Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The views expressed in this essay are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
The Republican presidential field is getting more crowded this week. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott entered the race on Monday and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is set to announce his candidacy on Wednesday night, while a handful of other hopefuls wait in the wings.
The presence of a half-dozen challengers to former President Donald Trump reflects a Republican Party that seems to be finding its spine, unwilling to simply roll over for a man who could have destroyed our democracy on the basis of a self-serving lie.
Unfortunately, the robust field is heading into a trap of Trump’s making, courtesy of his loyalists in the state parties as well as the Republican National Committee.
Republicans could try to stop Trump from seizing their presidential nomination with one simple reform – increasing proportional representation in the primary process. But to date, they have done the opposite. In fact, the number of GOP primary states that are winner take all increased from seven to 17 between the 2016 and 2020 election, according to an analysis by Gregory Korte at Bloomberg.
This is a big deal: In a polarized political environment, winner-take-all states allow divisive candidates to get ahead even if they don’t win a majority of votes in a state’s primary, creating unrepresentative results.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say Trump wins 35% of the primary vote in South Carolina – with home staters Scott and former Gov. Nikki Haley coming in at 32% and 30% respectively – with the remaining candidates splitting the difference. A supermajority of South Carolina Republican primary voters in this scenario would have voted for someone other than Trump to be their party’s nominee.
But in a winner-take-all-state, Trump takes home all the delegates. In contrast, proportional representation means the delegates would be allocated according to the percentage of the vote the candidates won. One system is representative of the primary electorate’s wishes. The other system is primed to allow a divide-and-conquer candidate to hijack his party’s nomination – again.
Keep in mind, this was how Trump won the GOP nomination in 2016 – by watching his more-traditional competitors split the mainstream vote while he seized the spoils. In fact, he rolled into the Cleveland convention having won just 45% of the primary votes but boasting 63% of the delegates.
Unless things change, Trump will have an ever-greater edge in the 2024 primaries. Months before the first primary vote is cast, polls show that 44% of Republicans don’t even want the former president to run again. Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy told CNN Sunday that Trump can’t win a general election. But Trump benefits from a huge advantage in name identification boosted by an intense slice of the base that doesn’t seem to care how deeply unpopular he is with the general electorate.
The good news is that there’s still time to change this broken system before the Oct. 1 deadline if candidates push states to shift their primaries from winner take all to proportional. This is the right thing to do because it would level the playing field and more accurately reflect the will of the voters.
But keeping the system as is allows people who fear Trump’s reprisals to curry favor with him – the story of life inside the Republican Party for the past five years.
This disconnect between the will of the voters and the party system’s winners no doubt increases cynicism about our democracy and undercuts the ideal of every citizen’s votes being equal. Proportional representation of primary delegates is just one concrete commonsense step to take.
Considering that a record number of American voters now say they’re politically independent, it would also make sense to have more open primaries – where voters who aren’t registered as party members can participate in the process – to ensure the most representative results.
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This would help elevate the candidate best equipped to win in the general election. But predictably, Republicans in many red states seem determined to go in the opposite direction by closing primaries that are currently open.
Hyperpartisan polarization is a prime driver of the dysfunction in American democracy today. It is reinforced by a perverse incentive structure that rewards candidates who try to divide rather than unite – especially during the primary process. But that incentive structure is artificial and doesn’t reflect the will of the American people.
That’s why election reforms matter so much: If you change the rules, you change the game.