In the polls for Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race this year, no candidate has reached thirty percent. In the Senate contest, the same situation prevails. The candidates we say are “winning” based on poll results only claim the support of about a quarter of Pennsylvania Republicans, at best.
Depending on who earns the top spot in the actual vote next week, that might be just fine. Most of the candidates are normal enough Republicans, and in a perfect world, all GOP voters will rally around the chosen nominee. But that is not necessarily what will happen. If a candidate is far enough outside the mainstream, a party minority might hijack the ballot slot and lose a great many votes.
In other states, this would be impossible. States like Louisiana, California, and Washington use a two-round system of voting with all candidates competing in one primary. A general election follows between the top two vote-earners. Alaska will do something similar starting this year — the top four candidates will advance to the general election and voters will choose among them with ranked-choice voting.
That last scenario is more applicable to a state like Pennsylvania. Here, a California-style primary would retain all the problems of our current system, with the winners likely being one Democrat and one Republican, neither of whom is certain to command the support of his entire party. But if each party instead selected its nominees in a more consensus-based method, the following general election would be more like what we usually want to happen: each party puts forth a candidate that represents a majority of its party members.
One way to do this is to abolish primaries altogether and have party members select nominees at a convention. Virginia Republicans selected their gubernatorial candidate this way in 2021. Glenn Youngkin had the support of only 32.9 percent of convention delegates on the first ballot, but when the lowest vote–earners were eliminated from the ballot in each of five further rounds of voting, the delegates got to consider where to shift their support. In the sixth round, Youngkin claimed victory with a majority of delegates’ votes. He went on to defeat the Democratic candidate (chosen by primary ballot in the usual way), with his party — and many independents and even Democrats — rallying to his cause.
The convention system creates an opportunity for party members to discuss their choices and arrive at a consensus about who best represents the party — and who is likely to actually win the election. But conventions are somewhat limited, in that they are made up of the party members who are most active, and most willing to travel to a convention and spend days doing the party’s business.
If Pennsylvanians want to achieve that level of consensus while making it easier for the rank-and-file party members to participate, they could look to New York City’s recent shift to ranked-choice voting. New York City Democrats had to choose from among thirteen candidates for the Democratic nomination for mayor in 2021. They used a ranked choice system, where voters were able to rank which candidates they liked in order of preference, rather than just choosing one of the thirteen. Lower-ranking candidates were eliminated, and the voters’ next preferences followed.
The result was a nominee, Eric Adams, who claimed more of a consensus mandate after eight rounds of counting (50.4 percent) than he did after the first round (30.7 percent). This system works especially well in primary elections. In a general election, sides are chosen, and few voters would say, for example, “I’ll vote for Clinton, but if she can’t win, I’ll pick Trump.” By November, it’s either-or, us-versus-them.
But in a primary like the one next week, Pennsylvania Republicans might have one preferred candidate, but would probably support others, as well. It is not uncommon to say, “David McCormick is my first choice, but I also like Jeff Bartos and Carla Sands.” In our current system, only the first choice matters. But that is not typically how we think about primary candidates, and it does not capture the complete picture of each voter’s sentiments.
It is too late to fix things this year, and since the state party establishment refused to endorse anyone, it is almost guaranteed that we will have senatorial and gubernatorial nominees who are backed by only a minority of primary votes. In 2024, Pennsylvania Republicans should do better. Whether through a convention or a ranked-choice primary, anything is better than the virtual crapshoot we are about to embark upon.
This article first appeared in Broad and Liberty.