whoever is in the lead to try to make the frontrunner look bad and it often works. The 2012 Republican primary was particularly striking in how each underdog candidate briefly rose to take his turn as the frontrunner in the polls only to be torn down by the rest of the pack and then to be replaced by another top dog who had seemed pure by comparison only because he had yet to be assaulted with mud from the rest of the pack yet.
First it was Romney, then Perry shot up and plunged, followed by Cain whose meteoric rise and fall was echoed by Gingrich and then Santorum until finally Romney finally rose above the fray as the failed candidates dropped out and gave him their support (perhaps in hopes of gaining a cabinet nomination). This kind of campaign structure benefits candidates who can withstand a lot of mud because they really are remarkably candidates, but it also benefits the kind of candidate who is really good at schoolyard taunts, dirty campaigning, and those who can whip up a base of support that likes mudslinging more than policy because in a crowded primary, you can win the election with only a third of the vote because it doesn’t matter if 2/3 of voters hate you. If their votes are divided among seven other candidates, then they will each average 10% of the vote, 1/3 of the vote is a landslide of popularity by comparison as shown in this final Real Clear Politics poll for the 2016 Republican primary.
Trump had the highest negative poll numbers of any candidate among Republicans during the primaries. People don’t remember how much the median Republican disliked him because that changed after he got the nomination and Republicans didn’t have any other viable choice. Republicans are much more loyal to their party than Democrats and so most Republicans came around and warmed up to him. But they would have warmed up to any candidate and most would have preferred a more mainstream Republican like Bush or Rubio. Trump should not have gotten elected to be the Republican nominee because the majority of Republicans would have preferred one of the other candidates. But our electoral system does not elect the person the majority wants, we elect the person who gets the plurality of votes.
In a plurality voting system like ours, voters can only express their preferences about one and only one of the candidates and the candidate with the most votes (the plurality) wins. This works fine when there are only two candidates because then the majority of the people get their way. It is often criticized as being a dictatorship of the majority who can dominate the minority that loses, but the reverse would be worse: Nobody thinks a dictatorship of a minority is better. But that is what a plurality electoral system usually produces when there are multiple candidates. When the vote is split among three or more candidates, the winning plurality is usually a minority of the voters and so we end up with a dictatorship of a minority. Not good.
Fortunately there are lots of other electoral systems that allow voters to express their preferences for more than one candidate so that we can collectively select the most popular candidate who can get approval from more than a small plurality: approval voting, range voting, instant runoff voting (IRV), a Condorcet method, etc. Whereas voting reform theorists disagree about what the best system is because they all have different advantages, everyone universally agrees that any of these methods is better than our plurality system.
So if there are lots of alternatives that everyone agrees are vastly superior to the one we have, then why don’t we change our system?
- Most people are simply ignorant and don’t realize there is any other way to run elections. That is a failure of our education system that might be explained by the fact that powerful people don’t want Americans to know about alternatives because they don’t want change.
- Any political change creates winners and losers and changing our electoral system would redistribute political power away from some very powerful people in our duopoly party system. Although America’s founding fathers despised political parties and hoped our new nation would avoid them, they accidentally designed an electoral system that concentrates political power into a two-party duopoly. Our current system gives tremendous power to behind-the-scenes power brokers to decide who gets to be on the ballot and who gets to appear in political debates. These unelected party bureaucracies also control the vast majority of political resources (political donations and volunteers) that help determine who wins and who loses. These insiders would lose power if we moved beyond our plurality system because that would break up our party system into numerous less-powerful parties. In most of the world’s best democracies, there are more than two party which typically include a party for Christian Democrats (a common name for social conservatives in other countries), Libertarians (or some other party for business priorities), Greens (for environmentalists), Labor (for people whose identity prioritizes unions), and many others. That splintering of resources would reduce the power of our two generic parties for liberals (Democrats) and conservatives (Republicans).
- Even if the majority of Americans realized that we could easily improve the machinery of our elections, our entire political system is designed for gridlock so it would still be hard to get anything done. The constitution is hard to change. Any change can be vetoed by the checks and balances of four centers of federal power: the House, Senate, Executive, and Supreme Court, and it only takes 40% of Senators to block everyone else. Our decentralized federal system makes change difficult since power is divided between federal, state and local jurisdictions. And finally, America’s large geographic size and diverse population makes it harder to come together on decision-making than in smaller, more homogenous nations.
- Although there is broad agreement that our plurality voting system is the worst possible method of voting, the very fact that there are dozens of good alternatives for replacing it makes it hard to pick which one. It is like a van full of bored people driving through prairie on a winter night who all agree that it would be more fun to watch any move together on the van’s movie system, but there are 100 great options and every person in the van has a different favorite. It can take a long time of driving along bored in the darkness (the worst option) to come to an agreement about which movie to select. The choice of multiple possible improvements creates a status-quo bias due to gridlock. If only one of the hundred movies had been available, everyone would immediately agree that it is better than driving in darkness because any movie is much better than that, but because there are many possibilities which all have different advantages and disadvantages, it is harder to come to agreement about which one to select and darkness rules. Similarly, the small community of people who is aware that our system sucks is divided into competing camps that each propose a different system because there isn’t one voting system that is clearly the one best of them all.
Ironically, the voting reform advocates are stuck because they cannot agree upon which system to choose. You would think that voting experts could just take a vote and all commit to throw their unified support behind the winner, but because they can’t agree upon what voting system to use, they can’t even take a vote to decide which system should replace plurality voting. Pathetic.
Donald Trump won the Republican primary because he was a master at negative campaigning and he had the enthusiastic support from a plurality (minority) of supporters who didn’t care about Trump’s scandals that would sink most candidates. In a plurality system you win by tearing down everyone else and you don’t need to appeal to the majority of voters. Whereas plurality voting creates divisiveness between multiple candidates as demonstrated in our nasty presidential primaries, any of the other voting systems encourage focusing more on commonalities because candidates must get the approval of a majority, not just the biggest plurality. That means they need to avoid pissing off all the supporters of their rivals. This is exactly what happened in the 2018 San Francisco mayoral election which uses instant-runoff voting. There was a frontrunner who had a large plurality versus the second and third-place candidates who were distant underdogs, but instead of merely attacking everyone else, the two underdogs banded together because they were both more liberal than the frontrunner. They campaigned together and asked their supporters to rank the two of them together ahead of the frontrunner and one of them won because a majority of voters wanted one of these two more liberal candidates who were only behind the more conservative frontrunner in the polls because the polls were asking voters the plurality question of which one candidate they liked best.
Whenever there are three or more candidates, the plurality system fails and it becomes increasingly important to avoid plurality voting as the number of choices increases because the size of the plurality needed for victory shrinks with more candidates. In an election with ten candidates, in theory one can win with only eleven percent of the vote. Minneapolis had an election with eight candidates and if they had used a plurality system, it would encourage a crapfest like we have in our presidential primaries. Fortunately Minneapolis also uses instant-runoff voting for mayor and that helped their mayoral candidates become extremely civil with each other. It gives candidates the incentive to be kind and gentle to most of their rivals for the reason that you need their supporters to like you as well because you want everyone to vote for you as well as for your rivals and if you piss off the all the other candidates and their supporters, you won’t get elected. In 2013, the candidates literally put their arms around each other and all sang Kumbaya together at the end of their final debate. You gotta listen to Radiolab to hear what it was like. It is a great story that shows how much of a difference a better voting system can make.