So, this happened:
— Joy Reid (@JoyAnnReid) October 12, 2016
Hillary Clinton, Most Loathed of All Democrats, Adversary of the Sainted Limbaugh, Mother of Hillarycare, Daughter of Perdition, Beast That Republicans Call ‘Dragon,’ could win the state of Utah. This is a state that Mitt Romney won by nearly 50 points in 2012, and that John McCain won by nearly 30. And yet a woman Republicans view as the Queen of The Bottomless Pit has a chance to win this blood red state’s electoral votes.
There are obviously many reasons for this poll result. Though Utah is very Republican, it is also very Mormon, and Donald Trump appears to be tailor made to upset socially conservative Mormon voters. This poll also follows recently released video showing Trump bragging about sexual assault. And Utah may be the only state where Evan McMullin, a relatively unknown Mormon running as an independent, can make a respectable showing.
But here’s the thing: Donald Trump is the Republican candidate; McMullin is a Republican Capitol Hill staffer; Gary Johnson is a former Republican governor. Clinton’s strong showing has nothing to do with Utah suddenly deciding that it would like to elect a Democrat — indeed, this poll shows her winning only slightly more Utah voters than President Obama won in 2012. Her strong showing has everything to do with the fact that the Republicans in this deeply Republican state are divided between the Republican, the other Republican, and the former Republican governor.
Hillary Clinton could potentially be the last choice of nearly three-quarters of Utah’s voters, and yet she could win the state’s electoral votes.
There are two reasons for this anomalous result.
Our dumb Electoral College
The first is the Electoral College, which turns a national race to elect a president into 51 localized races (the 50 states plus the District of Columbia) for electoral votes.
Absent this idiosyncratic method of choosing a president, the fact that Utah voters show an equally idiosyncratic openness to McMullin’s candidacy would matter very little. Twenty-two percent of Utah’s electorate isn’t very much when compared to the nation as a whole. Yet, because the fight for Utah’s electoral votes is fought entirely within Utah’s borders, an unusual quirk about this one state could potentially award Utah’s electoral votes to one of the least popular politicians in Utah.
Moreover, lest we forget, the Electoral College also allowed the loser of the national popular vote to seize the White House on three occasions. Just ask former President-elect Al Gore.
The dumb way we count votes
The Electoral College aside, Utah’s voters could also fall victim to a system known as first-past-the-post voting — which awards victory to whoever receives a plurality of the state’s popular vote, no matter how small that plurality may be.
Should Clinton take Utah’s electoral votes, such an anomalous result is likely to be a mere curiosity. Polls show Clinton with a sufficiently commanding lead over Trump than it is unlikely she will need Utah’s electors to push her over the finish line. But not every state (or country) that has fallen victim to first-past-the-post voting was so lucky.
The problem with this method of counting ballots is that it permits third party candidates to spoil an election by taking votes away from the major party candidate who most closely resembles them. Again, ask former President-elect Gore about his experience with Ralph Nader. Or ask the blue state of Maine, which has twice elected an openly racist Republican governor in elections that included two left-of-center candidates.
A different method of counting ballots would eliminate this problem. Ranked-choice voting asks voters to rank the candidates in an election from their first choice to their last choice. If no candidate is the first choice of a majority of the voters, then the lowest-performing candidate’s votes are reallocated to those voters’ second choices. These reallocations continue until someone emerges with a majority.
Thus, in this system, most of Ralph Nader’s votes would have been reallocated to Gore, giving Gore the votes he needed to defeat George W. Bush in the crucial state of Florida. Similarly, in Utah, Johnson and McMullin votes could be allocated to Trump or Clinton, and the state’s electoral votes would actually go to the candidate Utah prefers between the major party nominees.
Instead, Hillary Clinton could receive a weird windfall — despite the fact than almost no one in Utah likes her.