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Our new election norm: picking between the lesser of two evils

Hillary Clinton’s supporters are more motivated by their opposition to Donald Trump than by their confidence in Clinton, and vice versa.

Posters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are seen outside Trump's Nevada caucus night rally in Las Vegas, Nev., on Feb. 23.

My friend (and long-time political observer) Wy Spano sometimes cites as a favorite cartoon of his one that showed two voters meeting as they head into the polling place. One says to the other: “So, which one are you voting against?”

I’ve mentioned this cartoon before, back when I thought it was more funny than true. Now it’s more true than funny.

If you listen to enough political news, you may know already that the likely major-party nominees for president, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are each disliked by a majority of the electorate. Trump is more disliked than Clinton, but neither gets a thumbs up from a majority.

Yes, sure, some of this reflects the overall partisan polarization. It didn’t use to be this bad, but in today’s climate, most Republicans put up a wall of opposition tinged with fear and hatred against anyone identified with the Democrats; the same is true to a slightly lesser extent in reverse.

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But even within each party’s ranks, Clinton’s supporters are more motivated by their opposition to Trump than by their confidence in Clinton, and vice versa to a greater extent.

(If you want some backup for that last statement, I based it on a recent CNN-ORC national poll in which a respondent who said they would likely vote for Clinton was then asked: “Would that be more a vote to express support for Hillary Clinton or more to express opposition to Donald Trump?” (Or vice versa if the respondent was planning to vote for Trump.) The results were as follows:

(When asked of Clinton voters): Would that be more a vote to express support for Hillary Clinton or more to express opposition to Donald Trump. The result was that by 51-48, more Clinton voters said their vote would be more to express their opposition to Trump than their support for Clinton. Among Trump supporters, the negativity was even higher. Only 43 percent said their vote would be more “for” Trump compared to 57 percent who said it would be more against Clinton.

This can’t be a good thing. And it feels like it could become the new normal.

Regular readers of this space, going back to the “Electoral Dysfunction” series of the 2014 election cycle, know that I am not a love slave to the U.S. system of politics and elections and see many advantages to various features of other systems around the world. Here’s one:

Only two choices

The U.S. system, more than almost any other democracy in the world, gives a voter only two meaningful choices on Election Day if they want their vote to potentially affect the outcome: The Democrat or the Republican. No one other than a Dem or a Repub has been elected president since Whig candidate Zachary Taylor in 1848 (and back then, there were also only two meaningful parties, Dems and Whigs).

Yes, we have smaller parties in the U.S. — for example the Greens on the left and the Libertarians on the right — that get on the ballot in most states, most cycles. But in today’s system, voting for a minor party candidate is what some people call a “wasted vote” because, in a plurality-winner-take-all system such as the one that prevails in most U.S. elections, it won’t affect the outcome any more than if you hadn’t voted at all. (Yes, I know, Greens and Libertarians, understandably, don’t like that “wasted vote” rhetoric.)

Many democracies in the world have systems that make it much more likely that a voter can vote for a person or a party that they actually like, and still hope their vote might make a difference, rather than being forced to spend their precious vote on a lesser of two evils. And yes, Minneapolis and St. Paul city elections use ranked-choice-voting and there are other alternative systems in which a plurality winner does not take all. But none of those systems are in place for U.S. presidential elections.

But for today, I just want to argue that while we have a two-party system, we really have more than two parties, and I’m not just talking about the Greens and the Libertarians. Within the Democratic Party, we really have at least two parties: a leftier one that, at the moment, would like to be able to vote for Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” in November, and a more center-left one that aligns fairly well with Hillary Clinton’s incremental progressivism.

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How many of those Democrats who told CNN-ORC that they will vote for Clinton if that’s the only way for them to vote against Trump were really saying that they’d feel a lot better about their vote if they could vote for Sanders? And how many of those might stay home if they can’t vote for Bernie?

This may be especially true this year, or maybe not. The fight for the Dem nomination is often a fight between a center-lefty and a leftier alternative. One of them wins, and many of the followers of the other must choose between falling in line behind a nominee for whom they have not much enthusiasm or staying home on Election Day, or voting for a minor party knowing that their vote will not have any effect on the outcome.

Likewise, the fight for the Republican nomination generally boils down to a choice between a center-righty and a further righty. We have long been aware that the Repubs are really at least two parties, along those lines. Or maybe three, with the third party being evangelical Christians. And then, of course, this year there’s the Party of Trump, which is harder to define ideologically but which, quite obviously, is the current largest of the small crypto-parties within the Republican Party.

Again, pretty obviously, a huuuge portion of those Republicans who told CNN-ORC that they will reluctantly vote for Trump because they dislike Clinton would be much happier if in November they could vote for a party led by Ted Cruz or John Kasich or Rand Paul.

Sure, a lot of those people would be voting for a candidate who wouldn’t end up winning. But in systems like the ones I’m talking about, the country is often governed by a coalition of parties, and the parties in the coalitions usually get some of what they favor as a condition of them joining the coalition.

Another advantage of these systems, which we generally put in the category of “parliamentary” systems as opposed to “presidential” systems like ours, is that once the coalition is formed, it can actually govern. This includes being able to pass its bills, as opposed to our system which, at least at present, is gridlock prone. Or maybe you don’t consider that an advantage.

Four or five parties

So much for me romanticizing the parliamentary system. It has its own downsides, of course. But just take the parliamentary metaphor to mean that what we have in the United States right now is four (or five or more) parties — the Sanders Democrats, the Clinton Democrats, the moderately conservative Republicans, the rightier conservatives and the Trumpian insurgents — forced to behave as if they were just two parties by the rules of the U.S. politics game.  

This two-party duopoly, by the way, was in no way intended or envisioned by the authors of the U.S. Constitution. But it is now deeply embedded in our political culture and is now woven into the Constitutional system as evolved — so embedded that we mostly think and act as if there are no alternatives, or as if the Americans system is the envy of the world.

For those inclined to defend the perfection of our system, it might occur to you to argue that all of the five or more party options described above are available to those who vote in primaries. There’s some truth to that. But bear this in mind:

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One of the key starting points of my Electoral Dysfunction series was that the United States ranks near the bottom of all democracies in voter participation. The turnout of eligible voters for a presidential election hovers around, or just under, 60 percent. (It was 58 percent in 2012. Much higher — 76 percent — in Minnesota.)

But that’s only for the big quadrennial presidential election. In midterm elections, with the entire U.S. House on the ballot, turnout drops to under 40 percent (37.6 in 2014).

It’s less than half that much in primaries. Yes, on average, fewer than 20 percent of eligible voters participate in primaries and, in many cycles, many states don’t have their primaries until after the presidential nominating contest has already been decided. (Yes, this cycle is a bit of an exception to that rule).

Of course, more of us could turn out in primaries. But we don’t. And then the field gets narrowed down to two meaningful choices of whom the majority of us are enamored of neither. Then far more of us turn out to register our Hobson’s choice, but still not enough to keep us from being near the bottom of the list of world democracies.

Over recent decades, many new democracies have been formed. They often study various versions of democracy that exist around the world. None of them choose ours as the model. I wonder why not.