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The audience for tonight’s GOP debate? 1% of the electorate.

What we should expect at tonight's GOP debate

Ross Sherman
Press Director
August 23, 2023

Many are speculating about what the candidates are going to say tonight during the first GOP presidential primary debate. Even though they don’t take the stage for several more hours, we already know how it’s going to play out. Our system of plurality-winner partisan primaries means that candidates only need to speak to about 1% of the whole electorate in order to win the nomination.

That means, as Unite America Executive Director Nick Troiano said to Yahoo!’s Jon Ward yesterday, we should “[e]xpect the primary debate to favor the bomb throwers and sideline the problem solvers.”

  • He continued: “We already know what the candidates will do, because we’ve seen this movie before. They’ll take positions popular with the fringes of the party — because all the system requires for them to win is a small percentage of Republican voters in a handful of early primary states. Many of those same positions, though, are drastically out of step with a majority of voters.”

That, in a nutshell, is the Primary Problem in American politics today: An unrepresentative minority of the population picks the candidates for the rest of us. In 2016, ~1.3 million Republicans cast ballots in the all-important early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. That’s a mere 1% of the 137 million Americans who voted in the November general election.

A better system is possible — one that ensures both nominees reflect the majority of the electorate, or at least a majority of voters within each party. Unite America co-chair and former Fortune 250 CEO Kent Thiry recently penned a piece in The Hill with a powerful solution: requiring instant runoffs (using ranked choice voting) for presidential primaries.