Opinion: How NH Republicans can choose the strongest candidate in their presidential primary

By STEVEN J. BRAMS

Published: 06-11-2023 8:00 AM

Steven J. Brams, a native of Concord, is a professor of politics at New York University. He is the author of “The Presidential Election Game” and “Mathematics and Democracy: Designing Better Voting and Fair-Division Procedures.”

There is little doubt that New Hampshire will kick off a season of contentious races for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. But will it choose the strongest nominee?

Donald J. Trump is in the ring for his third presidential run. He has vociferous support from MAGA voters, who applaud his conspiratorial views on the 2020 election and his defiance of long-established norms on many other issues.

But Trump is no shoo-in, with several prominent Republicans, notably Ron DeSantis, now in the race. Drawing them into the fray is that Trump’s views are offensive to many voters, and his support may be shaky after losing verdicts in criminal and civil trials, with more charges and trials likely. Major financial backers from the past, including the Koch family, are backing away, eyeing other candidates whom they are likely to support.

Therein, however, lies Trump’s ace in a hole. As his declared opponents become more numerous, they will more finely divide the opposition, as they did in the 2016 Republican primaries, enabling Trump to win with relatively narrow support from his base.

How, then, do Republicans prevent a repeat of 2016 and thwart Trump’s divide-and-conquer strategy? Surprisingly, there is a simple solution: allow primary voters to vote for all candidates they like, or at least find acceptable.

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Called approval voting, this election reform is now used to elect mayors in Fargo, ND, and St. Louis, MI, in which ten or more candidates typically run. It has also been used by the College of Cardinals to elect popes since the 13th century; if nobody receives a majority, cardinals continue to deliberate and vote — for as many candidates as they like — until somebody obtains a majority.

In contemporary elections, there may be a runoff between the top two contenders if nobody receives a majority. This is often a contest between a strong liberal and a strong conservative. Moderates, hit from both sides, often do not make the runoff or even run.

In the recent approval-voting elections in Fargo and St. Louis, the winning candidates, despite the crowded fields they faced, each won with more than 50% approval. The two winners were consensus candidates, who drew support from voters across the political spectrum.

The adoption of approval voting in New Hampshire’s presidential primary is eminently feasible. Political parties are allowed to set their own voting rules. There is nothing to stop them from adopting approval voting, which still allows voters to vote for a single favorite if that is their choice.

But if polls show that a favorite has little chance of winning, voters are well advised to vote for more viable second or third choices. Thereby they don’t waste their votes on almost certain losers but better ensure that they have some say in the outcome.

Polls show that voters have no difficulty in following the injunction: vote for all you like. Not only are voters better able to express themselves, but candidates who take similar positions are able to share, not split, votes. Consequently, the candidate most widely approved wins.

True, approval voting violates “one person, one vote,” the hoary democratic maxim that rich or poor, educated or uneducated, voters are all equal in having the same one vote. But this is too blunt a measure of equality.

Approval voting renders voters equal in a more nuanced sense. Whether they draw the line between approved and nonapproved candidates in favor of one candidate or all but one (which they might do if they despise one candidate), they can better express themselves than being restricted to only one choice.

One might think that the approval voting will elect the lowest common denominator, the bland, inoffensive candidate who tries to be everything to everybody. On the contrary, candidates with ideas that they forcefully express invariably do better (Ronald Reagan is a good example). Those who refuse to take sides on important issues, or simply expound extremist positions, tend to be not even minimally acceptable to most voters.

Approval voting, while not well known, strikes at the heart of how political debate is resolved. The foundation on which representative government is built is periodic elections, and the central problem of elections today is how to translate voter preferences, with as little distortion as possible, into consensus choices.

Approval voting facilitates doing exactly that. It offers the best practical way of picking, especially in a crowded field, the candidate who mirrors the mood of the electorate, not the candidate who polarizes it.

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