On Elections

How people elect parliaments

The Republican establishment’s three-body problem

The 2016 race for the Republican nomination for US president looks destined to become a historic case study in three-sided single-winner electoral contests.

The Democrats, ironically, are showing just how simple it can be. Now down to two candidates, both with substantial followings, they hold a mirror up to the complexity that has emerged on the Republican side.

With proportional sharing of delegates in all states – rather than the old clunky winner-take-all rule – the Democratic party contest will be essentially fair to each candidate and should provide the voters with a legitimate outcome.

Not so with the Republicans. The odds are now very high that the result of their selection process will be both unfair to the candidates and will end up looking illegitimate to a majority of the voters who take part in the whole affair.

To understand how complex the Republican race is, we need to look at the policy differences of the candidates, and the strident rejection facing each candidate from a majority of their party.

For half a century one of the main underlying dynamics on the Republican side has been the tension between two groups.

On the one hand have been experienced politicians who make some attempt to prepare to win the middle ground of the American electorate in the eventual elections in November. Almost all eventual party nominees have been serving or former Vice-Presidents or state governors. This category can broadly be termed the ‘establishment’, and it has won the party nomination every year since 1968 (which is to say, every year since the semi-democratic primary system for choosing nominees was put in place).

In just two cases (Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008) the party has selected a sitting US senator as their nominee. Both men were leading figures in Congress with 25 years or more in office; as such they can be counted as experienced, tested establishment figures.

Even most of the unsuccessful candidates who ran for the nomination meet this description.

(It’s worth noting in passing that candidates on the Democratic side almost always came from the same established political backgrounds.)

The other ‘faction’ in the Republican side of politics has been a nebulous group that might broadly be described as the ‘religious right’, or perhaps as ‘conservative’, or at least more ideologically conservative than the establishment ‘professionals’. This counter-culture has also included other forms of outsider from time to time, such as leaders of the libertarian philosophy, and more recently flag-bearers for the tea party anti-establishment movement.

The non-establishment right, whether religious, conservative or libertarian, really only won the nomination once, in 1964. Their nominee Barry Goldwater, a senator from outside the party’s leadership group, lost the following election in a landslide.

To be fair, senator Goldwater faced sitting Democratic President Lyndon Johnson at the height of his powers and popularity.

(Pub quiz question: which of the current 2016 presidential nominees worked – as a teenager – on the Goldwater election campaign in 1964?)

Anyway, the Republican establishment and the party’s voters haven’t seen fit to choose a non-establishment presidential nominee ever since. Conservative candidates have had a tendency to get their campaigns off to an apparently good start by winning evangelical Iowa – the first state to contribute to the selection season – and then flame out.

Which brings us to what is different in 2016. Put simply, the conservative, religious right have got their act together better than ever before. Or to be precise, the extremely deliberate and determined senator Ted Cruz has got their act together.

In 2008 Barack Obama demonstrated the viability of a new model of successful nominee: the first-term senator, ideologically distinct and full of campaign energy to motivate the frustrated ‘base’ of a party.

In 2012, the Republicans didn’t have a conservative that could copy that path, and the party establishment rallied vigorously behind the traditional model of the state governor in their eventual nominee Mitt Romney. In 2016 senator Cruz, more carefully prepared and more ruthless, is finally making this model viable.

With the religious right generally polling the support of 30-35% of Republican voters, Cruz’ candidacy is well underway. Predictably, he won the first primary event of 2016 – the Iowa caucus on 1 February. He has also already burned off two of the other three conservative candidates – Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum – and the third, the non-politician Ben Carson, is flagging and should shortly withdraw. The libertarian candidate Rand Paul has also withdrawn early, and Cruz is actively courting his supporters. In short, Senator Cruz has the best shot of a conservative seizing the nomination from the establishment in decades.

There are just two problems. Firstly, the establishment don’t just oppose Cruz, they loath him, personally and on policy grounds.

And secondly, a comet named Donald Trump has struck the entire exercise side-on.

Trump is something entirely different from any past candidacy. Self funded, media-savvy, largely free of the shackles of political orthodoxy, uncontrolled by financial donors or political support bases, he’s an unguided political missile. He is rousing the angry, frustrated economic victims of modern America’s unequal economy, and for six months he’s been running away with the ball game. Polls consistently say he has the support of 35-40% of Republican voters.

Which leaves looking somewhat neglected the old party establishment and its traditional candidate approach. Polling at around 25-30% support, the establishment now looks to be the weakest of three factions.

A three-way contest is an uncomfortable form of decision for selecting a single winner. In this presidential nomination process, the venue for such a decision is the national party convention in July. The currency of power is the number of convention delegates each faction has won during the primary season. These 2,200 specifically elected candidate-supporting delegates join together with hundreds of other delegates who are serving party politicians and officials, most of whom are supporters of establishment thinking.

Of just over 100 unelected convention delegates who have already endorsed candidates, over 80 have endorsed one of the establishment figures. 20 have endorsed Cruz. Not one has endorsed Trump. Around 400 remain uncommitted.

Where three factions share the vote, eventually they need to come together and find a solution where two factions join to overcome the third. The relative votes of the three factions don’t really matter; indeed the smallest faction is often the real decision-maker (but not itself the winner) of such contests.

That suggests that the establishment may eventually get to choose between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump – a decision prospect that utterly horrifies them.

