The Primaries Rule

We tend to think of our country as a democracy, where “The People”– through the majority of the voters–rule. This, of course, is not completely true for many aspects of our government. The United States Senate is a prime example. The candidate who gets the most votes in a state becomes the Senator. This seems democratic enough until we realize that a minority of voters nationwide choose the majority of the Senators. Since each state, no matter how large or small its population, gets two and only two Senators, the overall composition of the body is markedly malapportioned. This, of course, is mandated by the Constitution.

Other less-then-democratic rules, however, are not constitutionally mandated but result from various political strictures and practices. Thus, the filibuster rule grants a minority of the already malapportioned Senate to dictate outcomes. In both Houses, committee chairs can determine what can be voted on, and this can defeat the will of the majority in those bodies. And so on.

We know that a minority of the voters can elect a president. That is partly because of the electoral college, which our constitutional founders gave us. In addition, however, the nonconstitutionally-mandated decision rule increases the likelihood of a minority president. Most states have decided that all its electoral votes will go to the candidate who gets the most votes. This is not constitutionally required, and at the beginning of our Republic, it was not the usual method for allocating electoral votes. Instead, states often split those votes, but now only a few states do that. So if I win a state with a large number of electors by a handful of votes, but I lose a state with a lesser number of electors by a significant amount, I may be behind in the popular vote but ahead in the crucial electoral count. The Constitution is silent on this outcome.

There is another decision rule, however, that can affect whether we have a minority president: the presence of third parties. In key swing states in 2016, Trump won not by getting a majority of the ballots. In most states he did not poll better than the Republican Romney had four years before. Instead, the third-party share of the votes increased, and Hillary Clinton got fewer votes in some states than Obama had four years earlier. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, Trump got the plurality, not the majority, and got all the electoral votes. We don’t know, of course, what would have happened had the third parties not been on the ballot, but we should realize that the rules allowing candidates on the ballot matters. The more candidates on the ballot, the less likely it is that “The People”–i.e., the majority–control. These rules matter and vary from state to state, but few of us know what they are or whether they should be changed.

Primaries, especially in safe districts, also affect majority rule. By a “safe” district, I mean those in which it is all but certain that one party will win the general election. I reside in a place where a Democrat always wins the House, the state legislative, and the city seats. The November election is a mere formality. The only truly important election is the primary because it will determine which Democrat will run. I am hardly unique in living in such a place. A few years back I read a study with a sobering statistic: while 25% of the House seats were safe several decades ago, that number had increased to 60%. With unrestrained and more sophisticated gerrymandering, that percentage is even higher now.

Almost everywhere, the turnout for primaries is lower than for general elections, even when the general election is functionally meaningless. This can mean that a tiny fraction of the people determine who will have governmental power, but the situation can be even more striking when a primary is contested with several viable candidates. The rules are not uniform for deciding the outcome of such contests. I have voted under several different systems in New York City alone. In some primaries, a candidate polling over 40% moves on to the general election, but if they do not reach that threshold, another primary is held between the top two candidates. “Ranked choice” is now used for some New York primaries, and I would explain that to you if I could, but I am like most New Yorkers who, even though voting to adopt this system, do not fully understand how it works. But in some New York primaries, a simple plurality controls. (Oh, yes, New York City is a complicated place.)

New York has just completed primaries for the House of Representatives. New districts were drawn as a result of the last census which caused the state to lose one seat in the national legislature and made for some interesting primaries. Two sitting House members were thrown together in one district and faced each other in one primary. Another district did not have an incumbent and a half-dozen interesting candidates ran for the Democratic seat in the plurality-controlled contest. The winner polled 25.7% garnering fewer than 17,000 votes. And in what is almost certainly a safe seat, he will be going to the House in January. In other words, 17,000 people will have picked the new Representative. “The People,” I guess, have spoken.

What Trump Revolution? (Concluded)

The real takeaway from the 2016 election is not that Trump did so well, but that Clinton did so poorly. Even with more voters in 2016 than 2012, Clinton got slightly fewer votes than Obama—65,853,516 to 65,899,660—with a big drop in the percentage of the ballots. Obama got a majority of the vote, 51.6 percent, while Clinton got 48.18 percent. Trump did not get a higher percentage than Romney four years earlier, but Clinton got significantly less than Obama. Wasn’t the revolution not so much for Trump as against Clinton?

