In a remarkably candid TIME interview with Molly Ball after announcing his candidacy in Ohio’s 2022 U.S. Senate election, for the seat being vacated by Rob Portman, J.D. Vance acknowledged that he’s pandering to ex-president Trump because that’s the only way to be viable in the GOP primary: “I need to just suck it up and support him.”
It’s believed that Portman abandoned his Senate seat, despite remaining popular among Ohio’s general election voters, in part because he didn’t want to pander to Trump for the sake of winning the primary. In this respect, Portman is in the same position as Roy Blunt of Missouri, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Richard Shelby of Alabama, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, all non-Trump Republicans giving up their Senate seats.
Vance’s comment, as a kind of exclamation point on this troubling trend, vividly illustrates one of the main observations of recently released “The Primary Problem” report from Unite America: the existing system of partisan primaries, followed by plurality-winner general elections, not only affects which candidate ultimately holds office but also how candidates choose to campaign and then act in office in order to avoid being “primaried” when running for reelection. The distortion of representation is pervasive as a result of the particular institutional arrangement in which candidates compete. (An even newer report, from New America, reaches a similar assessment–“primaries incentivize more polarizing behavior among candidates and legislators”–although it is cautious in its conclusions on how best to address the issue.)
I wonder, therefore, what kind of candidate J.D. Vance would have attempted to be if he were running, not in the current system, but instead in the system of “Round-Robin Voting” that the Election Law at Ohio State program is developing. This system, which involves a variation on ranked-choice voting, requires candidates to compete one-on-one against all other candidates for the office regardless of party affiliation, to determine which candidate is most preferred by a majority of the entire electorate. If you watch until the end of this 15-minute video explaining Round-Robin Voting, you’ll see that it hypothesizes an “Opportunist” candidate attempting to position himself (or herself) in between a Trumpian Populist (like Josh Mandel, already running for this Ohio U.S. Senate seat) and a traditionally Conservative Republican (like Rob Portman). Does J.D. Vance exemplify this “Opportunist” candidate, and how would he fare in a Round-Robin Voting nonpartisan primary? Also, would Portman have run for reelection if he had been able to do so in a Round-Robin Voting nonpartisan primary?
Rather than answering these questions definitively right now, it’s instead worth keeping them in mind as the 2022 midterm campaigns unfold. The big-picture point: as much as the changing nature of American politics is caused in part by changes in voter preferences, it is also significantly a product of the particular system in which politicians operate. If that system artificially magnifies increasingly extremist tendencies in what voters want, it’s necessary to alter the system itself to undo that dangerous magnification of extremism.