Trump shows how First Past the Post gives the keys to extremists

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 20th January 2021

As the moving vans deliver the next residents of the White House into their new home, it is worth looking back on how America’s First Past the Post style political system aided Trump’s rise to the most powerful job in the world.

At every stage of Trump’s rise to power, one-person-takes-all electoral systems were there to help him.

From the First Past the Post system used in the Republican party primaries that gifted him the Republican nomination – the majority of primary voters opposed Trump, but split their vote among several candidates. To how Trump won the presidency even though more American voters wanted Hilary Clinton to be president – and how he was close to doing it again last year. First Past the Post is an engine for overriding the majority and turning positions with minority support into governments.

We’ve looked at the maths for how millions of votes make no difference to the result, based on where the voters live. But, First Past the Post is more than just margins of the vote – it sets the rules for how our politics operates, it is the foundation of a whole political culture.

Under First Past the Post, rather than representing the political opinions of the country in proportion to the number of people that hold them, each area is represented by a single person. This person doesn’t need the majority of voters to pick them, just one more vote than the second-placed candidate. Conservatives might make up 60% of voters in an area, but if they split equally between two right-wing parties, a left-wing party with the remaining 40% could win the seat.

When this happened in Australia it set them on the path to ditching First Past the Post.

The fear of ‘splitting the vote’ also means that, with First Past the Post, political power struggles happen inside political parties, away from the gaze of the general public – who are then presented with the results as a fait accompli.

Party stalwarts know that they need to keep all debate within the party, as splits could result in opposing parties winning seats. Activists with unpopular opinions know they could never get candidates elected on their own and if they did try, they would run the risk of splitting the vote and letting in someone they really dislike.

But while activists might not have the support needed to get someone elected, they do have the support needed to rally their base to turn out to vote in a low-turnout primary or selection and get a candidate chosen. Which means when it comes to the general election, moderate voters end up voting for a more extreme candidate then they would prefer, to keep out the other side.

Politics is the business of compromise, but voters shouldn’t have to compromise themselves with the candidates on offer.

Republican Paul Rand suggested that a third of Republicans would leave the party if McConnell allowed Trump to be convicted in his second impeachment trial. The implications for a party losing a third of their voters is bad for them under any system, but the incentive for moderates to go along with the extreme wings of their party is massively increased by First Past the Post.

If the Republicans lost a third of their vote nationally to a hypothetical ‘Trump Party’ the result would be massive wins for the Democrats. With many moderate Republicans more worried about people on the far left than the far right, the logic of First Past the Post dictates what they will do.

First Past the Post is not a protection against extremists, in fact, it lays out a route for them to turn low levels of support into full control, slipping in behind their moderate colleagues.

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