Perhaps the real revolution in 2016 was not for Trump but in favor of third parties. Obama and Romney together got 98.8 percent of the vote. Clinton and Trump together got 94.3 percent. The combined Libertarian and Green vote increased by over 300 percent. That third-party total went from 1.7 million in 2012 to 5.9 million in 2016.

Much has been made of states that Obama won, but whose electoral votes went to Trump and swung the election to him. Let’s look more closely at three of them: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Trump did significantly better than Romney had done in Pennsylvania. Trump got 2,912,941 votes while Romney got 2,619,583. This increase had two components. About 376,000 more ballots were cast in 2016 than in 2012, but in addition Trump did better percentagewise. He got 48.8 percent (Clinton got 47.6 percent) while Romney got 46.8 percent (Obama got 52.0 percent) of the Pennsylvania vote. This would indicate some sort of Trump Revolution, but, if so, it was a limited one. It did not reach a majority. But notice something else. Trump and Clinton together garnered 96.4 percent of the total ballots, while in 2012, the major candidates received 98.8 percent. The third parties nearly trebled their votes in the four years, from 69,000 to 192,000. Their share went from 1.3 percent in 2012 to 3.6 in 2016. Trump won the Pennsylvania plurality by 70,000 votes while the third-party votes increased by much more than that. If Pennsylvania indicated a Trump Revolution, it also indicated a Third-Party Revolution, a move to third parties that allowed Trump to get the plurality and Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. Remember Stacey who could not vote for Trump, but distrusted Clinton so she voted Green? We don’t know how she would have voted if there had been a different Democratic candidate, but did Trump really carry Pennsylvania because of a Trump Revolution or because Clinton, whatever the reasons, was not a good candidate and a sizeable number of voters went to third parties as a result?

The Michigan turnout did not increase in 2016 as much as the Pennsylvania vote did—65,000 more ballots were cast than in 2012. Trump, however, did get 265,00 more votes than Romney and garnered 47.3 percent of the total compared to Romney’s 44.6. But again “others” made the difference. In 2012, only 1.4 percent of the ballots were not cast for the major parties, while in 2016 it was 5.2 percent, with the totals increasing from 65,000 to 250,000. Trump’s plurality (again not a majority) was a mere 10,000 votes. The move to third parties again allowed him to win a plurality and get all of Michigan’s electoral votes.

In Wisconsin, 128,000 fewer ballots were cast in 2016 than four years earlier, and Trump got only 1,500 more votes than Romney. That doesn’t indicate a Trump Revolution as much as a lack of enthusiasm for both major candidates. However, Trump did win the plurality at 47.9 percent compared to Romney’s losing percentage at 45.9. Trump’s margin was 27,000 votes, and again the third parties swung the state. In 2012, they got 28,000 votes and 0.9 percent of the total. In 2016, third parties garnered 137,000 votes accounting for 5.4%.

What does this indicate? Was there a Trump Revolution that has changed the electoral landscape? Trump took these three key states, but he did not get a majority in any of them. In other words, the majority actually voted against Trump. In each of them, he won because Clinton performed poorly as much as Trump performed well. As a result, the third parties surged tipping each state to Trump.

What does this mean for the future? Is there an enduring Trump Revolution that has shifted the electoral patterns? Perhaps the first thing to note is that, of course, he did not get the majority of the vote in the country. He did not even get the plurality. What is seldom noted is that the percentage he did get was not better than what Romney got four years earlier. This certainly is not a revolution.

In some key states, however, he did do better than Romney, but even so, he did not get a majority in them, and third parties surged. Of course, the best guarantee of his winning such states the next time is to get more than 50 percent of the vote. At least so far, however, polls do not indicate that this is likely. Trump’s favorability ratings consistently hover just above 40 percent, and while he does much to appeal to what is called his base, he is not attracting voters outside that base.

If his support continues at less than 50 percent, Trump has to pray (although I doubt he does) that the third-party surge will continue on into the next presidential election, so he can win electoral votes with only pluralities. The real question, then, for the future is not whether there has been a Trump Revolution, but whether there has been a Third-Party Revolution. That seems unlikely. Wasn’t the increase in third-party votes in 2016 just the result, a circumstance unlikely to repeat itself?