I am not a fan of pluralities. A plurality is defined as “the number of votes cast for a candidate who receives more than any other but does not receive an absolute majority”. Presidential candidate Donald Trump is on track to have the largest number of delegates going into the Republican National Convention but it appears he may fall short of getting a majority of the delegates. Mr. Trump and his campaign are promoting the concept that the candidate with the most votes should get the nomination. But a plurality is not a majority.
Let me explain why I don’t like pluralities. As part of my work, I have traveled to and lived in Central America for many years. In 2006, while I was living in Honduras, Daniel Ortega was running (again) to be the president of nearby Nicaragua. Mr. Ortega, if you remember, was the Cuban-trained head of the Sandinistas who overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. Initially he ruled as a member of a junta and was later elected (with 67% of the vote) president. His heavy handed rule, however, made him increasingly unpopular and he lost the 1990 election to Violeta Chamorro, gaining only 41% of the vote to Ms. Chamorro’s 55%. He continued to run to get back in power in 1996 and 2001 getting about 38-42% of the vote from his block of Sandinista voters.
In 2006, Ortega joined with the perfidious former president Arnoldo Aleman to split the governing Liberal Alliance (the corrupt Aleman had been jailed by then President Bolaños). Mr. Ortega was able to win the presidency with only 38% of the vote. He turned Nicaragua back to the left, joining Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s ALBA group of countries. He also reversed Aleman’s conviction and changed the constitution to allow Mr. Ortega to continue running for president without limitation. Mr. Ortega won the 2011 election with 62% of the vote in an election marred by irregularities and voter intimidation. He will use every means necessary to make sure he never loses another election.
So that is one reason I am not a fan of pluralities. In many countries, lacking an absolute majority (or sometimes a super plurality like 45%) mandates a run-off election to determine a winner. In parliamentary systems, where one party lacks a majority, the leading party must form an alliance with other parties in order to govern. In order to form such an alliance discussion and compromise is required.
Mr. Trump’s supporters may condemn such compromise that may work to their uncompromising candidate’s disadvantage. And reasoned discussion and negotiation might seem too tepid a response to the outrage that they are finally able to express.
But let’s keep in mind that gridlock is spawned by the lack of compromise. And many people cite gridlock as the worst problem in Congress.
In the GOP convention, the delegates are pledged to vote for their designated candidates on the first ballot but they may be able to shift to other candidates in subsequent ballots (rules vary by state).
The Republican Party provides an excellent example of how a contested convention can lead to an outstanding candidate that did not have a plurality of the delegates on the first ballot. As previously reported, Abraham Lincoln trailed William H. Seward who had a plurality of the delegates going into the 1860 Republican Convention. Many in the party thought Seward too radical. “He was opposed simply because it was thought he would damage the prospects of the Republican Party and hurt Republican candidates in local elections” wrote Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book, A Team of Rivals.
There were thirteen candidates for president on the first ballot as most of the candidates had a local or regional power base. Lincoln’s strategy was not to be the first choice of the various state delegations but the second choice, which would allow him to rally the support of the “stop Seward movement”.
Is this all beginning to sound familiar to you? Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot. The rules are different now. There were no primaries back then. No opinion polls either. But the tradition of the contested convention lives on when no candidate can get the majority support to win on the first ballot.