Our political system is broken. To be clear, I don’t write that sentence as a Marxist who wants to shred a Constitution written by the landed aristocracy. In truth, most of our broken political system is the result of post-Constitutional practices. The Senate is fine, but the post-Constitution filibuster has made it a dead end. The Electoral College can work, but it’s been problematized by the development of winner-take-all allocations and capping our House seats at 435. The courts are a necessary backbone to any liberal democracy, but they’ve been undermined by increased politicization.
I could at length talk about each of those developments, but the broken system I want to talk about today is how we end up with lousy presidential nominees, and I even have some proposals to fix it.
The Obvious Problem
In most 2024 polls, President Biden and former President Trump lead the way. Incredibly, it’s the former President, not the sitting one, that performs better against the field. I expect Biden’s polling will pop after officially declaring. As for Trump, I mean, I tried to tell you. The heap isn’t going anywhere. The hopeful Republican establishment aggressively flirted with Ron DeSantis, and the overreaching media made a desperate attempt to push a narrative that Trump was done, but in the end all roads led back to the steady Presidential Politics for America. Here, we never wavered from declaring Trump the clear favorite for the 2024 Republican nomination, even when the networks and betting markets did.
And yet, almost paradoxically, just because these two men lead these polls does not mean they’re particularly well-liked. A February Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 40% of Republicans didn’t want Trump to run again, and the number for Biden and the Democrats was a majority: 52%. Another survey last month, this one from ABC News and the Washington Post, found that about half of Republicans didn’t want Trump to be their nominee, and the number for President Biden was 58%.
Another result from that Washington Post poll also leapt out. Voters were asked how they’d “feel” if Trump or Biden were re-elected. Only 17% of respondents would be “enthusiastic” with a Trump win, and the number for Biden was just 7. Meanwhile, if we consider the “net negative” results to that question — that is, the percentage of voters who would be “angry” plus those that would be “dissatisfied” — the number was a clear majority for both candidates: 57% for Trump, 62% for Biden.
And yet, they’re the favorite to be the nominees. Even though most Americans don’t want Trump or Biden in 2024, they are nonetheless the two most likely occupants of the Oval Office on January 21, 2025.
This problem has been brewing for years. In our prior presidential election, the one that pitted Trump against Hillary Clinton, surveys spoke in concert: they were the two most unpopular nominees in the 60-year history of measuring favorability. A majority of Americans didn’t like Trump, but he became president. A majority of Americans didn’t like Clinton, but she was within 80 thousand well-placed votes from becoming president.
In a functioning democracy, it’s hard to understand how 2016 was possible — and indeed how 2024 is taking shape before our eyes. How is it that in a system where popularity determines winners, the two most unpopular candidates were the finalists for the presidency, and how is it possible that it might happen again?
It’s because the system is broken.
So how do we fix it?
The Unlikely Solutions
My solutions are not realistic. Readers of this website know that I think our increasingly divergent parties sit at the heart of our problems, and we shouldn’t expect these lawmakers will solve problems they helped create. Most of the proposals below threaten their duopoly, and so these proposals are dead on arrival.
But to be clear, these solutions will need lawmaking. We cannot expect that nominating two divisive nominees will all of a sudden trigger a successful centrist, perhaps bipartisan bid from a more clear-headed third party candidate. If the 2016 election (when, again, we had the two most unpopular nominees ever) didn’t induce a strong third party bid (sorry, Gary Johnson), we’re nowhere near this American epiphany.
To illustrate why, consider the following example. A few months ago, CNN conducted a poll that found numbers for Biden and Trump just as bad as the ones I listed earlier: 62% of Republicans and Republican-leaners said they wanted the GOP to nominate someone other than Trump, and 59% of Democrats and Democratic-leaners said the same about Biden. Yet, in that very same poll, with the very same respondents, about 80% of the Republican group reported that if Trump became the nominee, they’d still support him, and 86% of Democrats said they’d support Biden. These numbers are already strong enough to make the point that partisans would circle the wagons around their preferred candidate lest the Other Guy win, but even these strong numbers would certainly rise in the heat of the race. Recall that in 2016 both major candidates’ polling climbed at the end while support for third party candidates cratered. I certainly empathize and agree with those that want a moderate third party to reel in our two major parties’ drift from the center, but there is no indication the electorate will evolve to reward such a party.
The next unrealistic possibility is to take it out of the voters’ hands. (It’s sentences like that which ensure I can never run for political office.) For most of American history, we didn’t have primary elections for our nominees. It’s only in the wake of the disastrous 1968 (un)Democratic National Convention that we began giving voters most of the power over the nomination process. Before that, party insiders had most of the power, and they’d take care to promote nominees they felt could broadly appeal to the general electorate. It was less democratic, yes, but it’s also a system that gave us Jefferson, Monroe, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, among other presidents most people not afflicted with acute partisanship and recency bias would probably rank above our last handful of chief executives.
A third unfeasible solution would be to introduce mandatory voting, which some other advanced nations have effectively executed to drive voter turnout north of 80%. As a general rule, the most passionate and consistent voters are also the most ideological; indeed, it’s their ideology that drives their passion and consistency. These passionate, ideological voters are inherently unlikely to be attracted to more moderate or nuanced candidates, and so candidates of those parties, to survive primaries, are pushed from the center. By the general election, we’re left with divisive candidates, with moderate and independents not thrilled with the choices and more likely to stay home, letting the partisans duke it out. However, in a mandatory voting system, if our candidates know that otherwise disaffected independent and moderate voters would be a part of the electorate, it would be behoove them to tone down the partisanship and talk more about working with the other side.
The least unrealistic path to fixing this system has already begun in some states and cities, and that’s ranked-choice voting. If it mattered whether a candidate were a voter’s second or third choice, then that would naturally tone down divisive rhetoric and lead to moderation and coalition building, both in primaries and general elections. As it stands, however, our plurality system rewards whoever gets the most votes, even if more people hate that person than support them. With a broken system like that, it’s no wonder we’re careening toward Biden-Trump II.
Today’s featured image was brought to you by Elvert Barnes at Flickr.
1 thought on “Raise Your Hand If You Want Trump-Biden II (I’ll Wait)”
Mandatory voting is a horrible idea. You would basically have people who don’t pay any attention choosing the president. If someone doesn’t care enough to vote, do you really want them picking the president?
The issue with rank choice voting, is that once your top choice is removed, your vote no longer goes to your top choice. Beyond that, the primary season gives people lots of choices. They need to change the way the primaries work. They could maybe have five state primaries every three weeks, which would give thirty weeks to get through all 50 states. They could also rotate the order, which would be far fairer. Having Iowa and New Hampshire pare the field down every time is unfair.