Democrats and Republicans can avoid another Biden-Trump fiasco — but time is running out
September’s days are dwindling down to a precious few. Also rapidly diminishing are the prospects for the Republican National Committee and state parties to open their delegate selection rules — by Oct. 1 — allowing the current slate of presidential candidates to compete more fairly and produce the strongest GOP nominee for 2024.
Under present rules in many states, a candidate winning a plurality of Republican primary or caucus votes is awarded 100 percent of the state’s delegates even if a sizable majority of primary voters prefer other candidates. When the process is repeated in enough states, the plurality winner methodically accumulates sufficient delegates to secure the nomination.
In 2016, Donald Trump received 44.9 percent of the vote in the Republican primaries, but because he won more states by pluralities than his rivals who divided up the non-Trump vote, he was awarded the vast majority of the delegates and the nomination at the GOP National Convention.
In the November election, he received 45.9 percent of the popular vote to Hillary Clinton’s 48 percent, but won an Electoral College majority. In 2020, Trump won 46.8 percent to Joe Biden’s 51.3 percent and also lost in the Electoral College.
Recent public opinion polls indicate that Trump and Biden are roughly tied at 46 percent with several other GOP candidates at Biden’s tail — and Nikki Haley decisively beating the president at 49 percent to 43 percent. Yet, unless some state parties make changes by the end of the month, Republicans are still locked into a system that will not produce their strongest nominee and may well deliver their weakest.
The Democrats generally prevent the nomination of a candidate who is not the choice of at least a majority of their own party by awarding delegates on the basis of proportional representation rather than winner-take-all. Every candidate is awarded a share of the delegates reflecting his or her portion of the popular vote in each primary.
If the leading candidate accumulates enough delegates to reach the number required for the nomination during the roll call of the states after any legal challenges are resolved, the issue is settled and the Democrats have their consensus nominee. If no candidate reaches the required majority number, then horse-trading, deal-making and compromises ensue during subsequent roll calls until a majority winner emerges.
In normal circumstances, the hurly-burly of democracy tends to produce a more united party and the strongest candidate. But this year, the Democrats are on the verge of achieving the former but not the latter, uniting around the incumbent president that a significant majority of Democrats want to retire.
The preliminary phase of the 2024 presidential race is devolving into a contest over which party will come to its senses last. Time for the Republicans is running out first. A minimum number of state committees need to adopt a proportional representation system before Oct. 1 to avoid nominating someone with the poorest chance of defeating Biden in 2024. Alternatively, several states could choose to require a majority rather than a plurality of the primary vote to win all the state’s delegates. If necessary, a runoff would be held between the two top vote-getters.
Not all states would have to change their rules to open the delegate selection process, just enough to prevent a plurality candidate from locking up the nomination before the National Convention in July.
One other change Republican state committees should consider is eliminating open primaries in which non-GOP mischief-makers can intervene to help choose the weakest candidate. In 2022, Democrats successfully used that politically subversive tactic to distort Republican House and Senate primaries and elevate likely losers.
For the 2024 presidential election, the sequential indictments of Trump by Democratic prosecutors, even where meritorious, are having a similar perverse effect, rallying Trump supporters and assuring his nomination but hurting him with the general electorate. Several of the criminal charges have been criticized by legal scholars, and even by some anti-Trump commentators, as examples of prosecutorial over-reaching and stretched legal theories.
The phenomenon of bringing criminal charges against a former president, however deservedly, is unprecedented in American history. When coupled with the judicially exposed favorable treatment for Hunter Biden by the same law enforcement authorities — and the president’s shifting stories on his own involvement — it has served to deepen the bitter political divide and the distrust of once-venerable government institutions.
Republicans have foolishly fallen into the Democrats’ Trump-as-victim trap and consolidated their commitment to nominate him under present delegate selection rules, salvaging Biden’s hopes for the election. As Trump himself observed after his third set of criminal charges, “One more indictment, and this election is closed out.”
So far, he seems right about the nomination; the election is a different matter. Until the latest polls, Democrats seemed happy with the scenario, but now they are starting to worry that, as in 2016, the impression of piling-on and political bias in the media and government institutions may backfire. They have been playing with fire and the fate of the nation.
All this is happening in the context of a global challenge to the United States and the rules-based international order from Communist China and revanchist Russia and their North Korean, Iranian and other authoritarian allies. They are clearly enjoying America’s shameful and dangerous political spectacle and await the chaos that will almost certainly follow the reelection of either of these deeply flawed former presidents.
If the Republican and Democratic parties insist on foisting another Trump-Biden choice on the American people, some voters, like me, will be compelled to support a respectable Independent candidate such as one offered by the nonpartisan group No Labels, now on the ballot in at least 10 states.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.