Despite pre-election polls that demonstrated he had little chance to win, Perot gained 19% of the national vote and won over 15% of the vote in 38 states. Perot's vote was greater than the margin of victory in 49 states, and he was within 20% of capturing 20 states.
Preliminary poll results suggest a close election in 1996 and higher potential totals for an independent candidate. Such close results easily could divide the electoral college.
Every other major democracy with plurality voting has experienced fractured results. The United States cannot expect to be immune from the fractionalization of plurality voting. As one indication, several states recently have elected governors with low pluralities, including three in the 1990s that have elected independents.
Although presidential victories without a majority of the vote are nothing new, minority rule is likely to become the norm because times indeed have changed. Central problems with plurality elections are systemic in nature and unlikely to change.
A divided electorate easily could fracture the electoral college in 1996 so that the presidency is decided by a vote in the House of Representatives
The winner of the 1996 election quite possibly will not be either the first or second choice of a majority of voters in the general election.
Future presidential elections are likely to continue to produce plurality presidents, fractured electoral college votes and frustrated voters.
- Richard Nixon, quoted posthumously in William Safire column, 5/12/94 N.Y. Times
- 10/30/95 Washington Times news story
- Sen. Christopher Dodd, general chairman of Democratic National Committee, 7/18/95 New York Times
- Robert Novak, 6/29/95 Washington Post column
- Ralph Reed, executive director of Christian Coalition, 10/9/95 Newsweek
- Gordon Jones, Association of Concerned Taxpayers, 11/3/95 New York Times
- Newsweek, 9/25/95
- Toronto Globe and Mail (Canada's largest newspaper), June 26, 1993
- 8/16/95 Los Angeles Times news story
1996 could be a disastrous year for American democracy. This judgment is not based on whether a Republican, Democrat or independent should be elected president. Rather, it is tied to the impact of the plurality method of voting currently used to elect our president -- plurality voting meaning that the candidate who wins the most votes in a state wins all of that state's electoral college votes. Because of plurality voting and the near certainty of strong independent candidates in 1996 and future elections, we draw three conclusions:
A year before the election, we predict that there will be at least one strong independent candidate seeking the presidency. The most likely such candidate will pursue the "militant center" through the new Independence Party formed by Ross Perot's United We Stand America. Possible candidates are Perot himself and such current and former U.S. Senators as David Boren, Bill Bradley, Sam Nunn, Paul Tsongas and Lowell Weicker, any of whom might also choose to run for president separately from the Independence Party candidate.
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell also has indicated interest in running for president and in creation of a third party. After initial signals that he might run as an independent candidate, General Powell more recently has positioned himself to seek the Republican nomination. If Powell were to choose this course and win the Republican nomination, however, it almost certainly would precipitate a high-profile independent challenge from the conservative wing of the Republican party, as strongly suggested by Pat Buchanan.
At the same time, former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson has spoken of an independent challenge to President Bill Clinton from the left. Recent movement to the right by Clinton, the election of a more aggressive leadership of the AFL-CIO in the wake of labor's disappointment with Clinton's support for NAFTA and many congressional Democrats' ongoing frustration with the president makes such a challenge all the more possible.
The irony of current plurality voting laws is that the more candidates who enter the general election field, the more incentive there is for other candidates to run. Unlikely to win in a three-person race, a Buchanan or Jackson could have a realistic chance to win by capturing the big states' electoral college votes with as little as 26% in a four-person race, 21% in a five-person race or even 17% in a six-candidate race.
1992 shows these scenarios are not so far-fetched. With three major candidates running, only a single state was won with a majority: Bill Clinton's home state of Arkansas. The 49 other states gave all of their electoral college votes to candidates that the majority of voters in those states opposed. The last presidential election in the Philippines also provides a disturbing example of what could happen in 1996. In a large field of candidates using U.S.-style plurality voting, Fidel Ramos won the presidency with less than 25% of the vote.
