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The Primary Problem

The Primary Problem

How does our electoral system hand us an unfit candidate like Donald J. Trump?

Gary J. Schmitt

The U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol continues to make news, as the committee issues a stream of subpoenas for testimony from former President Donald Trump’s closest advisers. There will be still more headlines as we approach the first anniversary of that unprecedented challenge to the constitutional order. Determining the specific role played by the former President in instigating that challenge is of the utmost importance. His oath of office, recall, commands him to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution.

Precisely because of the importance of determining Trump’s role in the January 6 attack, we should also ask ourselves how such a man came to occupy the most powerful position in the U.S. government in the first place. While the framers never expected that exceptional statesmen would routinely succeed George Washington as President, they did hope that the system for picking a President would result in the occupant’s being someone of national reputation and experience.

They did not, in other words, envision Donald Trump or, more precisely, they believed the electoral system would likely prevent such a person from capturing the office in the first place.

True, outside the selection of Washington and John Adams, the system never fully worked as intended: Partisanship and the development of political parties increasingly determined the individuals who made it to the White House. Even so, with the advent of political parties, candidates more or less coalesced around the party’s platform. This made the winning candidate’s behavior in office relatively predictable and his resort to the exercise of the popular arts, even demagoguery, considerably less likely.

In the early 1970s, after the riotous late 1960s, Vietnam, and Watergate, American political parties began to give up what control they had retained over presidential candidates in the general election. In the name of creating a more “open” and “democratic” system, the two major parties moved to a selection process overwhelmingly dominated by presidential primaries. Deliberation by party elders about who might be the best candidate disappeared. This effectively meant that virtually anyone could run—a previously unknown governor of Georgia or a first-term junior Senator from Illinois—and capture the party nomination through his or her personal story, demeanor, and promises chosen to appeal to a subset of the voting electorate, aka “the base.”

It was only a matter of time before someone like Trump—a true outsider, with no real allegiance to either a party or a party’s traditional principles, and with an uncanny ability to maximize the tools of modern social media—would take top billing. The fact that a substantial segment of the body politic was dissatisfied, even angry, with policies emanating from Washington, plus the belief that “coastal elites” had nothing but disdain for “flyover country,” provided still more tinder for Trump’s unique skill set. Leveraging both the media environment and the anger, Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination with the highest percentage of eligible voters in the GOP primaries since 1980; then, he won the presidency. If victory was the only goal of a party’s selection system, the system worked.


But this formulation assumes that no one else could have beaten Hillary Clinton. It is worth remembering that Trump did not win the popular vote, and he won the Electoral College vote against an opponent who had remarkably high negatives going into the general election. If the Bushes had worn out their welcome in American politics, the Clintons of 2016 were not far behind.

Nor was Trump overwhelmingly popular within the GOP. While turnout was high in the Republican primaries, not all of it was “for” Trump. Just as Bernie Sanders drove up numbers in the Democratic nomination race, Trump’s campaign generated both heated support and opposition. Remarkably, Trump effectively won the Republican nomination despite winning only slightly more than a third of primary and caucus votes. Even after it was clear that the field of opponents was decimated and the nomination race over, Trump’s total primary vote tally remained under 45 percent. One would have to go back to Michael Dukakis and the Democratic Party presidential primaries of 1988 to find a winning candidate with a lower percentage of the vote.

If the primary system is intended to provide a clear popular choice for the party’s presidential candidate, it hardly succeeded in 2016. Before Super Tuesday, primaries were held in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. In each race, Trump was the “winner,” gaining a total of eighty-three delegates—but less than 33 percent of the primary vote in the three states combined. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) headed into Super Tuesday with just thirty-three delegates between them but had garnered over 40 percent of the vote.

Super Tuesday itself played out in similar fashion. Trump won in seven of the eleven states that voted that day, pocketing nearly 43 percent of the delegates—with under 35 percent of the vote. Up until then, he had never cracked 50 percent: He got his best result, 49 percent, in Massachusetts, a state where no Republican candidate was likely to win in the general election (and where Clinton eventually beat Trump by nearly two to one). Once again, Cruz and Rubio outpaced Trump, with over 50 percent of the total vote. The pattern repeated in the succeeding primaries in Georgia, Texas, and Virginia. In March 15’s Mini Super Tuesday primaries—in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri—even as Trump’s overall numbers increased, The Donald still failed to hit the magic mark of 50 percent. Cruz beat him soundly in Utah and Wisconsin.

