Majority? Who needs a majority?

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The Delegate Quirk That Enabled Trump's Rise

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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Much has been made about Donald Trump winning primaries in different regions of the country. But after 23 states and Puerto Rico have held nominating contests, Trump has yet to win 50 percent in any of them. It’s rare for a candidate to go this deep into a primary season without having cleared that mark and still go on to be the nominee. His success highlights an important quirk in Republican Party rules: A candidate can clinch the nomination without ever persuading a majority of voters in any given state.

For some perspective: In 2012, Governor Mitt Romney squeaked out a majority in the fifth state to vote, Nevada. In 2008, Senator John McCain did not win a majority in the first eight states, but then won three majorities in the 21 Super Tuesday states. In 1996, Sen. Bob Dole ran through ten states before winning majorities in three of the next nine. On the Democratic side, nominees who emerged from crowded fields in 1976, 1988, 1992, and 2004 all won a statewide majority within the first dozen states.

QuickTake How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

Maybe Trump’s failure to clear the 50 percent mark (he came close in Massachusetts and Mississippi, where he received 49 and 47 percent, respectively) says more about the strength of the field than it does about him. And perhaps he will clear it soon. But a new poll shows Trump losing head-to-head matchups against both Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

The prospect of a candidate winning the nomination without being the choice of the majority is the nightmare scenario Republican leaders are now facing, and it will almost certainly prompt discussion about rule changes for future elections. What might those changes be?

One option is to adopt the Democratic Party’s approach: awarding delegates in a more proportional manner, while also creating more superdelegates who could band together against an extremist candidate. An analysis by 538’s Nate Silver shows that under Democratic Party rules, Trump would have about 20 percent fewer delegates. Of course, this approach does more to encourage candidates with little chance of winning to stay in the race, increasing the likelihood of prolonged campaigns and contested conventions. Until Trump, that was the outcome party leaders most wanted to avoid. Now it doesn't look so bad.

Another option would be to give delegates at the convention the flexibility to switch horses on the first ballot if no candidate wins a majority in a certain number of states. That could lead to charges of backroom deals, but it might also save a party from self-destruction.  

A more drastic change would be for states to hold runoff elections between the top two finishers when no candidate receives a majority of votes. Runoffs are fairly common in local and statewide races, and they can be very useful.

Take the case of a 2014 Alabama House race. In a Republican primary with seven candidates, Paul DeMarco won 33 percent of the vote. His nearest challenger, Gary Palmer, won only 20 percent. But in the runoff, the margins were reversed: Palmer received 64 percent to DeMarco’s 37 percent.

When no runoff occurs, candidates who have low ceilings of support can win nominations and elections, frustrating the will of the majority. Sure, runoffs cost money. But if they’re worth it for local and state offices, why not the presidency?

The trouble is, holding a second election two to four weeks after the first would complicate candidates’ campaign schedules, divert attention away from other states, and force the leading campaigns to continue spending money in runoff states, putting them at a disadvantage elsewhere.

States could eliminate these problems -- and the added costs of a runoff -- by adopting ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting. Various U.S. cities including San Francisco and Minneapolis have adopted this system, as have several states for overseas ballots. (It is not without its flaws.) 

Party leaders could also consider splitting the primary calendar in half, allowing only the two leading candidates to advance to the second round. States could choose whether they wanted to play a role in picking the finalists or the winner. As it stands now, states that vote after March are usually left to rubber-stamp the winner. This would give them a more meaningful role in the nomination process.

Trump has exposed a central flaw in the nominating system -- the possibility of selecting a nominee who lacks majority support -- that will prompt leaders in both parties to consider ways to protect against it. Even if Trump fails to win the nomination, he may have a lasting impact on presidential politics.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net