This report reviews the results from the 1992 presidential election, applies the lessons from these results to 1996 and explains why the United States is not immune from the problems that the handful of other democracies using plurality voting have experienced. It concludes that the United States is unlikely to have a president elected by a majority for years unless it reforms its plurality election method. The report then suggests a sensible reform called instant runoff voting, which has the twin benefits of better assuring majority rule while at the same time promoting increased voter choice -- and participation -- on election day.
The 1992 Presidential Election
In 1992 Bill Clinton was elected president with 43.0% of the vote, the fourth lowest percentage in American history. Perhaps more strikingly, he also won only a single state -- his home state of Arkansas -- with a majority of the vote. In fact, the majority of voters in 49 out of 50 states opposed the candidate who collected all of their state's electoral college votes. As shown in Appendix 1, most states were won by less than 45% of the vote, ranging down to Clinton's victory in Nevada with 37%.
These plurality victories were the result of Ross Perot's strong presidential challenge. Despite pre-election polls that demonstrated he had little chance to win, Perot gained 19% of the national vote and won over 15% of the vote in 38 states, ranging up to 30% in Maine and a second place finish in Utah with 27%. Perot's vote was greater than the margin of victory in 49 states, including the 15 states decided by less than 5%. (See Appendix 1.) Perot was within 15% of capturing 8 states and 20% of capturing 12 more, including such large states as Texas, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Many potential independent presidential contenders must be weighing how well Perot would have run if he had stayed in the race throughout 1992 and if polls had shown that he a credible chance to win. A study in the Roper Center's publication The Public Perspective, based on data from the American National Election Study, concluded that Perot was the favorite of a clear-cut plurality of voters, but that many of his supporters chose not to vote for him because of his standing in the polls.
Lessons for 1996
Given Bill Clinton's low standing in the polls, Republican front-runner Bob Dole's difficulties in expanding his support and ever-increasing signs of voter support for third party candidacies, independent candidates can find great encouragement in the 1992 results. A strong candidate running a sustained campaign throughout 1996 and earning high numbers in the polls would have a credible chance to win enough states to gain an electoral college majority.
Even if winning with only a plurality, such a victorious independent candidate could emerge from the election with a reasonable mandate. But a mandate is far from certain, particularly given the prospect of multiple independent candidacies. It is one thing to win the presidency with 40% of the vote. It is quite another to win with 30% in a four-candidate race or even less in a five-candidate or six-candidate race. A polarizing candidate could have an extremely ineffective -- and, as a result, destabilizing -- presidency.
Given many voters' history of party-line voting, however, an independent candidate would face an uphill battle to win enough states to gain a majority in the electoral college. But in a close election, it would take an independent's victory in only a handful of states to precipitate a constitutional crisis by throwing the election into the House of Representatives. (Given that each state's delegation to the House of Representatives would cast one vote, the 1996 House elections would take on even greater significance; currently, neither party controls a majority of state delegations.)
Even in 1992, when Bill Clinton won a commanding 370 electoral college votes, a few twists of fate could have fractured the electoral college. Clinton won 9 states by less than 5%, with a total electoral college vote of 87. Clinton's electoral college total would have been reduced to 283 if George Bush had won all of these states, meaning that the election would have gone to the House of Representatives if Ross Perot had won a single state that deprived Clinton of 14 electoral votes.
Preliminary poll results suggest a close election in 1996 and higher potential totals for an independent candidate. A September 22-24 poll by CNN/USA Today found that in a three-way race among Bill Clinton as the Democratic nominee, Bob Dole as the Republican nominee and Colin Powell as an independent, the results were 33% each for Clinton and Powell and 30% for Dole. Mirrored at a state level, such close results easily could divide the electoral college so that no candidate won a majority.
Plurality Winners For the Foreseeable Future?
The United States is one of a handful of former British colonies that use plurality voting -- often called by political scientists "first past the post" because the candidate who gets the most votes wins all, even when lacking a majority. Plurality has caused grave problems in all of these democracies which have resulted in calls for reform or, in the case of New Zealand, rejection of the system in a 1993 referendum in favor of a proportional representation system.
