Huntsman, Trump, and the Limitations of a Two Party System

All of which leads to a discussion of electoral rules.

Donald Trump Victory NevadaVia CNN:  Jon Huntsman: I could get behind Donald Trump

“If he’s the nominee, I’m a Republican and I tend to gravitate towards whomever the nominee is,” Huntsman, who lost the 2012 Republican presidential primary to Mitt Romney, told CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod on Axelrod’s podcast “The Axe Files.”

Readers likely recall Huntsman as being the “too liberal” GOP candidate back in 2012.  So, on the one hand, I have to wonder how much his past association with the Obama administration (he was ambassador to China from 2009-2011) and the negative feedback he received colors his approach to party politics. On the other, he is in the position that a lot of Republicans are going to find themselves over the next several months:  do they stick with the GOP if Trump is the nominee, do they defect to the Democrats, or do they sit out the election?  Unless an independent candidate/new third party movement arises, there aren’t going to be any other options.

This allows me to take the opportunity to note that part of the problem is our electoral system.  If we had a popular vote system that required an absolute majority of the vote to win the office (i.e., 50%+1) using either a run-off or instant run-off, there would be a far greater incentives for a third party to emerge.

I would note that such systems are quite common in countries with elected president.  They have two clear advantages:  they do, in fact, tend to generate more choices, and they also produce a winner with clear majority support (a more than reasonable goal for the one and only office that supposedly represents the country as a whole).*

The info below is from A Different Democracy and shows the election systems used by countries in the study with elected presidents and the methods used.  First, it is pretty obvious what an outlier the US is in regards to using an electoral college.  Second, it is likewise obvious that most countries use a majority runoff system.  Third, it can be seen that practically every country has more candidates running than we do.  The “effective number of candidates” is a metric based on the votes won by all the candidates running and it basically an index of how fragmented the vote is (the higher the effective number, the more fragmentation and more fragmentation can only occur with more candidates).  Our 2.28 for 1990-2010 period illustrates that most votes went to two main candidates with a smattering of votes going to third party challengers (and that number is enhanced by Perot 1992 in particular).  Most countries using a run-off have more than 3 effective candidates, and almost all have more than two and half. **

Comp Pres Elections

It is important to understand that the reason the system tends to generate more candidates is because in the first stage of two step process a candidate only has to come in second to survive (unless a candidate wins an absolute majority in the first stage and therefore the first stage is the only stage).  This means that there can be two winners, so to speak, and not just one.  As such, voters tend to vote their sincere preferences in the first stage and then find themselves having to compromise in the second.  Such a system means that someone like Trump might find himself not making it out of the first stage, as voters who truly found him unacceptable would have a potential option in that stage beyond simply voting for the Democratic nominee.

All of this is to say that if we used a majority run-off system, conservatives/Republicans unhappy with Trump would likely have better options.  As it stands it is either, Trump, the Democrat, or stay home (which helps the Democrat).  A third party candidate in our system will almost certainly help the Democrat as the Democratic Party will stay united behind its nominee.  (This is going to lead to a lot of rationalization from Republicans about Trump in the coming months).

Speaking as someone who thinks we need electoral reform (in multiple ways), this is good time to point it out.

*Yes, we still elect the president via the states, so even now it is not a truly national election.  However, there is compelling argument that given the fact that a) the electoral college does not function as designed (see here and here), and b) that the presidency became nationalized as an office pretty much from the beginning (the Framers thought national candidates unlikely beyond Washington, but they were wrong about that).

**Austria and and Portugal have numbers similar to the US, but are also not pure presidential systems, which is also true for Finland, France, and Poland–making the best direct comparisons for this discussion the Latin American cases.  That is a different topic, but the bottom line is that that institutional feature in question does have the clear tendency to increase competition and therefore choices.    Heck, even plurality, as per the evidence presented, has a tendency to induce more choice (but the reasons are also linked to other factors in the system).  To get into all of this, see ADD.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Democracy, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. James Joyner says:

    It is indeed a quandary. Huntsman was my preferred candidate in 2012 but it was obvious early on that he had no shot at the nomination and, indeed, seemed to be going out of his way to alienate the nominating electorate. It would be relatively easy for Huntsman Republicans to abandon Trump for a Martin O’Malley or Jim Webb. It’s going to be much harder to do so for Hillary Clinton, who’s not only more liberal but has built up huge antipathy over the last 24 years. Eight months out, I lean Hillary in such a contest but it’s much harder than it should be to make that call.