Trump finally won, effectively ending the nomination race, when he scored big victories in New York (60 percent), Pennsylvania (58 percent), Rhode Island (65 percent), Delaware (63 percent), Connecticut (59 percent), and Maryland (57 percent). Of these states, Trump won only Pennsylvania in the general election. Clinton swept the rest, gaining fifty Electoral College votes to Trump’s twenty.

In other words, Trump owed his GOP nomination largely to his wins in blue states.

No less ironically, the reforms that made the primary system more open and democratic brought about a 2016 primary race in which sixteen candidates essentially formed a circular firing squad and, thus, enabled Trump to accumulate delegates and gain momentum without gaining a clear majority of support until the string of primaries along the Atlantic Coast and Northeast. By that time, any individual candidate who might have given Trump a run for his money in a less cluttered field had either been picked off or severely damaged by other candidates.


Even apart from the question of whether primary voters reflect the views of the broader party (and whether, therefore, primary results are more “democratic”), there is now little doubt that an overwhelmingly primary-based selection system, open to all comers, is a loaded gun waiting for a demagogue to pick up, use, and challenge existing political and constitutional norms. Trump’s election reminds us that the purpose of a selection system should be to pick not just a popular candidate but one who is fit for the office. We lost sight of that point. January 6 was by no means inevitable, but it should not have come as a surprise.

To the victor, as they say, go the spoils: Trump, once elected, was able to use the many tools and resources of the Presidential office to shape the Republican Party that chose him. True, politicians often conform their campaigns to the views of the minority that votes in a primary; but this practice, in turn, shapes, reinforces, and hardens a party’s views, especially in the hands of the political equivalent of a P. T. Barnum. In this process, and with Congress seemingly unable to play its intended deliberative role, there is no safety valve to moderate political discourse. While real and serious issues deeply divide the electorate, the political parties’ capacity to accommodate such disagreements shrinks when they produce candidates who make their initial appeal to a small segment of the voting public and may not have the depth of experience or the incentive, once in office, to pursue a policy agenda that rests on a broader national consensus.

Reforming the selection system to head off these dysfunctional results is no small hill to climb. Some recommend that we restore more power to party establishments, but that advice has gone nowhere. Correcting a reform that claims to rest on more openness and democracy would require our admitting that popular government, to be both popular and effective, sometimes requires less democracy, not more. In a country that is more populist than ever, this is a hard sell.

Another idea for reforming the candidate selection system is ranked-choice voting, in which primary voters rank their candidate choices from most to least favorite. If no candidate wins a majority of the votes in the first round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated; his or her voters’ second choices are distributed among the remaining candidates. This process continues until one candidate gets a majority.

This means that no candidate can be the winner just by getting more votes than any of the other guys. It also means that to win a majority, a candidate will have to appeal to a broader range of eligible voters instead of single-mindedly pursuing a narrow, polarizing block of the voting public. In fact, there is some evidence that in Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial primary this year, ranked-choice voting produced a candidate, Glenn Youngkin, who—while decidedly conservative—showed himself to have enough broad appeal to succeed in a purple, blue-trending state.

No single system is guaranteed to produce candidates who are both popular and fit for office. No selection system can, by itself, fix the current state of our political parties. But an advantage of ranked-choice voting is that it provides a potential corrective to problematic populist campaigning by installing a selection system that can be said to be as democratic as, or even more democratic than, the system currently in place.

Trump’s 2016 victory may have been an aberration, a confluence between the state of American politics and an individual whose “talents” were uniquely fit for the moment. But if it happened once, it can happen again. “Better safe than sorry” might sound like a flippant way to think about that possibility; but when it comes to the health of the constitutional order, this stance is only prudent. Nailing down Trump’s role in the events of January 6 is important; but so, too, is fixing the system that started us down the path leading to that dark moment.

Gary J. Schmitt, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow in social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0011276.htmlWellcome Collection gallery (2018-04-05). https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36462479

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