The United Kingdom has not had a government elected by a majority since World War II, leading even the conservative Economist magazine to conclude in 1991 that "The current, first-past-the-post system is undemocratic. On that ground alone, it needs to be replaced." New Zealanders are now in their fifth decade of plurality rule -- soon to change with their first election using proportional representation in 1996 -- including six years from 1978-1984 in which the party finishing second nationally won a majority of seats.
India also has not had a government elected by the majority for decades and recently has experienced fractious regional elections in which polarizing fundamentalist parties have won large seat majorities with less than a majority of the vote. Canada has seen extreme swings in government exacerbated by plurality elections. In the 1993 election, the Liberals turned 41.6% of the vote into 60.3% of seats, while the previously governing Conservatives won only 2 seats -- 27 times fewer than the 54 seats won by the separatist Bloc Quebecois with fewer votes nationwide than the Conservatives. Overall, five parties won seats.
The United States cannot expect to be immune from the fractionalization of plurality voting. As one indication, several states recently have elected governors with low pluralities, including three in the 1990s that have elected independents. Alaska has elected its last two governors with 41% in 1994 and 39% in 1990, while Connecticut has elected its last two governors with 36% in 1994 and 40% in 1990. Other states that elected governors by plurality in 1994 included Hawaii (37%) and Maine (36%).
Polls reveal a steadily rising growth in independent voters and support for creation of a third party. A Gallup poll in August 1995 showed that 62% of Americans favored "formation of a third political party that would run candidates for President, Congress and state offices against the Republican and Democratic candidates." The support for such a third party increased steadily the younger the voting age group, with 18-29-year-olds favoring formation of a third party by a lopsided 72%-18% margin. Gallup also found that the proportion of voters calling themselves independents had doubled since 1940 to its current 39%.
As Colin Powell has remarked, the national results in 1992 and 1994 indicate an electorate that is "channel-surfing." In 1992, voters tried the Democrats and Bill Clinton, in 1994 they tried the Republicans and Newt Gingrich and in 1996 they may be ready for someone new. Although greatly simplifying the complex reasons for these election victories, this analogy captures the volatility and frustration of the many millions of Americans who are leaping to limit legislators' terms -- or stepping away from voting altogether. Now that United We Stand America has formed a new party with the potential to poll well throughout the country, victories by plurality easily could become the norm in many American elections.
Why Today is Different: "Politics is Broken"
Some observers might ask why the plurality voting system is breaking down now. Although presidential victories without a majority of the vote are nothing new (see Appendix 2), minority rule is likely to become the norm because times indeed have changed. There is a general agreement that American politics is in a state of crisis. Leading Democrat Bill Bradley has declared that "politics is broken", while House Speaker Newt Gingrich testified just last week (on November 2 about the need for a reform commission) that "we need a very profound overhaul of our political system." These comments by Bradley and Gingrich echo many remarks made in recent years by respected commentators from the left and right.
Although some would like to blame voters or politicians, a more sensible analysis is to focus on the system that is causing voters and politicians to act the way they do in the "survival of the fittest" logic that governs such a competitive system. Speaker Gingrich in his November 2nd testimony helped put a finger on one of the main problems when he commented that "I do think there is something inherently wrong with a system where you have the right smear for the last four days you undo two or three years of hard, sincere work, and somebody who doesn't have a clue what they are doing can buy an office for -- with 50.1% of the vote because they had the best hired gun. And this is a problem we see across the board."
What Gingrich suggests may seem like a paradox: that we have simply gotten too good at the current rules of the game to be able to play effectively. But campaign consultants -- "hired guns" -- have much greater tools available to win close elections by targeting the relatively small number of swing voters undecided between the leading candidates. The most effective winning strategy to woo such voters is a negative campaign. However much voters dislike negative campaigning, swing voters still respond to it because it is easier for them by definition to find a reason to vote against someone than a reason to vote for someone.
