Editor’s Note: Paul E. Peterson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and professor of government at Harvard University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.



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To keep extremism at bay, Republicans need to use proportional representation as the method for selecting delegates to their 2024 presidential convention. Current rules have a strong winner-take-all bias – designed in many states to create horserace elections, in which the candidate who wins the most votes in any given state, wins all, or most of, the delegates from that state.

Horserace rules helped former President Donald Trump win the 2016 Republican nomination, and horserace rules could make Trump the 2024 Republican frontrunner. In 2016, facing over a dozen Republican contenders, Trump won only a plurality, rather than a majority, of primary voters. Because of state winner-take-all rules, Trump was able to turn the 45% of the votes he won into the primary into the support of 70% of the delegates to the GOP convention.

Approaching 2024, the former president retains a loyal, if limited, constituency, and the most promising alternative to Trump could find votes siphoned off to as many as a dozen “anyone but Trump” candidates. If multiple states run horseraces, Trump can be expected to win a majority of the delegates despite capturing only a minority of the primary vote – leaving him yet again with an excellent chance of winning all or most of the delegates in these states.

Proportional representation, which gives candidates approximately the same share of convention delegates from a state as the proportion of the votes they receive, could slow, and perhaps halt, what now seems to be a slow-moving train wreck. As Ben Ginsberg, a former lawyer for the Republican Party, observes, “there ought to be a lot of attention paid to” how the rules of the game can affect the number of delegates a candidate wins.

Even though each state sets its own primary election rules, the problem could be addressed by the Republican National Committee (RNC), because it sets the number of delegates from each state. It can thus reduce the number of delegates from any state that fails to comply with national party rules, a severe penalty that generally forces states to comply.

In 2016, for example, the RNC said the primaries held before March 15 would suffer a delegation reduction if they held a horserace election. After that date, states were able to design elections as they pleased, and many Republican primaries then turned into horseraces or semi-horseraces where the winner won all or most of the delegates with just a plurality of the vote.

That year, 18 states pretty much followed the proportional representation principle, while 18 other states, including several of the largest (California, Florida, Illinois and Ohio), designed an approximation to a horserace. The remaining states either held caucuses or introduced a mix of the two designs.

Given that these rules favor a Trump candidacy, and given Trump’s continuing influence over the RNC, there is not much chance of a change in national party rules, so the states will have a good deal of flexibility if they hold their elections after mid-March 2024.

State legislatures can make adjustments in the coming months, but, importantly, it takes just a few big states with horserace rules to alter the course of a primary contest. Unless the RNC bans horserace-style elections altogether, those who wish to contain the Trump campaign need to persuade their partisan allies in each state that the best way to win a national election is to design rules which can unify the party around a candidate that can win broad public support.

Horserace rules are best reserved for general elections when they typically generate two and only two major parties, each with a broad political base. By contrast, proportional representation better fits a party’s purpose in the presidential primary selection process.

Here, the goal is to facilitate fair representation for all points of view at the nominating convention. Let all candidates run and get whatever share of the vote they can. Coalition formation can take place at, or on the eve, of the national convention.

Democrats have figured this out. Proportional representation in primary elections is now mandated by the Democratic National Committee (DNC). These national rules have placed limits on the strength of the party’s progressive left as well as on a potential Dixiecrat faction or the emergence of any other extremist group.

In 2020, proportional representation ensured that the centrist candidate, Joe Biden, would receive strong support in nearly every state so long as he maintained a strong base in the African American community and among moderates. Neither Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts nor Bernie Sanders of Vermont, both progressives, could gain enough traction in enough states to beat him. A similar dynamic will likely be in play in 2024 if a progressive candidate attempts to challenge Biden next year.

As mentioned, Republican rules in 2016 penalized states if they held horserace elections too early, by cutting the number of delegates representing the state at the convention. As a result, neither Trump nor any other candidate gained a decisive advantage in the primaries held prior to Super Tuesday. But on and after that date, a close contest turned into a rout when Trump won winner-take-all Florida, Arizona, Delaware, Maryland and Indiana – as well as the lion’s share of delegates in winner-take-most New York, Illinois and Connecticut.

If election rules in 2024 remain the same as in 2016, a repeat scenario is more likely than not. It is true that the former president has alienated the Republican establishment by denouncing fellow Republicans, denying the results of the 2020 election, and supporting weak, extremist candidates in congressional primaries that cost the party control of the Senate.

Yet Trump is still getting 38% support in polling of Republican-aligned voters. If Trump can parley that base into horserace wins on Super Tuesday 2024 and thereafter, piling up delegate strength well above actual levels of popular support, Republicans will be little different than Democrats when they followed William Jennings Bryan and his “Cross of Gold” to defeat on three successive occasions at the beginning of the 20th century.

Again, if rules require proportional representation, no candidate will be able to enter the convention with a clear majority unless they have captured a majority of the Republican primary voters. Further, extremist candidates will find it difficult to expand beyond their base. As a result, the candidate entering the convention with the best chance of winning the presidency, should be best positioned to win the party nomination.

Democrats remain committed to proportional representation. It is time for Republicans to wake up and do the same.

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