2016 Elections

The U.S. System Is Designed to Beat Trump

Primary rules favoring a party front-runner without a majority can lead to slaughter in the general election.

The power and the fury.

Photographer: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

"The evil we experience flows from the excess of democracy," Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry told the Constitutional Convention on May 31, 1787.

The 2016 Super Tuesday voting rules in his home state do nothing to limit such "excesses," and Donald Trump is likely to win in a landslide there. Yet, ultimately, the existing primary rules may serve the Founding Fathers' goal of creating safeguards against ochlocracy -- mob rule.

Gerry could have been watching Trump and wincing. He said:

The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots. In Massachusetts it had been fully confirmed by experience, that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions, by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.

In Massachusetts today, polls give Trump 44 percent and his closest rival, Marco Rubio, only 18 percent. The state will distribute its delegates proportionally among candidates. Other Super Tuesday states have rules more weighted in favor of the front-runner. Most Southern states will give all their delegates to the candidate who wins more than 50 percent (though Arkansas, for example, will subtract one delegate for each rival who wins more than 15 percent). In Alabama, the winner in each congressional district will pick up two out of three delegates. 

The sheer variety of often illogical election rules baffles a foreign observer: It isn't clear why the states have different procedures if this is about federal office, and it's even harder to understand why the results need additional weighting toward the winner. Democracy, after all, would be best served by a straight proportional system, as in Massachusetts.

I put the weird rule-making down to the Founding Fathers' mistrust of democracy. James Madison only thought it suited to small polities where the people can gather and rule directly; bigger ones needed what he called a republican system of representation. The rules by which this representation would be defined were meant to curb excessive democracy because voters' ignorant passion might lead to tyranny (20th-century European history knows plenty of such examples). That's why the Electoral College, and not the people directly, elects the president.

Ostensibly, the primary rules weren't written with anti-ochlocracy safeguards in mind. They were meant to draw a quicker path to intraparty unity on a presidential candidate. The result is that Trump, a potential strongman without majority support in a single state, has a distinct advantage and a chance to seal the primary campaign soon after Tuesday's 11-state vote fest.

One thing I've come to understand about U.S. politics, however, is that you don't mess with the Founding Fathers. Everything that feeds into the system they built only proves the system more efficient. Democracy's excesses are covered, after all.

If Trump wins the nomination without majority support among the Republicans, simply because he faces a divided field, the party is likely to lose the general election. At least that's what the head-to-head polls show: According to most of them, Hillary Clinton (not to mention Bernie Sanders) will be able to beat Trump in November. 

Ted Cruz, Rubio and John Kasich would all beat Clinton, according to the polls. That's because they are largely interchangeable, and the Republican majority can back any of them without compromising too much on principle. Not so with Trump: Many Republicans won't be able to bring themselves to vote for him. I have seen this among evangelicals in South Carolina, and my Bloomberg View colleague Megan McArdle has recently documented the phenomenon among the Republican readers of her columns and Twitter feed. 

The Republican primary system is pushing Trump forward though he is not the party's preferred candidate. Ultimately, the rules are set up to punish the party for being unable to choose the candidate who would best represent it. The punishment is all the more cruel because it is delayed, allowing the suboptimal candidate to taste victory prematurely.

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