If effective in the short-term, however, these sophisticated campaigns are causing voters to reject the political parties and lose trust in elected officials. In this climate, support for "outsider" candidates is rising rapidly. An independent candidate is the ultimate outsider, and Ross Perot's 1992 showing and recent victories by independents in gubernatorial elections shows that more and more voters are particularly willing to elect an independent to be their executive -- either governor of a state or president of the nation. The attraction may be that, as the executive, the outsider can keep the distrusted political parties in the legislature in line.
As long as politics are conducted in a manner that drives voters to dislike and distrust politicians, voters will have an interest in third parties and independents. And such negative, personality-driving campaigning is quite unlikely to change, given that it works for very rational reasons in a "winner-take-all" electoral system. When combined with the economic dislocation experienced by millions of Americans and other volatile issues, it is hard to believe that politics will return to the neat and tidy two-party system of years past.
Instant Runoff Voting: Majority Rule, Maximum Choice
The United States has one advantage in having its plurality voting system falter years after other democracies with plurality voting have had problems. These nations have had years of debate on what steps could be taken -- a debate we should catch up on quickly. The United States also has an advantage in that, unlike these countries, it has a federal system with fifty states that can enact changes on their own, even for presidential elections in their state.
We strongly recommend the instant runoff voting system for presidential elections. Used to elect Australia's parliament since the 1920s, used to elect the Irish presidency and advocated by many in the United Kingdom, instant runoff voting (also called "the alternative vote" and "majority preference voting") has the twin benefits of better assuring majority rule (at least within states) and promoting increased voter choice -- and thus participation -- in elections.
Designed to produce majority winners, instant runoff voting (IRV) allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference rather than simply "x" vote for one. This simple provision for "voter literacy" -- few voters would have difficulty marking a "1" next to a first choice, a "2" next to a second choice and so on -- allows a different method of tabulating results. Rather than the winner being whoever has the most first-place votes -- the current approach -- a candidate would need a majority of over 50% to win. If no candidate obtains a majority of first-place votes, then the last-place candidate is defeated, and, just as if there were a run-off election, the ballots for that candidate are transferred to the next candidate listed on these ballots. This transfer of ballots from last-place candidates continues until only one candidate remains or gains 50%.
If IRV had been used in 1992, Bill Clinton almost certainly still would have won the presidency, as exit polls showed that Ross Perot voters were evenly split between George Bush and Clinton. But Clinton would have had the increased legitimacy of being a majority president rather than a plurality winner with 43%, and Perot would have had a greater chance to win -- and perhaps faced a correspondingly increased level of scrutiny on his proposed policies.
Having IRV in 1996 would reverse much conventional political wisdom. Independent candidacies by Ross Perot, Colin Powell or Pat Buchanan would not fracture the opposition to Clinton -- there would be no more rumors of Clinton consultant Dick Morris helping Ross Perot's Independence Party gain ballot status. Instead, the vote in opposition to Clinton would coalesce behind the strongest of the opposition candidates. Similarly, a Jesse Jackson candidacy would help Clinton rather than hurt him. Jackson supporters on the left would be more inspired to vote, but likely would list Clinton as their second choice, where their vote would go if Jackson did not finish ahead of Clinton in a particular state.
Instant runoff voting as a result encourages candidacies for citizens who feel left out by the limitations of the current system. It provides them with a greater reason to vote and, if they choose to vote, an increased chance to have their vote count toward a winner. By opening the field to more choices -- an increase that polls show a majority of Americans would welcome -- IRV could lift our voter turnout, which now is among the lowest in the world. The 1992 elections provide good evidence of the positive impact more candidacies have on turnout. With Ross Perot on the ballot, voter participation rose in 49 out of 50 states. Furthermore, while the average increase in voter turnout was 5% around the nation, its average rise was 8% in the 10 states where Perot gained his highest percentages of the vote.
