Donald Trump has finally announced the launch of his presidential campaign for the 2024 election. Given the disappointing performance by Republicans in the midterm elections, a number of GOP leaders are blaming the former president and his election-denier candidates for the Republican meltdown. Now an increasing number are pushing for a new “Trumpian without Trump” direction for their party.
Good luck with that. For a few basic reasons, it’s going to be difficult for them to bury the orange-haired, hockey-masked assailant that keeps rising again and again in the middle of their movie.
One of the reasons is the architecture of our antiquated 18th century Electoral College method for electing that president; that in turn is preceded by a backward GOP procedure for selecting its presidential nominee. Both of these structures favor a candidate like Trump, who has a solid core of support that will turn out for him.
Let’s start with the GOP primary process. In most of the states, Republicans use a “plurality wins all” method for deciding the winner of each state. The highest vote-getter wins 100% of that state’s delegates, even if that candidate has far less than a majority of the vote.
For example, in 2016 Trump was the highest vote-getter in the GOP primary in South Carolina with only 33 percent of the vote — yet he received all of South Carolina’s delegates. With a half-dozen competitors vying against him, Trump benefited by having more votes than any other candidate, yet two-thirds of the voters voted against him. Then on Super Tuesday in 2016, Trump received a disproportionate share of delegates in each state, despite lacking majority support. He racked up low-plurality victories in state after state, and won the nomination despite not winning 50% of the cumulative Republican voters’ support across all states.
But here’s the key part to recognize: Trump benefited because there were so many GOP candidates in the race, all splitting the vote in multiple directions, all spoiling each other. Had there been only two candidates in most of those primaries, there is a good chance that Trump would not have won the nomination. A large field of candidates is what allowed Trump to rack up delegates and win the nomination with a relatively small vote share.
This factor could easily benefit him once again in 2024. In fact, if Trump wants to game this clunky selection system, he would encourage more candidates to run. If he can instigate a big field he will be able to mobilize his fanatical base in ways that other candidates won’t be able to compete with. By doing so, he would have a good chance of replicating his success from 2016.
Virginia shows the way to de-Trumping the GOP
The best way to avoid this would be for the GOP either to figure out a way to limit the number of candidates, or to use ranked choice voting in each state’s primary. That would allow voters to rank their favorite candidates, 1, 2, 3, in an “instant runoff” to ensure that the winner of each state’s delegates at the very least has been selected by a majority of the popular vote. That would incentivize winning candidates to reach out beyond their narrow support base to try and win second and third rankings from the supporters of other candidates.
Republicans have begun using RCV in primaries in a handful of states. In Virginia, the GOP used ranked choice voting to select its nominee for governor in a crowded field. RCV allowed Glenn Youngkin, a more mainstream, palatable candidate to best Amanda Chase, the polarizing “Trump-in-heels” candidate, and then go on to beat the Democrat in the general election. Virginia Republicans not only credit RCV for ensuring that Youngkin had the widest support, but many also believe that it helped the party unite faster and helped Youngkin to get elected governor in an otherwise blue-trending state.
There is still time before the 2024 campaign season to implement RCV in many states. Otherwise, without a better electoral system design in the GOP primaries, we may yet see a reprise of the 2016 debacle, in which Trump will rack up state after state with low plurality victories, while more moderate Republican candidates will split the majority of the vote among too many candidates. And voilà, Trump will end up once again as the nominee.
The Electoral College playground
Once nominated, Trump then moves on to the general election against the Democratic nominee. Where, as we saw in the past, just about anything can happen – including winners that lack a majority of the nationwide popular vote.
Trump was not supposed to beat Hillary Clinton. The polls showed him losing, most of the punditry predicted he would lose. FBI Director James Comey thought he would lose (which factored into Comey releasing damaging info about Clinton just 11 days before the election, which contributed to her loss). There are even indications that Trump himself thought he was going to lose.
And yet, in this “Age of Resentment,” Trump rode an unforeseen wave to defy all expectations and odds and pulled out a victory. Here’s how the unthinkable could happen again in 2024, entirely due to our clunky and antiquated 18th century electoral college system.
If you look at the presidential map, it is easy to predict which candidate, either Democrat or Republican, will win the vast majority of the states. Realistically, we can predict today – two years from the next presidential election – that virtually any generic Democrat already has locked up 18 solidly Democratic states (including the District of Columbia) with 221 electoral votes toward the 270 needed for election (this calculation includes one out of two electoral votes from Maine). Any generic Republican already has locked up 24 solidly GOP states with 218 electoral votes (including two out of three electoral votes from Nebraska). That leaves only eight battleground states with a total of 99 electoral votes that will decide the election.
Which are these eight swing states? The usual suspects in recent years – Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New Hampshire. What should be a national election, in which the candidates are debating the most pressing national issues of our times, instead devolves into one decided by a handful of undecided voters in a handful of battleground states. A minority of a minority, when cranked through the meatgrinder of our creaky, antiquated political system, somehow results in a majority of electoral votes. That kind of electoral vote kabuki signals trouble ahead.
Just as bad, the issues become dumbed down as the candidates pander to a small handful of voters. Everyone else and the issues or candidates they care about are left on the political sidelines. Once the presidential election boils down to an electoral crapshoot waged across this small swing-state map, all bets are off. Almost anything could happen.
Fortunately there is a way to improve this broken formula for the Electoral College too. It’s called the National Popular Vote. It doesn't require a constitutional amendment, instead it utilizes the ability of states to enter into compacts with each other to award each state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. Once a critical mass of states wielding a majority of electoral votes (at least 270) has agreed to the treaty, only then would it go into effect among all those states. At that point, the presidential election would become a de facto national popular vote, without any constitutional amendment.
Currently, the National Popular Vote plan has been enacted by 16 jurisdictions possessing 195 electoral votes. It will take effect when enacted by states with 75 more electoral votes, and bills to do that have passed at least one chamber in 9 additional states with 88 more electoral votes. A total of 3,522 state legislators from all 50 states have endorsed it. So there is serious momentum behind this effort.
Antiquated methods = failing democracy
The current Electoral College system is a product of another century, and the writings of James Madison about the Constitutional Convention reveal that its design was not one based on the Founders’ brilliance. Rather, it was drafted by a confused group of men who had no precedents to guide them. They were trying to abolish the divine right of kings, but wanted an executive branch more effective than what had been created by the Articles of Confederation. They were making it up as they went along, trying to find that sweet spot of compromise.
They failed. The Electoral College broke down within the first couple of presidential elections. Initially they used a limited form of approval voting, in which all electors had two votes, which quickly led to vote-wasting strategies like “bullet voting.” A tie in the election of 1800 prompted the passage of the 12th Amendment in 1804 to fix the obvious defects. The amendment provided for separate Electoral College votes for President and Vice President, correcting weaknesses in the initial design.
So when modern day originalists interpret the antiquated Constitution as if it is the Bible that must be followed rigidly according to the letter of original intent, remember that the Founders’ wisdom and vision failed them 233 years ago when they designed the method for electing the president. Fallibility afflicted even that remarkable slave-owning generation, so there’s no point in canonizing them on a pedestal.
Now, in the 21st century, our presidential selection process has become our nation’s crazy uncle in the attic. Every few years he pops out and creates a scene, and everyone swears that something must be done. But as soon as election day passes, we’re happy to ignore him again—until the next time he makes a spectacle of himself.
If we don’t want to see any number of unintended and damaging consequences occurring in the 2024 presidential election – including the prospect that we could see a sequel to this Friday the 13th horror movie starring the hockey-masked Real Donald Trump – political leaders need to mobilize now to improve our broken nomination and election processes.