Trump’s Big Advantages as the Election Year Unfolds

Trump’s Big Advantages as the Election Year Unfolds
Trump’s Big Advantages as the Election Year Unfolds

Summary

From the rules on winning GOP delegates to the weighting of the Electoral College, the Republican front-runner benefits—even as he claims the cards are stacked against him

Since the last presidential campaign, former President Donald Trump has complained repeatedly that the political system is “rigged" against him. As the 2024 election season draws near, the system actually does appear to be rigged—in his favor.

The current structure of U.S. presidential elections helps the leading Republican presidential contender in significant ways. Thanks in part to years of work by the former president’s campaign and allies, the party’s primary rules and calendar are designed to help a front-runner sew up the nomination quickly. That would be an advantage in any case, but it may matter even more in a year when Trump’s legal troubles in multiple civil and criminal trials could mount as the primary calendar unfolds.

In the general election, the Electoral College also tilts decidedly to the benefit of the Republican nominee. That’s because Democrats gather a lot of their national popular-vote totals in just a few heavily populated states, while Republican nominees tend to win in less-populous states that deliver winner-take-all electoral votes in return for far fewer actual votes. In effect, Democrats tend to garner large numbers of votes that give them no gains in the Electoral College.

“Republican votes are simply more efficiently allocated than Democratic votes are," says nonpartisan election analyst Charlie Cook. The Republican advantage is so pronounced that Cook estimates that President Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, will have to win the national popular vote by four to seven percentage points to win in the Electoral College, much as he did in 2020 when he won the popular vote by 4.5% over Trump.

In a turbulent political environment with the nation evenly divided, these structural advantages can prove decisive. For President Biden, they figure to increase the headwinds he has to overcome to prevail in a difficult re-election effort.

Trump’s advantages will begin to emerge early in the new year, when Republican caucuses and primaries unfold in rapid order. In contrast with the Democrats, whose rules require all states to award convention delegates in proportion to each candidate’s share of the votes, the Republicans allow state parties to choose to conduct various forms of winner-take-all primaries.

In some states, winning a plurality automatically gives the top contender all of the state’s delegates; in others, a winning candidate has to clear a certain threshold to walk away with all the delegates. “On the whole, the rules writ large are rules that are front-runner friendly," says Josh Putnam, a political scientist and consultant who runs FrontloadingHQ, a site that tracks primary and delegate issues.

The Republican system has long been structured this way, but Trump’s forces have worked hard since he first won the nomination in 2016 to tweak it to further help the front-runner. In Massachusetts, for example, a candidate once needed to win just 5% of the statewide vote to get any delegates. In 2020, that threshold was raised to 20%, and a winner-take-all system was added in which a candidate getting above 50% takes all the state’s delegates.

Trump’s allies have also pushed for the early Republican primaries and caucuses to adopt new rules friendly to the front-runner, including on Super Tuesday, March 5. Though the party still doesn’t technically allow a pure winner-take-all primary until after March 15, in 2024 there will be a proliferation of early states that use some variation, typically giving all the delegates to a candidate who wins 50% or more of the votes.

By the Trump campaign’s count, 23 states and territories voting by March 15 will employ some kind of winner-take-all trigger. In 2016, just 15 states and territories did so. The most important change is in delegate-rich California, which is instituting rules for its Super Tuesday primary that will give all of its delegates to a candidate who wins 50% of the state’s vote.

For trailing candidates, this means that staying close to the front-runner might bring little or nothing in the way of actual delegates. The front-runner can rack up delegates fast and pull away to an insurmountable lead quickly, particularly when facing a field in which multiple opponents are dividing the remaining vote into small pieces.

That effect could be enhanced by the fact that the whole primary calendar is more front-loaded in 2024, with a half dozen states moving their election dates forward from past years. All told, some 60% of the party’s delegates will have been chosen by March 5, Cook says. Those rules “give an incumbent/front-runner a significant advantage," says Chris LaCivita, senior adviser in the Trump campaign. For a candidate who hopes to overtake Donald Trump—say, Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis—this combination of factors means that they have to make their move early to have any chance to catch him.

Once the Republican nomination is secured, the GOP’s advantage in the general election will start to emerge. Both parties will proceed with the knowledge that the two candidates’ standing nationally doesn’t necessarily reflect their chances of securing the 270 Electoral College votes that produce a winner.

That dynamic was clear in 2020, when Biden won the national vote over Trump by some seven million votes but claimed the presidency only because he won four key swing states—Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—by a total of about 126,000 votes.

In that race, Biden won California by 5.1 million votes, New York by 2 million votes and Massachusetts by 1.2 million votes. Winning by such big margins made Biden’s vote total look impressive nationally, but it didn’t give him any more electoral votes than if he’d won those states by a single vote each.

Cook refers to these excess votes as “wasted votes," and in 2020 Biden won all seven of the states at the top of that list, tallying 14 million votes that did nothing to add to his Electoral College advantage. By comparison, just 7.8 million “wasted votes" were cast for Trump.

That factor makes it entirely plausible that Trump could win in another “inversion" election, in which he loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College, as he did in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. That happened only three times in the country’s first 53 presidential elections before 2000, but it has occurred twice in the six contests since then and nearly happened a third time in 2020.

Trump has one other advantage worth noting: A potential proliferation of alternative candidates who could siphon more votes away from Biden than from Trump. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Cornel West are mounting independent presidential bids, and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is also said to be considering a run.

Because of the outsider profile and conservative positions he has struck, Kennedy, though a lifelong Democrat, could sap as many Trump votes as Biden votes. But because of the positioning of West and Manchin—the first a progressive academic and activist, the second a longtime Democratic officeholder—both likely would draw more from the Democrats.

All of these outsiders insist they aren’t aiming to help Trump’s candidacy or hurt Biden’s, but that could be precisely the effect of their campaigns.

Gerald F. Seib retired last year as The Wall Street Journal’s executive Washington editor and weekly Capital Journal columnist. He has served most recently as a fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.

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