  2. @James Joyner: The antipathy of which you speak is, well to borrow from Trump, huge.

    It will be interesting, from a poli sci POV, to see who defects to HIllary, who at least will not vote for Trump (as Erick Erickson has already said he is going to do), and who talks themselves into voting for him.

    Right now I would predict depressed GOP turnout if Trump is the nominee–enough that will matter, maybe even in some House races.

  3. James Pearce says:

    “I’m a Republican and I tend to gravitate towards whomever the nominee is”

    Independents may be partisans by another name, but it might be easier to gauge “the lesser of two evils” if you don’t have a party to gravitate towards.

    Right now I would predict depressed GOP turnout if Trump is the nominee–enough that will matter, maybe even in some House races.

    I would hope this is true, but I would predict the opposite.

    In his recent “views that need updating” post, Tyler Cowen said:

    “Republican voters are less conservative, less “Tea Party,” and less libertarian than many people had thought.”

    To the extent that’s true, if it even is, I would not expect a Trump nomination to depress turn-out hardly at all.

  4. Scott F. says:

    Steven –

    I’ve been clamoring for instant run-off for a couple of decades, but I’ve never heard it spoken of outside of political blogs such as this one. I’ve certainly never heard a prominent national politician advocate for legislation that would bring it about.

    Perhaps some good could come of this aberrant 2016 election. A Trump vs. Clinton general may very well be the kind of contest that gets Congress thinking there must be a better way. I won’t hold my breath, but I’ll hope for it anyway.

  5. gVOR08 says:

    Ours was the prototype democratic constitution. You never get everything right in the prototype. I think the big error was designing a difficult amendment process. The founders appear to have expected the Constitution to be improved and evolve, but the process they designed hasn’t worked that way.

  6. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Scott F.: An easier solution, as I have noted before, is to simply refuse to allow candidates who cannot attract, say, 15-20% of the electorate from running. As thing currently stand, for example this year, instant runoff is formula where my vote won’t “count” until I have voted for either Hillary or Trump (or Cruz, or Rubio). I see that as disenfranchisement, but I have no problems with leaving the choice up to the disenfranchisors.

    On the other hand, some sort of genuinely open primary that would lead to a runoff between the top two candidates without regard to party affiliation might yield the salutary result that Dr. Taylor suggests. It seems to work for other countries where democratic voting occurred long after the logistics that caused our founders to decide on the indirect system they chose became unimportant.

  7. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @gVOR08: If we take what Jefferson had to say seriously (and consider his thoughts to reflect a consensus rather than a single viewpoint), we might conclude that the founders had thought that the government might be redesigned from scratch every few generations.

  8. JKB says:

    On the other hand, the turnout for the Republican primaries has been much greater than past elections. So, a bunch of those may be petty and stay home or migrate to Hillary, but really how many Republican leaning pundits are there, especially outside of metro DC and NYC which are unlikely to go for a Republican anyway.

    There is some risk for the GOPe who do bail on this election. If Hillary wins, they spend another 4 perhaps 8 years on the outside. Many will be has-beens by then with a younger, perhaps less petty, group moving into positions.

    Then there is the real big threat, Trump wins the GOPe “professionals” are DOA, or DOE (dead on election) as Trumps administration creates new establishment Republicans. Let’s face it, the current group of Republican operators have been worthless in Presidential elections, up to the one that bankrupted Scott Walker’s campaign right out of the starting gate.

    So there’s big talk, but the costs to all but the biggest pundits might be steep.

  9. JKB says:

    I listened to the Uncommon Knowledge interview with George Schultz the other day. He tossed up a wild card as his hope for the election. Basically, that Bloomberg runs a third party campaign, splits the vote and the whole thing gets tossed into the House. There, they draft Ryan to the Presidency. According to Schultz, Ryan has shown some facility with getting things done, although quietly.

