‘Show Me’ The Unintended Consequences Of Wasted Votes

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

William R. Palen Senior Vice President, FleishmanHillard
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In the recent Missouri Presidential Primaries, more than 1.5 million Missourians managed the near impossible by voting virtual ties in both the Democratic and Republican contests. In the winner-take-all states of Florida and Ohio, Republicans encouraged residents to vote strategically if they wanted a desired outcome. In Missouri, however, thousands of non-strategic votes for “Uncommitted” or for GOP candidates who long ago suspended their campaigns tipped the “Show Me” State elections, altering the national delegate count.

Only four candidates in Missouri had a legitimate chance to win any delegates: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in the Republican primary; and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. A vote for anyone else was essentially wasted and benefited the frontrunner. In Missouri, Donald Trump was the clear beneficiary of the non-strategic voting.

Missouri Republicans award 52 delegates in a modified winner-take-all format. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, 12 delegates go to the winner of the statewide primary, while 5 delegates are awarded to the winner of each of the state’s eight Congressional districts. In this format, “wasted” votes can have a significant impact at the statewide and Congressional district level.

Trump received 382,093 votes (40.8 percent) in Missouri compared to 380,367 (40.6 percent) for Ted Cruz, a difference of only 1,726 votes. John Kasich and Marco Rubio, who had no chance to win the statewide contest and were not competitive in any Congressional district, received 94,533 votes and 57,006 votes respectively. Furthermore, more than 18,000 Missourians voted for candidates who had already suspended their campaigns, including Ben Carson (8,201), Jeb Bush (3,349), Mike Huckabee (2,137), Rand Paul (1,771), Chris Christie (1,677), Rick Santorum (729) and Carly Fiorina (613). Another 3,216 Missouri Republicans chose the box marked “Uncommitted.”

Pending certification from the Secretary of State’s office, the Missouri Republican Party tentatively awarded 37 delegates to Trump (12 delegates for winning statewide and 25 delegates for winning in five Congressional districts). Cruz tentatively received 15 delegates for capturing three Congressional districts. However, had only a small fraction of Missouri Republicans changed their votes from “Uncommitted” or former GOP candidates to Ted Cruz, Donald Trump’s total delegate lead could be 54 delegates less than it is today. That’s because the race between Trump and Cruz was extraordinarily close in five of the eight Congressional districts.

In District 7 in conservative southwest Missouri, Cruz easily defeated Trump by more than 21,000 votes to capture 5 delegates. Similarly, in District 8, Trump won every county except Cape Girardeau in southeast Missouri to claim those 5 delegates. Trump also won by more than 7,000 votes in east central Missouri to take 5 delegates from District 3. But even in District 3, Kasich and Rubio combined received more than 20,000 votes, while more than 3,100 District 3 Republicans chose a former GOP candidate or selected “Uncommitted” — enough to sway both the Congressional and statewide results.

The other five Congressional districts had razor-thin victory margins.

In District 1 in St. Louis, Trump defeated Cruz by 642 votes to claim 5 delegates in a district that included nearly 10,000 votes for Kasich and Rubio. Another 1,115 District 1 voters chose either former GOP candidates or “Uncommitted.”

In District 2 in the St. Louis suburbs, Trump defeated Cruz by 1,516 votes to win 5 more delegates. Kasich and Rubio received more than 36,000 votes in District 2, while more than 2,500 voters selected a candidate no longer running or “Uncommitted.”

In District 4 in west central Missouri, Cruz beat Trump by 727 votes to win 5 delegates. Kasich and Rubio combined received nearly 19,000 votes in District 4, while 2,872 voters chose a former GOP candidate and 449 voters selected “Uncommitted.”

In District 5 in the Kansas City area, Cruz beat Trump by a mere 549 votes to win 5 additional delegates. Kasich and Rubio split nearly 15,000 votes, while more than 1,700 voters chose former GOP candidates and another 301 Republicans chose “Uncommitted.”

In District 6 in northern Missouri, Trump won 5 delegates by besting Cruz by 2,701 votes. Kasich and Rubio split more than 21,500 votes, while former GOP candidates received 2,764 votes and another 505 Missourians selected “Uncommitted.”

Although Cruz narrowly won 10 delegates in two Congressional districts, he came tantalizingly close to a blowout delegate victory in Missouri. Had only 1 percent of the Missouri Republicans who voted for a candidate with no chance of winning or “Uncommitted” switched to Cruz, the Texas senator would have won Missouri’s 12 statewide delegates and closed in on 15 additional delegates from Congressional Districts 1, 2 and 6. That’s a potential gain of 27 delegates and a 54-delegate difference in the important national count. Some of those voters undoubtedly never would have voted for Cruz regardless of the outcome, but it’s likely that more than 1 in 100 would have if they had known the consequences of their decision. Trump, of course, can make a similar argument, because he came within 1,300 votes in Districts 4 and 5 of capturing 10 additional delegates.

Unlike the Missouri GOP, Missouri Democrats award their delegates proportionately, so their “wasted” votes have far less impact on the national delegate count. Hillary Clinton received 310,602 votes (49.6 percent) statewide compared to 309,071 votes (49.4 percent) for Bernie Sanders – a difference of 1,531 votes. The remaining 6,402 Missouri Democratic voters chose another candidate or “Uncommitted.” The only real impact of the “other” votes was to give Mrs. Clinton bragging rights for capturing another state.

Throw-away votes are prevalent in every election, not just in Missouri. But in close races in a winner-take-all or modified delegate format, wasted votes on candidates with no chance of winning can have a profound, unintended impact on the national delegate race. Moving forward, it is vital for GOP voters in winner-take-all states to consider their selection carefully. Every vote counts!

William Robert Palen is a SVP/Partner at FleishmanHillard in Dallas and a former speechwriter in the Missouri Governor’s Office.