As just mentioned, the establishment does have the head start of the large share of unelected convention delegates. Even if its candidates end up as the third largest elected faction, they may remain a real prospect for winning the nomination on the convention floor. Handling the political imagery of this process very carefully will be important, though. To the extent that such an outcome would overthrow candidates who had won much more public support – that is, either or even both of Trump or Cruz – it could look undemocratic and illegitimate. But the party leaders’ desperate need for an acceptable and viable election candidate will focus their thinking.

Can this situation get any worse for the establishment? Well actually yes, it can – because they still have no single candidate to rally behind: they have four, or even six for the moment. Their divided field is resulting in destructive internal attacks between their candidates, damaging goodwill, wasting money and dividing their donor base.

But what’s more, it threatens to seriously damage their accumulation of convention delegates. Most states have rules (applied both statewide and in districts) that only those candidates who win more than 15% of the vote score any delegates. Four candidates scoring around 10% of the vote each is therefore a mathematical disaster for the establishment field. As each such state goes by, this group as a whole would be collectively winning less influence at the convention than the sum of its parts.

Leaving aside two now very minor candidates, the establishment field consists of three governors and a youthful senator.

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is a formidable debater and campaigner, and arguably the only Republican who could attempt to claim the national middle ground as a moderate. Largely because of the last attribute he’s polling around 3% among Republican voters.

Governor John Kasich of Ohio is polling around 2%, and his weak campaign and unpopular tactic of focusing on positivity surely indicate he won’t win through. But Kasich has invested heavily in New Hampshire’s 8 February primary, and if he leads the establishment group in results there calls for his withdrawal will seem unreasonable, further prolonging his participation.

US primaries 2016 - phase 1

The four states with primary elections in February 2016 – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada

Former governor Jeb Bush of Florida was the establishment’s favourite. Heavily backed by donors, with supporting groups spending more than $100 million already, and endorsed by many unelected delegates, his campaign has been a general disaster, winning around 5% voter support. By any standard he should drop out – except that he’s the one the establishment most wants to hang in there.

Which leaves Senator Marco Rubio. Polling at around 15% and the leading establishment candidate in Iowa, he has claims to be the pack leader for the group. Except – he’s not really of the establishment at all. Just 4 years into his Senate career, he doesn’t fit the experience profile that is the heart of establishment thinking. In truth he straddles the establishment and the conservative factions, gambling that if he can’t win the nomination during the primary season, he’s well positioned as the compromise candidate in any convention-brokered outcome.

The establishment don’t want Rubio. They know he’s only accidentally categorized as being among their group. Establishment figures and interest groups are spending heavily in the lead-up to New Hampshire’s primary to destroy Rubio’s character and his campaign.

In fact, the poor old establishment are now in the bizarre position not only of not leading the field as they have for half a century, but of rejecting the top three current candidates. As an exercise in consolidating behind a single flag-bearer, the establishment’s position threatens to become a fiasco.


There are points in any election where the developing shape of the outcome becomes so highly probable that it’s too late to change what’s happening. In this contest two mathematical turning points are worth watching for.

First, at what point do either or each of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz acquire the critical mass of delegates to make a three-way convention battle inevitable? (That’s assuming, of course, that the ultimate nightmare of one of these two running away to a majority doesn’t start to unfold.)

That point is probably around 10-12% of total delegates; if either gets at least that share, the odds of the establishment recovering control of the nomination are probably gone.

With the convention having 2,767 delegates, that means something around 300 delegates.

That point should be reached by around March 8, although one of them may reach it on March 1. From that point on, the Republican convention is doomed to be a brokered one, and this incontestable reality will change the dynamic of the race.

The other turning point is the point by which the establishment needs to get its act together and settle on a single flag-bearer. It seems likely that if all four of Rubio, Kasich, Bush and Christie continue through the four states of the first month, both their collective position as the third-largest faction and their collective loss of delegates to the 15% threshold rule will become fully apparent.

If they fail to consolidate into a single candidate, or at most two, for the multi-state primary event on March 1, the result will likely be a debacle that will damage them in two ways.

US primaries 2016 - phase 2

The biggest day of the 2016 season, March 1st, with Republican primaries in 14 states

Firstly, it may put their collective delegate count into such a dire state that even the bonus of the many unelected delegates will not be sufficient to recover their position. It could mean that by March 2, it is publicly undeniable that no establishment figure can win – at least among the voters – the primary race for the presidential nomination.

Worse still, it will deny the establishment any public legitimacy should they even attempt to prevent either of Trump of Cruz from being awarded the nomination. Should it be Trump, in particular, who has the most delegates as the convention opens, and whom the establishment is working desperately to reject despite the support of the voters, the political optics will be very damaging indeed.

The broad shape of this race should therefore be known by early March, after which the mathematics of the way the decision must be made will hardly change at all. Such is the rigid logic of a three-sided contest.

The whole Republican roadshow could be forced to swing painfully in the wind, battered by public dissension and tactical maneuvering, for four long months. This prospect, being now completely foreseeable, provides the Republicans with an enormous incentive to somehow sort this mess out. But being divided on what exactly to do, they don’t have any easy or attractive means of doing so. Any solution turns at the very least on a brutal culling of the field of candidates, and fast.

Now, this post is already too long, or I’d go on reflect on the unhelpful rule adopted four years ago about how nominees qualify to put their name forward to the convention. Hold that thought…


We’ll learn from this. The 2016 Republican nomination race, apart from its own political importance, looks likely to become a historic lesson in electoral dynamics – joining the French presidential election of 2002 and the Egyptian presidential election of 2011 as examples of how election processes can go horribly wrong.


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This entry was posted on February 9, 2016 by in Current issues, United States, US presidential primaries, Voting systems.
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