    A good a speculation as any.

  10. An Interested Party says:

    A good a speculation as any.

    Rather, a good pipe dream…

  11. al-Ameda says:

    It’s going to be much harder to do so for Hillary Clinton, who’s not only more liberal but has built up huge antipathy over the last 24 years.

    Well, a 24 year permanent investigation of all things Clinton would have that effect. Just imagine if she had actually done things that justified the intense antipathy of her.

  12. Pch101 says:


    The operating theory was that there was a correct solution to every problem, and that logic and reason would lead us to the right answer, while self-serving minority interests — what Hamilton referred to as “factions” — would lead us astray.

    The checks-and-balances system was meant to filter out the special interests so that bad choices would be rejected at some point in the process, thus allowing the right decisions to prevail. The emphasis wasn’t on majority rule per se, but on keeping the factions in check.

    In retrospect, this was an incredibly naive outlook on human nature. The checks-and-balances systems empowers minority interests if they favor appeals to tradition, which is to say that the US empowers reactionaries at the expense of change agents.

    Although Hamilton was wary of change, he was primarily concerned with maintaining stability — the Federalists did not want more rebellions. But he failed to note that it’s the reactionaries who can create the most instability, particularly when they want to throw a spanner or six in the works. If you want to act like a stubborn jerk, you can get a lot of what you want in America.

  13. Infoguy says:

    @An Interested Party: @JKB: Were a major independent (Bloomberg, Sanders or Biden) to enter the race against Trump/Clinton, the chances of the election being thrown into the House are close to 100 percent. A completely un-reported story with enormous consequences. Schultz is absolutely right that this is a possibility, though no way to say Ryan would be the choice.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: If you told the Founders that we’d still be using a Constitution they wrote in 1787, they’d be stunned. If you gave them some idea how much we’d changed from the 13 colonies along the Eastern Seaboard and 4 million people, they’d think we were insane.

    @Pch101: I think the system as designed and amended has generally worked. What’s killed it is the permanent fillibuster, which turns everything into a supermajority standoff, and the rise of parliamentary-style lockstep voting in a system designed to reward shifting coalitions.

  15. Grumpy Realist says:

    @JKB: Bloomberg is going to split the vote only in his own mind. He’ll get his own vote, that of his NYC cronies, and anyone who voted for Nader and thinks the whole Bush debacle was just dandy.

    Ten people, maybe?

  16. @Infoguy:

    Were a major independent (Bloomberg, Sanders or Biden) to enter the race against Trump/Clinton, the chances of the election being thrown into the House are close to 100 percent. A completely un-reported story with enormous consequences.

    The chances would be greater than zero, but far closer to zero than 100. First, it won’t be Sanders or Biden or anyone else likely to substantially take the vote away from Clinton (if Biden wanted to be president, he would have run). So, any third party candidate would give people who don’t want to vote Dem or Trump somewhere to register their frustration. The result would be a Democratic landslide in the EC.

  17. Jeremy says:

    Why not approval voting instead? I’ve seen results from an Instant Runoff Vote before, and they are beyond confusing. Most Americans would look at an IRV election and immediately think that there was some shenanigans going on, even if it was completely clean and legitimate. There are lots of opportunities for strategic voting, or where voting your sincere candidate for #1 actually hurts said candidate.

    Approval? Not so much, as far as I can tell. It’s simpler and cleaner, and I also think it would go a long ways towards softening animosity and dirty campaigns. If group A votes for Candidates A and C, and group B votes for candidates B and C, and C wins, that should help bridge some divides.

    There are a lot of problems with IRV, which always seem to be papered over or ignored in blog posts such as this. I would check out and for more information on alternative systems.

  18. kohler says:

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The National Popular Vote bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    Americans do not view the absence of run-offs in the current system as a major problem. If, at some time in the future, the public demands run-offs, that change can be implemented at that time.

    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 11 jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

  19. JohnMcC says:

    @JKB: Did you guys smoke that whole stash?