As the number of candidates seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination for president steadily climbs, party members fear that a nonmainstream candidate from the fringes could get nominated and be a weak candidate in the November general election.
Presidential primaries and caucuses, such as the early caucuses in Iowa and the early primary in New Hampshire, are plurality elections. A large field of candidates can run, split the vote, and the winner can score a victory with a low percentage of the total and little real support from a majority of voters.
At last count, more than a dozen candidates have talked about running in the Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark, N.J., was one of the latest to announce. Even if only 10 candidates get on the caucuses ballot in Iowa or the primary ballot in New Hampshire, the chance for winners with low percentages of the vote go way up.
The cure to this problem is established and operating well in Colorado. The national cure is for each party to hold a nationwide runoff primary in all 50 states and D.C. This will produce nominees who will have shown broad, national voter support in their political party.
Congress would have to create such national presidential primary runoff elections, and the legislation would have to be signed by the president. A majority vote from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., would determine the Democratic and Republican nominees.
Congress should institute this badly needed reform now. Once the caucuses, primaries and state conventions begin in January 2020, it will be too late.
Here’s how it would work. The presidential caucuses, primaries and conventions would be held in all 50 states, as they are now, from about January to June 2020. State laws still would govern when those events are held and what rules apply. But in July, when they’re completed, the top two candidates in each party with the most delegate votes would enter each party’s July nationwide runoff. The winner of each would compete in the November general election.
This approach wouldn’t change the complex calendar of presidential primaries, caucuses and state conventions. Iowa, New Hampshire and other states wouldn’t have to give up their preferred positions in the system. The change would be instituted only after the familiar run had gone its full course to mid-June.
The problem of too many candidates seeking their party’s nomination won’t go away. Lately, comparative outsiders have been gaining nominations and even the presidency. Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016 are examples of lesser-known candidates who gained a major party nomination and won the White House. “If anyone can win,” the logic goes, “why shouldn’t I be a candidate? Electoral lightning just might strike me.” So relatively unknown politicians, such as former Gov. John Hickenlooper and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, are taking the candidate plunge.
About 25 percent of Coloradans are familiar with this runoff election. Denver and Colorado Springs use it in their nonpartisan elections for mayor. Many candidates can run in the first election, and a runoff several weeks later determines the victor. Pueblo now is installing such a system to elect its mayor.
In Denver and Colorado Springs, if one mayoral candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, that person wins. The same would apply at the presidential level. If, after primaries and caucuses in all 50 states, one candidate had 50 percent or more of the delegate votes, that candidate would be declared the party nominee for president, and no runoff would be held.
Although most of the attention on “too many candidates” now is focused on the Democrats, a runoff would be a good idea for the Republican Party as well. With his low approval ratings, President Donald Trump could attract several competitors for the Republican nomination in 2020. A runoff after the usual round of primaries, caucuses and state conventions would guarantee a “majority,” rather than a “plurality,” candidate for the GOP.
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are political scientists at Colorado College.