Commentary & Analysis

Why the Republicans Lost: A Failed Voting System in the Primaries

By Eric Sanders
This article was originally published on Big Think.

A Failed Voting System in the Primaries Selects Less-Popular Candidates

Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination after building momentum in the primaries in New Hampshire, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Michigan, and Ohio — states where he won most or all of the delegates even though his percentage of votes from these states was, respectively: 39%, 46%, 35%, 47%, 41%, and 38%.

The Republican Party is at a crossroads after losing a presidential election they should have won. But in the wake of Tea Party polarization, they nominated a candidate who may not have had broad overall support even within his own party. Republicans must ask themselves, “Whom would we rather nominate — a candidate who is loved by 35% of us and disliked by everyone else or a candidate who is liked by 70% of us?”

This is an essential question. Currently, a candidate who is broadly well-liked within the Republican Party but is fewer voters’ favorite choice has little chance of winning the nomination, because Republican voters are forced to choose only one candidate in the primaries. Consider the following example, actual results from the ever-important New Hampshire primary:

Romney – 39% of total choices

Paul – 23% of total choices

Huntsman – 17% of total choices

Clearly, under the current voting system, Romney won somewhat handily. But now, let’s assume the following:

Romney – Loved by 39% of voters, liked by 10% of other voters

Paul – Loved by 23% of voters, liked by 40% of other voters

Huntsman – Loved by 17% of voters, liked by 60% of other voters

In this new example, Romney has support from only 45% of the overall voters (39% love him + 6.1% like him; in this case, “like” = 10% of the 61% of voters who did not choose him), but Paul has support from 54% of the overall voters, and Huntsman has support from 67% of the overall voters. Who should win the primary? Which candidate has the broadest overall support amongst Republicans, and who would be the most likely to win in a general election?

Get Rid of the “Overvote” Rule

The simplest way to nominate the candidate with the broadest overall support is to get rid of the “overvote rule”; that is, allow voters to choose any and all candidates that they like on the ballot. This is called Approval Voting. The candidate with the most choices wins. Now, Republicans would have a clear sense of which candidate had the broadest overall support within their own party.

New Hampshire and the Republican Party in other states should get rid of the “overvote” rule for primaries and allow voters to choose any and all candidates on the ballot that they support.

Time to Innovate: Approval Voting

Republicans are, historically, an innovative political party, willing to adapt in order to win future elections. Using Approval Voting in Republican primaries would ensure that Republicans nominate candidates with broader overall support within their own party. And candidates who are more generally-liked within the Republican Party are likely to fare better in general elections, where they will have to gain support from an even wider range of voters to win.

If the Republican Party wants to compete in and win future elections, their best way to do so is to use Approval Voting to nominate candidates who are more broadly-supported by the electorate.