Republicans have been talking about changing the rules for picking a presidential nominee at their national convention in Cleveland in July. Their best bet may be to go bold.
Right now, their options do not look good. Let’s assume that Donald Trump finishes the primaries with more delegates than any other candidate, but not a majority, and Sen. Ted Cruz comes in second.
Trump is already arguing that having the most delegates entitles him to the nomination, and his sympathizers are saying that any other result would amount to stealing it from him. But a very large fraction of the party is still bitterly opposed to him and seems likely to fight to keep him from getting a majority.
Deny him the nomination when he has a plurality, though, and many of his supporters will see treachery — especially if the nomination goes to someone else after convention politicking. And who should that someone else be? Someone who got fewer votes and fewer delegates than he did? Or someone who got no votes, because he did not even run?
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When people suggest that the convention should pick someone who didn’t run, they typically have Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan in mind. They are both well-known, enjoy respect from a lot of Republicans and could raise the money a campaign would require. But nominating Romney would mean picking someone who had harshly criticized the candidate with the most delegates. Nominating Ryan would mean picking someone who disagrees with the top two vote-getters on immigration.
Usually primaries build consensus within a party for a nominee. Weaker candidates drop out, and one of the remaining candidates starts looking like the winner and attracting more votes. Delegate-selection rules can help the process. All the delegates in some states are pledged to support whoever won the primary, even if the winner only got a plurality. Thus pluralities of voters can be converted into majorities of delegates by a process that nearly everyone regards as fair. This typically helps frontrunners, and it has helped Trump, who has won a higher percentage of delegates than he has of votes.
But the rules in the Republican primaries, as we are now seeing, are not ideally designed to create consensus. Trump hasn’t won a majority in any contest so far — and he could, in theory, keep failing to win majorities and still come to the convention with a delegate lead. If he had a majority of the delegates, even his fiercest opponents within the Republican Party would have to concede that he had won fair and square. Republican opposition to his nomination would fade, too, if he had a big plurality built by a lot of state majorities.
Different rules could make it more likely that in the future party nominations will go to candidates with majority support. States could, for example, hold runoff elections between the top two candidates in a primary. Or they could hold “instant runoffs.” Take a race with three candidates. Voters could rank those candidates. If none of them got 51 percent of voters to say he was their first choice, the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated. Then his voters would be reallocated to their second-choice candidate. The winner would then be preferred by the majority.
It’s not too late to apply some version of this idea to the choice of a Republican nominee. Republicans could change the rules of their convention to permit some kind of preferential ballot. The rule change would have to be proposed in advance, so that members of the convention’s rules committee have time to consider it before voting on it during the week before all the delegates arrive in Cleveland. Then, if it passes the committee, a majority of delegates would have to vote for it too.
When it came time for the delegates to vote on the presidential nomination, delegates would rank their candidates — with pledged delegates putting the candidates to whom they are pledged at the top of their lists.
It would probably also be necessary — to reduce the likelihood of accusations of dirty tricks — for each delegate to make his or her rank orderings public immediately after the vote.
It’s a process that would generate a majority for a candidate automatically: There would no need for multiple ballots, and thus no politicking between rounds of voting. The process would also be formally neutral.
My guess is that most of the delegates who are not pledged to either Trump or Cruz will prefer the senator to the billionaire, and so the process will work to Cruz’s advantage. But it is certainly possible that Trump would win the instant runoff — and even possible, if less likely, that a third candidate could.
Whoever lost the nomination contest would have no legitimate complaint with this process, which would be entirely above-board.
Supporters of the losing candidate would, of course, still be able to withhold their votes from the nominee in the fall, by voting for a third-party candidate, or voting for the Democratic nominee, or just staying home. But they would have no grounds for arguing that the nomination had been stolen.
Republicans have no way to guarantee that they will have a nominee who has the support of the vast majority of party members, let alone one who has a good chance of winning in November. But this procedure may be the party’s best bet for making it out of Cleveland alive.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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