Although politicians may be resistant to pursue reform before absolutely necessary, they would be foolhardy to risk electoral disaster in 1996 without at least studying proposed changes. Fortunately, a mechanism may indeed exist to study IRV on a national level, as House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole have begun steps toward formation of a powerful electoral reform commission. In addition, the Republican presidential primaries may provide a stark demonstration of the haphazard nature of plurality voting, as most states will allocate Republican convention delegates by "plurality takes all" primaries.
Regardless of action at the federal level, states can lead the way on presidential election reform. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution explicitly gives states the power to determine the manner of choosing presidential electors. Thus, unlike abolition of the electoral college, which requires constitutional change, legislatures could institute the IRV for presidential elections (as well as for statewide offices) immediately. The only barrier is that some states might need to find new ways to tabulate ballots, but such one-time changes would be a small price to pay in exchange for providing for majority rule and for a more engaged electorate in what promises to be a watershed election in our nation's history.
Available in print version.
Other United States Elections and Information
|Winner||Popular Vote||Electoral Vote|
Recent U.S. Gubernatorial Elections
Following are some of the more dramatic examples of governors elected with less than a majority of the vote. Note that Alaska, Connecticut and Maine have had governors elected as independents in the 1990s.
|Knowles (D)||41%||Hickel (I)||39%|
|Campbell (R)||41%||Knowles (D)||31%|
|Coghill (I)||13%||Sturgulewski (R)||27%|
|Symington (R)||<50 (won in run-off)||Mecham (R)||40%|
|Goddard (D)||<50||Warner (D)||34%|
|Rowland (R)||36%||Weicker (I)||40%|
|Curry (D)||33%||Rowland (R)||37%|
|Groark (I)||19%||Morrison (D)||21%|
|King (I)||36%||McKernan (R)||47%||McKernan (R)||40%|
|Brennan (D)||34%||Brennan (D)||44%||Tierney (D)||30%|
|Collins (R)||23%||Adam (I)||9%||Huber (I)||15%|
|Carter (I)||7%||Menario (I)||15%|
|Keating (R)||47%||Bellmon (R)||47%|
|Mildren (D)||30%||Walters (D)||45%|
|Watkins (I)||23%||Brown (I)||7%|
The Case of Louisiana
1991 Gubernatorial Race
Louisiana has an open primary system in which all candidates run against one another in the primary, and the top two race off in a run-off if no candidate wins 50%. The 1991 results show that a polarizing candidate like former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke -- who could have had a serious chance in the typical American plurality election -- did poorly in a system requiring a majority of the vote to win.
|1991: Primary||1991: General|
1995 Gubernatorial Race The 1995 primary election demonstrates that even a run-off can be unfair to voters if the candidates the majority might prefer are eliminated by not placing in the top two. The top two candidates were Mike Foster, a conservative state senator publicly supported by David Duke, and Cleo Fields, a liberal black Congressman. Candidates closer to middle of Louisiana's political spectrum were eliminated. With majority instant-runoff voting, the elimination of candidates happens one at a time and may have produced a different result.
With 16 candidates on the ballot, ranging across the political spectrum, voter turnout was very high: over 70% of registered voters participated
|1995 Primary:||1995 General|
(to take place November 18)
Conventional Wisdom Turned On Its Head: The Instant Run-Off Would Reverse Following Calculations
"Perot is the Democrats' secret weapon.... They need Perot to stay in because two-thirds of his supporters are Republicans."
"Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan said he and other social conservatives would bolt if Colin Powell became the party's nominee -- even if the defection guaranteed President Clinton's re-election."
"In states where the margin is thin, he [Jesse Jackson] could well decide the race. The question is whether his issues might be placed in greater jeopardy with the likelihood of giving Bob Dole or Phil Gramm the Presidency of the United States."
"The one point of agreement among Democratic politicians, including the president's own advisors, is that Clinton surely would lose to the Republican nominee of [Jesse] Jackson forced a three-way contest."
Comments on American Politics
"We'll never return to politics as usual."
"Colin Powell's place on the Republican ticket, at either end, guarantees a third-party candidate, the loss of the House by the Republicans and the re-election of Bill Clinton."
