Plurality Alone Won't Entitle Trump to the Nomination
If Donald Trump manages to sweep Tuesday’s primaries, there is a good chance he will win the 1,237 delegates needed for the Republican nomination. If he falters in Ohio and/or Florida, it is much less likely. Sure, he has demographically favorable states coming up in New York, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and possibly Connecticut and New Jersey, but there is also a slate of Midwestern and Rocky Mountain states on the horizon, where his polling performance has been much less impressive. Also, his strongest region – the South – will have finished its voting.
If Trump does win the majority of delegates, he will be the Republican nominee, full stop. But what if he falls short? There is a developing argument that if Trump goes into the convention with a plurality of the delegates, it would be unjust if he doesn't emerge with the nomination. Some observers, including some mainstream journalists, even claim that this will mean the nomination has been “stolen” from him. Trump himself pushed this argument at last Thursday’s debate, when he suggested that the 1,237 delegate threshold is just an “artificial, random number.”
In a sense, he is correct. All thresholds are arbitrary, and we have used a variety of them over time, all of which have their pluses and minuses. American congressional elections, for example, generally occur without a runoff, meaning that a plurality of the votes, however small, will suffice. The Electoral College, on the other hand, requires a majority to win (or else the race is thrown to the House of Representatives, where the vote of a majority of states is still required). Breaking a filibuster in the Senate requires a 60 percent supermajority, while ratification of treaties requires two-thirds of the upper chamber to consent. Until 1936, Democrats required that their nominee receive the votes of two-thirds of the delegates, while constitutional amendments can only be ratified with the consent of three-quarters of the states.
But in another, more accurate sense, Trump is incorrect. The GOP has required that its nominees receive a majority of the vote from its delegates for 160 years now. And this requirement has been consequential: Along the way, multiple candidates have received a plurality of the vote, yet failed to become the nominee. For example (note: The following percentages are of votes cast, not of the total number of delegates, many of whom would abstain in early rounds): William Seward (1860, 41.5 percent of the vote); James G. Blaine (1876, 45.9 percent); Ulysses S. Grant (1880, 41.3 percent); John Sherman (1888, 33.9 percent); Leonard Wood (1920, 45.5 percent); Frank Lowden (1920, 41.5 percent); Tom Dewey (1940, 36.1 percent). Since 1952, every Republican nomination has been decided on the first ballot.
The common rejoinder I hear is that the will of the people will have been thwarted if Trump wins the most votes, but is not the nominee. This is pure and simple nonsense. There is no expression of the “people’s will” with a plurality of the vote, especially when it is somewhere in the 30 percent range (as Trump’s is).
Think of it this way: Imagine that one-third of the voters prefer Ted Cruz to John Kasich or Trump, but that all of them prefer Kasich to Trump. Imagine that another third prefer Kasich to Cruz or Trump, but that all of these voters prefer Cruz to Trump. Imagine further that 34 percent of the voters prefer Trump outright (you can order Kasich and Cruz as you see fit).
Now, I think it is absolutely legitimate to set up a rule that says, “Under these circumstances, Donald Trump has the most votes and is therefore the nominee.” As I noted, this is how we decide congressional and Senate races.
But I don’t think this is the only route to legitimacy, or even the best one. A group can also look at this and legitimately reason: “Given a choice between Trump and Kasich, 66 percent would prefer Kasich, while given a choice between Trump and Cruz, 66 percent would prefer Cruz. Therefore, Trump should not be the nominee.”
Under a plurality rule, it is entirely possible for a candidate who was the fourth or fifth choice of the party overall to emerge victorious on account of the major candidates splitting their votes. This is the downside side of plurality rules: It is possible for a candidate who is loathed by a majority to win the post if the other voters don’t vote strategically.
What the Republican rules provide for is an acknowledgement that second and third choices are important in fractured fields. So you take your first vote and if no one has a majority, there are opportunities for delegates to throw their support to other candidates, if it is clear that their man (apologies to the Carly Fiorina delegate) cannot be the nominee.
Remember, these rules were created in a situation where the barriers to entry in a presidential race were fairly minimal: There were no primaries, fundraising was minimal, and major campaigns weren’t required. This isn’t to say that there was no “invisible primary,” only that it was minimal. So they were designed to manage large, competitive fields, which we’re beginning to see re-emerge as the rise of super PACs and Internet fundraising weakens party control of races.
Which brings us back to Trump. Trump is sort of like Blaine – a candidate who had a strong base of support but who was a third or fourth choice for a majority of the party (in Blaine’s case, this was in part because of concerns about corruption, and in part because he positioned himself in the middle of the most salient disputes). How do we know? Well, for starters, if Trump were a lot of voters’ second choice, he would be able to win the election on the second or third ballots easily, as Trump-leaning delegates would make strong showings at the convention.
More importantly, exit polls consistently show Trump with the lowest favorable ratings of the candidates among Republicans, the weakest scores on the “would you be satisfied if ‘x’ were the nominee” questions, and even losing head-to-head matchups with the other GOP candidates. Michigan is one of Trump’s most favorable states, demographically speaking, yet the exits show him losing the head-to-head matchup with Cruz, 43 percent to 41 percent. Michigan voters said, by a 55-42 percent margin, that they would be satisfied if Cruz won the nomination, versus 48-47 percent for Marco Rubio and 50-48 for Trump. Majorities saw Cruz and Rubio as honest and trustworthy, while a majority did not think Trump was honest and trustworthy. Yet, due to the fractured anti-Trump field, Trump won the state handily (in case you’re curious, yes, these patterns are repeated in other states).
To reiterate, you can make a rule that says, under these circumstances, that Trump is the nominee. Such a rule serves legitimate values—it is straightforward, requires no analysis of second choices, and resolves disputes quickly. But again, the people who framed the rules were well aware of the issues raised by large fields, and instead chose rules that required the party to form some sort of consensus among its nominees and to give some voice to second- and third- choice votes.
There are a great many things in politics about which reasonable minds can disagree. This is not one of them. You can’t steal something from someone who has no legitimate claim to it, and the rules here do not give someone a legitimate claim to the nomination without a majority of the delegates. If Trump can’t get that majority to back him, he will lose, and it will be because he should.