On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Trump sees off last rival

Ohio Governor John Kasich didn’t hang on in the race for the Republican presidential nomination in the United States. His withdrawal late on Wednesday would seem to confirm that the party cannot now organise any alternative to Donald Trump as their leader.

The outcome could be disastrous for the Republicans. With Trump’s position becoming clear, mainstream and social media are broiling with party members, supporters and elected representatives denouncing Trump, swearing to withhold election support, formally abandoning their party registration and even burning voter ID papers.

Some are openly contemplating preferring Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as a more suitable US President. Many are considering what future retrospective judgement they would face if they do not oppose Trump.

Politically active party members are also speaking publicly about how day-to-day politics will pan out over the next four years, when innumerable political issues will need to be faced. A quote from national founding father Alexander Hamilton that “If we must have an enemy at the head of government, let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible” is being widely circulated.

The argument goes that having Trump in the White House might actually make it harder to fight on key political issues. All the more so if President Trump proves to be an erratic policy leader.

Trump’s success highlights a common problem in electoral mechanics – the scenario where the most popular of several alternatives is also one of the most opposed of those alternatives.

Trump has now averaged around 41% of the roughly 26 million votes cast by Republican supporters through the primary election season. But in a field which started with 17 candidates, and which was still at 3 surviving candidates in Tuesday’s primary election in Indiana, the opposition to Trump could never unite.

image - Trump in Indiana

Donald Trump is not yet confirmed as nominee, but all his campaign rivals have surrendered (image: realdonaldtrump Instagram)

The second-placed alternative, Senator Ted Cruz – who consolidated the vote of the religious right of the party to average around 27% support during the season – was probably also among the most disliked.

All through the primary season, acceptable compromise candidates have scored such low votes that one by one, their campaigns have collapsed. The specific sequence of events denied the party establishment a means to organise effectively.

Analyst Nate Cohn, in an insightful piece in the New York Times, ruefully summed up why the alternative candidates, and the party leadership, could not stop Trump.

“The sheer number [of candidates] kept many donors and officials on the sidelines, waiting to see who would emerge as a strong contender. It diffused whatever power the “party elite” had to influence the outcome”, Cohn wrote.

“At just about every stage, there were too many candidates to mount a truly effective anti-Trump effort.”

In addition to dividing attention and funding, the tactic by most of the other campaigns to leave the dangerous task of attacking Trump until ‘later’ meant that the unorthodox frontrunner was taken seriously and steadily acquired legitimacy.

Those who opposed Trump could never deny him media attention and the credibility that came with it. As the satirical journal The Onion foresaw, in an eerily prescient piece published in July 2015, the nation and the media could not avert its gaze from the reality-TV campaign run by Trump.

Whether the audience actually want to see Trump win may have become, The Onion implies, psychologically secondary.

Another underlying dynamic is, of course, the undeniable fact that the voters were turning out in large numbers determined to throw over ‘the establishment’. In such circumstances, the ability of the party leadership to influence voter behaviour has been shredded.

The Republican’s 2016 nomination dilemma looks likely to become a textbook event in the science of electoral methods.

The voting rules behind the nomination process must share part of the blame. While the Democratic party has moved to a simpler and fairer proportional method in all states (and also benefits this year from a simple two-candidate contest), the Republicans still use a variety of majority-distorting vote mechanisms, such as allocating delegates in small numbers in local districts, special rules about bonuses for narrow majorities, and even winner-take-all methods in some states.

The results generated by the Republican rules exaggerated Trump’s results where he won pluralities (leading minorities) in the early weeks of the contest. In the past few weeks, when he did start winning more than 50% of the vote in several states, the rules have even more greatly magnified his delegate score.

The process of accumulating election wins sequentially, over 20 different dates, necessarily requires a final voting event – in this case a party convention – which must decide between multiple candidates. But under the Republican voting rules the scores – the numbers of delegates – which the candidates take to that event are almost inevitably unrepresentative.

If the choice of nominee had been made simultaneously, by the entire national party electorate voting on one day through a preferential voting method, Trump may well have polled between 20% and 30% of the first preference votes, but could easily have been defeated by a compromise alternative.

Preferential voting – used widely in parliamentary elections in Australia and also used to elect heads of state in Ireland and Sri Lanka – can still struggle to find the most acceptable winner if sequential elimination is used in the vote counting. The order of elimination during the vote counting can affect the result.

The purer Condorcet vote counting method – which compares every pair of candidates to find the most favoured of all possible choices – avoids the ‘order of elimination’ problem, but it can be intimidating when dealing with large numbers of candidates.

When the dust settles on this year’s Republican nomination, the party will no doubt turn its attention to its electoral system. All the more so if Trump as nominee leads the party to an ignominious defeat in November.

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