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The Problem with Primaries

The Problem with Primaries

To free political parties from fringe candidates, we need to eliminate primaries that favor extremes.

Richard Barton

As early as this past summer, Senate majority leader Mitch McConell made it clear that he was unhappy with the slate of Trump-endorsed Senate primary winners. He knew these would normally be central to Republicans’ hopes of winning back power in November’s midterm elections: Given President Biden’s low approval rate and sky-high inflation, in addition to Democrats’ strategy of relying upon success in swing states, the Republican Party should have been a heavy favorite to regain control of the Senate. Instead, multiple GOP primaries produced nominees who were ideologically unrepresentative of voters in their state, particularly on the matter of peddling 2020 election conspiracies.

McConnell’s fears were realized. Democrats not only retained their majority but expanded it, thanks to the result of the runoff election in Georgia. Republican nominee Herschel Walker is the spitting image of the sort of candidates who’ve sunk Republicans’ chances. He is also outside the mainstream of American politics. Understandibly, the intra-party finger-pointing among Republicans has ensued. But one object of Republicans’ ire should be the party primary system itself. There is reason to believe that McConnell’s problem could have been solved by a more democratic nominating process.

In short, we should eliminate partisan primaries. This would be good for political parties, and would redound to the benefit of the country’s democratic health.

By eliminating partisan primaries, party leaders could liberate their party organization from the outsized influence of ideological activists and donors. Voters could then rally around more representative candidates, who by that same token would be capable of winning over broad swaths of the electorate. This would reconstitute political parties as vehicles through which politicians win office by championing broadly popular ideas—which is exactly what leaders who care about the wellbeing of their party want. It’s also what voters who believe in democracy want: the incentivizing of a more pragmatic and representative politics.

The Value of Political Parties

Strengthening political parties might seem like a pretty misguided goal. Aren’t today’s deeply partisan and polarized parties the problem? Why would we want them to be stronger?

Stronger parties make it easier for voters to make sense of politics and to hold public officials accountable. American government and politics involve a seemingly countless number of campaigns, elections, and complex policy debates. It is unreasonable to expect citizens—with their families, careers, and hobbies—to make sense of it all without some simplifying heuristic. Parties provide such mental shortcuts: By understanding the general ideology and interest-group coalition at the center of each party, voters can form meaningful positions on otherwise obscure candidates and policy issues.

But for parties to be a meaningful heuristic, policymakers must be reliably committed to their party’s program. One way party leaders can ensure rank-and-file legislators are committed to the party program is by controlling who the party nominates. This is why many political scientists prefer caucuses to direct primaries, closed primaries to open primaries, and partisan primaries to the nonpartisan primaries like those now used in California, Washington, and Alaska.

The idea that democracy is better served by parties that are less, well, democratic, may seem absurd. But if party leaders want to maintain or win control of government, they will use the power of a strong party to nominate candidates who can actually win—which oftentimes means winning over swing voters. Alternatively, political scientists warn, if parties are weak and cannot ensure that nominees for office are aligned with the party’s platform, then they become unreliable signals to voters and more easily captured by well-organized and well-resourced interest groups—or, worse still, demagogues and aspiring tyrants.

This “alternative” is our current reality.

Many political scientists thus reasonably ask: “If taking candidate nominations out of the hands of party leaders is contributing to our political dysfunction, wouldn’t further democratizing primaries make things even worse?”

Parties and Primary Reform

To the contrary, election reforms that eliminate partisan primaries are necessary for parties to once again serve their own interest —that is, producing more nominees who are representative of more voters.

Currently, leaders who care about winning or maintaining power find it difficult to be able to nominate candidates who have broad general election appeal. Instead, party leaders have candidates thrust upon them by slivers of voters—those who participate in primaries, which are low-turnout affairs and tend to attract the most intractable and ideological voters. This was on full display in 2016, when the GOP establishment could not prevent an inexperienced, would-be autocrat who previously had not even identified as a Republican, from winning their presidential nomination. The Democratic Party also was nearly stuck with a self-described socialist that year.

As a result, the contemporary Democratic and Republican parties increasingly entertain positions that are largely out of step with the American electorate, even though these policies hurt their party's chances of winning or maintaining control of government. Why? Because over the last two decades the parties are increasingly composed of ideological purists and incumbents who are afraid of losing to an ideological purist.

In other words, the contemporary American parties are increasingly incapable of championing  policies that would optimize their success in the general election. This is obvious evidence of weak political parties.

Primary reforms such as California’s “top-two” and Alaska’s “top-four” models encourage party organizations to compete for power by appealing to a broader set of voters, organizations, and donors in the nomination process. Parties will sometimes still back favored candidates, and Republican voters and Democratic voters will still, in general, support a candidate in their party. The significance of organizing by party and differentiating between parties will remain the same. What will change is who the candidates of the parties are accountable to: a larger pool of voters better-positioned to screen for electable general-election candidates.

As we saw this year, “electable” generally means, in part, “not espousing ideas detached from reality.” Candidates who touted the debunked claim that the 2020 elections were “stolen,” for example, failed in several high-profile secretary of state races in swing states. As FiveThirtyEight reported, however, 60 percent of Americans had an election denier on their ballot, and those beliefs maintain a strong foothold in the House—thanks to heavily gerrymandered districts and primary election rules that allow candidates to promote ideas wildly outside the mainstream with no electoral penalty. Regardless of the actual November results, there remains a systemic problem.

For these reasons, election reformers should embrace the importance of strong parties for a healthy democracy, and political parties and pundits should move beyond the antiquated assumption that further democratizing primary reforms are antithetical to a robust party system. To the contrary, such reforms are necessary for revitalizing the kind of parties that make a democracy functional.

Dr. Richard Barton is a democracy fellow at Unite America and a professor at Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

DemocracyPolitical PhilosophyUnited States