Now that Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy have thrown their hats in the ring, it seems every pundit from every news outlet has discovered that a large field of Republican nominees benefits ex-President Donald Trump. Of course it does. But is this a good thing or a bad thing for Republicans and for the country?
We can’t possibly know the answer to those questions. But we can acknowledge that Americans increasingly feel like our current primary system has been producing outcomes that do a poor job expressing desires of voters while doing a good job making our politics more acrimonious than ever. By understanding precisely why this is true, we can see our way toward improving the process in time for the upcoming presidential primaries.
Harold Hotelling, a brilliant mathematician and economic theorist, helped us see why in a two-person race it is in a candidate’s best interest to state a position that is as close to his opponent as possible. Suppose Candidate A is a little left of center on a particular issue. Candidate B could choose a position that is equally right of center, but that leaves the middle up for grabs. The better strategy is for B to take a position that is right up against A’s position. This is because no one on the right will choose A over B, but now B grabs all of the people in the middle plus his base.
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This sounds crass, but it is actually a good thing. Both candidates have an incentive to do this, so both candidates try to stake out positions near the middle to keep their opponent from taking the middle. With two candidates, being extreme is bad strategy.
But politicians today are farther apart than ever, even in two-person races. Does this mean Hotelling was wrong. It doesn’t, and we can see why by thinking about what happens before we get to the final vote between the parties’ two nominees.
Over time, an increasing number of primary races involve larger fields than was common in the past, when political parties decided whom to run. This changes everything.
The political pressure to aim for the middle on any issue weakens as more candidates compete for a nomination. The greater the number of candidates, the more likely winning will be about having a highly committed set of supporters. Initially they might not constitute even a plurality. This is because in a large the field, it is hard to get a plurality, let alone a majority. This is especially true early in the primary season when the field is largest.
This is why, in addition to the super delegate safeguards already in place, Democrats exerted a great deal of pressure in the last presidential election to keep the number of nominees to a minimum. This, they thought, would increase the chances that a Democratic candidate would win the general election by keeping someone like Bernie Sanders from being nominated.
The Republicans, in contrast, had the largest field in history. This was perfect for Donald Trump since he could cultivate strong support from his personal base even if the majority of Republicans would have voted against him if given the chance.
When many people run, consistently getting only a modest percentage can create a path to nomination. With each additional primary fewer candidates remain, and the supporters of the people who have left the field are now spread over the remaining field.
What most people overlook is that, in a two-candidate election, casting a vote for A is equivalent to casting a vote against B. So in a two-candidate election if your strongest preference is to keep one candidate from winning above all else, you need only vote for the other candidate.
But the larger the field, the less meaningful it is to express such a preference indirectly by voting for someone else. This makes it possible for the eventual nominee to be someone who majority of a party would have voted against on day one if given a chance.
Here is a reform to primary voting that is not nearly as radical as the last minute changes we observed right before the last presidential election. To the right of each candidate is a “for” circle and an “against” circle. For each race, the voter can blacken-in only one circle. This gives the voter the ability to express a negative preference instead of only being able to express a positive preference.
Each candidate’s vote total in the primary is then computed in the obvious way: sum of all “for” votes minus the sum of all “against” votes.
If there is a candidate whom the majority dislikes even though he or she enjoys the support of a fervent base, that candidate would not likely make it very far. This means it is very unlikely that a candidate the majority doesn’t want ends up winning a nomination while several who could have easily enjoyed majority support at the start watch the convention from the sidelines.
David C. Rose is an economics professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a senior fellow at Common Sense Society.