"Andrew Kohut, who polls for the Times-Mirror newspapers, says that nearly a quarter of the public now says it will vote for any third-party presidential candidate over a Republican or Democrat."
Comments on Plurality Voting
"Though little attention had been paid to it, the biggest weakness in our system of government is the antiquated first-past-the-post system of voting, with its tendency to exaggerated majorities and regional ghettoes.
"Mathematicians do no agree on the best system. But they have no problem pointing their fingers at the worst: the plurality system used in most U.S. elections.
Rise of Support for A Third Party
August 1995 Gallup Poll for CNN/USA Today
Question: Would you favor or oppose the formation of a third political party that would run candidates for President, Congress and state offices against the Republican and Democratic candidates?
|Overall||62% favor||29% oppose|
|Men:||66% favor||27% oppose|
|Women:||58% favor||30% oppose|
|19-29:||72% favor||18% oppose|
|30-39:||65% favor||27% oppose|
|40-49:||67% favor||24% oppose|
|50-59:||60% favor||35% oppose|
|60-69:||46% favor||38% oppose|
|Over 70:||45% favor||46% oppose|
|GOP:||51% favor||41% oppose|
|Dem.:||62% favor||29% oppose|
|Ind.:||71% favor||20% oppose|
November 1995 Washington Post poll
Question: Would you support or oppose the formation of a third political party that would run candidates for president, Congress and state offices against Democratic and Republican party candidates?
|Overall||63% favor||32% oppose|
Election Results in Other Democracies with Plurality Voting
No post-World War II government in the United Kingdom's parliamentary system has been formed by a party winning a majority of the vote. Twice --in 1974 and 1951 -- the losing party won more votes than the winning party. Following are the six most recent elections and the results of the elections since World War II when the government changed hands. The latter results show how often there was little relationship to changes in the national vote for the Labour party.
|1992||42%||Conservative||51% of seats|
|1987||42%||Conservative||57% of seats|
|1983||42%||Conservative||61% of seats|
|1979||44%||Conservative||53% of seats|
|1974||39%||Labour||50% of seats|
|1974||37%||Labour||47% of seats|
|1979||36.9%||out of power with||42.4% of seats|
|1974||37.2%||minority gov't with||47.4% of seats|
|1970||43.1%||out of power with||45.6% of seats|
|1964||44.1%||back in power with||50.3% of seats|
|1951||48.8%||out of power with||47.2% of seats|
|1945||48.0%||back in power with||61.4% of seats|
In 1993, New Zealanders voted to reject their plurality voting system in favor of a German-style, mixed-member proportional voting system, which will be used in the country's next election in 1996. One clear reason for the change was that no governing party had won a majority of the vote since 1951 and that twice governing parties had won a lower percentage of the national vote than the other party. Following are the results of these elections, with governments formed by parties with a lower percentage of the vote than another party marked with an asterisk (*).
|1993||35%||National||50% of seats|
|1990||48%||National||69% of seats|
|1987||48%||Labour||54% of seats|
|1984||43%||Labour||59% of seats|
|1981||39%*||National||51% of seats|
|1978||40%*||National||55% of seats|
|1975||48%||National||63% of seats|
|1972||48%||Labour||63% of seats|
|1969||45%||National||54% of seats|
|1966||44%||National||45% of seats|
|1963||47%||National||56% of seats|
|1960||48%||National||58% of seats|
|1957||48%||Labour||51% of seats|
|1954||44%||National||56% of seats|
Canadians have had dramatic swings in their recent plurality elections, as demonstrated by these national results and, more dramatically, by the province-by-province seats-to-votes ratio in the 1993 parliamentary elections on the next page.
|1993||41%||Liberals||60% of seats|
|1988||43%||Conservatives||58% of seats|
|1984||50%||Conservatives||75% of seats|
|1980||44%||Liberals||52% of seats|
|Province||Vote % |
|Vote % |
|Vote % |
|Vote % |
|Vote % |
|Atlantic provinces |
|Territories / Yukon |